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John Cavanaugh and Robin Broad
Yes! Magazine / Op-Ed
Published: Wednesday 21 November 2012
“If you are like the American University students who took this survey, you correctly selected number one.”

More Than Nutritious: Why Organics are Still Healthier

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We have seen many outrageous studies that reinforce the worldview of giant corporate agribusiness over the years, but two in the last three months really take the cake.

Before we tell you what they are, we ask you to take 10 seconds and answer this one-question survey:

My understanding is that those who buy organic do so because:

  1. They want to avoid the pesticides used in non-organic produce.
  2. They are looking for more nutritious food.

If you are like the American University students who took this survey, you correctly selected number one. No one who answered our survey chose number two on nutrition. Indeed, the main selling point for eating organic has long been that it is healthier because of the absence of chemicals in your food. Think, for example, of Rachel Carson, who exposed to the world the horrors of pesticide exposure 50 years ago in her classic Silent Spring.

Which brings us to two attention-grabbing studies: In early September, Stanford University researchers (publishing in the Annals of Internal Medicine) made headlines in mainstream media by claiming to have proven that organic food is no more nutritious than food grown with pesticides. On its heels, a second study—this one by the American Academy of Pediatrics—reached the same basic conclusion. Both studies were presented as harsh blows against organic farming, essentially telling parents that there was no nutrition-based reason to buy organics for their children.

But wait a minute. Let’s repeat what those students we surveyed accurately understand in terms of the pro-organics facts: The arguments in favor of organic food are not that it is more nutritious in terms of vitamins or protein or fat content and so on. The “more nutritious” claim is what is correctly used for whole grains and fruits and vegetables in general (organic or not).

Instead of nutrition, the key arguments in favor of organics involve health on multiple levels: Organics are good for farmers, consumers, the land, and the planet. Organic farmers we interviewed in the Philippines, for example, consistently stressed how their health improved once they stopped using pesticides. Consumers eat organics for long-term health reasons that weren’t taken into account by the “expert” studies. Then there’s the health of the land and the atmosphere: production of inorganic pesticides contributes to greenhouse gases.

When we read the newspaper coverage and the two studies, we were bewildered and outraged by how the central arguments in favor of organics were twisted and/or ignored. And we were curious as to who was at fault: the researchers, their PR machines, or the journalists who wrote about the study. On closer examination, all three seem culpable.

To being with, the Stanford researchers structured their research questions to lead to what could be billed as a startling finding—that organic foods are not more nutritious than non-organic foods—when of course it wasn't at all startling or truly relevant. To the extent the study does ask about pesticide use, it bean-counts such tallies as pesticide residues instead of looking at the longer-term health impact of the various pesticides. In this regard, long-term organics expert Charles Benbrook explains that the Stanford study relies on an extremely disputable methodology. Indeed, Benbrook’s careful research finds “a 94 percent reduction in health risk … from the selection of organic brands.”  

And there’s a gnawing potential conflict of interest issue with the study: We’re told that Stanford “authors received no external funding for this study,”  but shouldn’t a study connected to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies fess up in bold letters that the Institute gets funding from corporate agribusiness?  Cargill, to be specific. Without such transparency, one can’t help but wonder how the study came to be.

As for the PR machine, the press release from Stanford played up the “not-more-nutritious” line even more than the study itself, as if the Stanford spin-handlers knew this would more likely be picked up by the mainstream press. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Food, Stanford Study Finds,” the press release screams. But even as it acknowledges in passing that “…consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure,” the press release (like the study itself) returns to a vitamin-protein-fat-etc definition of nutrition and health and therefore downplays the fact that ultimately this research reinforces the obvious: organic food is healthier because of the absence of chemicals.

And then, the mainstream media essentially fell for this hook, line, and sinker. By and large, the media coverage parroted the press release and the attention-grabbing headlines. Granted, most reporters are overworked these days. But we shouldn't let any of these folks off the hook. 

These may seem like two minor studies—but the intent seems to be to change not just how we think about organic food but also our purchasing. As the Stanford press release says in its opening paragraph, the next time you find yourself reaching for an organic plum in a store because you thought it “the healthier decision… new findings from Stanford University [might] cast some doubt on your thinking.” 


Please join us—and others, including Francis Moore Lappé and Mark Bittman—in our outrage. Not letting these ludicrous studies change our voice or our purchasing is the way to ensure that Rachel Carson lives on. Buying organic is good for the long-term health of the planet and its inhabitants. So, please do reach for that organic plum.

And please do join us in making it known that we consumers cannot be fooled this easily. If you eat organics, tell your friends why you do so. Write a letter to the editor telling your local newspaper why you choose organic.

Shame on you, Stanford University researchers. And you too, American Association of Pediatrics. At a minimum, you’ve been used by corporate power.

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. 

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ABOUT John Cavanaugh
John has a BA from Dartmouth College and a MA from Princeton University. He worked as an international economist for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (1978-1981) and the World Health Organization (1981-1982). He directed IPS's Global Economy Project from 1983-1997. He is the co-author of 10 books and numerous articles on the global economy, including Development Redefined: How the Market Met Its Match (2008, Paradigm Publishers), written with Robin Broad.

Weatherman's picture

Organically grown food is the

Organically grown food is the only healthy alternative to chemical laden food production not necessarily because of high nutrient availability, but rather the continued stewardship of the land. Healthy soil is essential to nutrient rich organic food production and the benefits become clear when there is a realization that all life on earth is a complex food web. Plants require living soil organisms to take up nutrients and frankly if you don't take care of the soil you will deplete nutrients to the degree that you end up with idiot children swilling corn syrup and eating lifeless food made with processed commercial food waste.
Eventually you'll find a population of mindless consumers suffering from similar maladies throughout the food chain and wondering why they're sick all the time. (so stupid it's almost laughable)

Jeltez42, Who are you

Jeltez42, Who are you kidding. I can only guess who you work for. Educate yourself before you speak. Your total lack of knowledge on this subject is mind boggling. I am sure you have a family. I wonder how many diseases your family members have. 90% related to food choices, btw,. What a blessing that we still have a choice. You have chosen in your ignorance, if you truly believe the lies you spew to eat and die early. I however chose vibrant health. Be well. Chose ORGANIC.

What a shill! Bt as used by

What a shill! Bt as used by organic standards is the natural Bt, not the GMO frankenversion which has been found in the blood of humans, crossing the placental barrier to even get into fetuses.
Chemicals is a big area. To say that you can break down bat guano to chemical components is true. To say it is not greater than the sum total of the whole is disingenuous at the least, probably more toward a lie.
Since the first studies from Duke University which i read in 1977 it was found that micronutrients were consistently higher, sometimes as much as 200 times greater. For the fools that don't believe micronutrients are important there were studies in the 90's which showed that of 200 - some cadavers dead from stroke, EVERY body had a copper deficiency. Copper provides elasticity to blood vessels and is essential in the formation of collagen.
Hundreds of bodies dead from myocardial infarction, everyone with a selenium deficiency. (heart attack) If one has a heart attack a magnesium IV drip increases chance of survival by 40%. It reduces risk of permanent heart muscle damage by 40%. You and i NEED these micronutrients.
To farm with nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (NPK) fertilizer only does not provide either the plant or the consumer with these vital nutrients.
As for the e-coli, the non-organically raised feedlot victim animals have huge rates of e-coli and other pathogens. They are not raised or fed naturally so this will happen. Take a cow from a feedlot w/pathogen issues and within one week on pasture it will lose about 70% of it's e-coli. Hmm. Working with nature. When the feedlot e-cole gets washed into irrigation systems downstream, is it the fault of the grower downstream or the bad feedlot operation?

Think this comes above the

Think this comes above the start of my comment below:

The toxic chemicals on soil like Roundup also kill bacterium and fungi within the soil. There is (in healthy soil) about as much or more life in the soil as above it in terms of animals. If you count plant roots it is somewhat similar for the plant and animal life. When you kill the bacteria and the mycorrhiza in the soil it washes away, it kills off the worms who starve, and that prevents both drainage and oxygenation of the soil. Both proven to improve plant health and yield.
Roundup is toxic at least 4 ways in the human. Endocrine disruption - read hormone hell. Carcinogenic - exposure of a pregnant woman increases her child's risk of leukemia alone by 600%. It is a mutagen. Google the grossly deformed human fetuses in Argentina where the women were directly sprayed.
The GMO crops themselves are now superweeds along with the mutated superweeds - which were supposedly impossible to have happen. In the Dakotas and in Canada the GMO Canola and Sugar beets have to be hand pulled because of roundup resistance like the superweeds. Going n by hand is supposed to be prevented by this process.

In the mid 70s the USDA found that the calcium levels in factory farmed crops lost over 70% of it's WWII levels. From that point, the calcium levels in spinach grown in those factory farms was reduced well over 60% of those already depleted levels.

In 2005 over 85% of all university research was funded by corporations. That means the Ag Chemical giants are controlling that entire mindset. In fact in at least one survey over 50% of the professors receiving that funding stated they would "consider fudging" the data or results to increase chances of future funding. That means that what is propounded as science may actually be, and in some cases truly is, propaganda to further corporate agendas.

Look at how corporations have convinced this other respondent that non-GMO seed selection processes are the same. To take the best genes from a corn plant and breed them with another plant for other beneficial characteristics is not the same as sticking fish genetics, or bacterium (always antibiotic resistant in EVERY GMO) into a corn or tomato plant.
In fact the GMO corporations take the best of the non-GMO seed and change a tiny fraction in these and patent the entire plant. Why? Because Clarence Thomas was a Monsanto employeee/lawyer.
Every excuse for using GMOs has proven BETTER MET by regular, safe, real crops. Drought tolerant? Non GMO has it, GMO not. That virus resistant fruit in Hawaii? (papaya, mango, whatever) taken from a virus resistant regular plant and modified. Now they claim they saved the crop in Hawaii and my friends there believe it. How about that experimental rice crop with the human liver genes spliced in. That is normal, right? WHEN (not if) this contaminates the real rice crop, you may end up with Monsanto or someone OWNING YOU because the genetic modification is in your body. As it stands now, the courts rule that ANY contamination of a farmer's crop to ANY degree, (even one plant in 4,000 acres) gives Monsanto the ownership of that ENTIRE crop, EVERY plant, even if it is proven non-GMO, and ALL profits. Since they own that genetic modification, when it shows up in humans, they will try to own you too.

Read the article GMO MYTHS AND TRUTHS by Earthopensource.

Factory farming is NOT as good as organic when organic is done right. GMO farming is making the worst Ag soil in the world and GUARANTEES bad nutrition in addition to it's other verified toxic effects. Roundup - used in all Monsanto and most other GMO crops PREVENTS THE UPTAKE OF DOZENS OF TRACE MINERALS. That means guaranteed poor nutrition. It does not prove it will give you a stroke or heart attack, but it certainly will not prevent one if you are missing the key ingredients that are needed to make a healthy human body. A body that was historically formed from totally natural materials and ingredients. As we get into the chemical world we lost our health.

Parallel with the Ag nutrients are the drug companies. The chemical "analogues" of vitamins are always less effective than natural vitamins. Niacin will NOT take the insulin through the other necessary metabolic processes needed for cellular health, but the non-patented, non-chemical, naturan niacinamide will do the necessary job. A simple example of the fallacy that we are just chemicals.

In fact, Dr Otto Warburg received his 1st Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1931 by proving that a diet deficient in live enzymes (think microwave today) causes hemoglobin to change from 4 micron size to 7 micron size. This means it will not fit into many cells. That means no oxygenation of the cells and the failure of mitochondrial function. This often results in cancers.

Enzymes are not just chemical soup, they are life. This living food is raised on living soil. The healthier the plant, the better for you.

Thank you, Brad.. Well said.

Thank you, Brad.. Well said.

Please no more of this

Please no more of this ignorance is bliss mindset. Organics use chemicals, the seeds are genetically modified to grow faster, fend off pests, and have larger yields. They are indeed no more healthy for us than the non-organic. Organics pollute the soil and water because farmers must use more chemicals to achieve the same level of "effectiveness". BT is organic approved.

Non-organics are safer when considering e-coli and other food borne diseases. Their field to market process is much more regulated. And organic can mean whatever the food broker wants it to. Raw sewage can and is used on organic farms.

Rather than have Economists (neither have education in agriculture) discussing agriculture, why not get Agriculture experts from leading Agricultural Universities to speak on Organic vs. Non-organic produce. Then round out the discussion panel with chemists who specialise in Agricultural Chemistry.

All this is just a smoke screen for higher profit margins from the retailers and food brokers. The farmers, soil, air, and water are all the losers.

I would certainly dispute the

I would certainly dispute the nutritional content of Organically grown foods over the synthetically grown Agribusiness, even with a Stanford Study. The whole purpose of organic farming is to cultivate the soil with the replenishment of trace minerals and vital organisms that nourishes and keeps the soil vital. It has to do with proper custodianship of our planet. You can easily taste the difference between an organic vegetable vs. an agribusiness vegetable, like an agribusiness tomato tasting a bit blank versus an organic tomato where you can taste the copper and iron. That's because there are more trace minerals. The ignorance of Jeltez 42 probably stems from a lack of nutrition, faulty diet made of processed foods and apparently has no children. It is a crime against Humanity to skew information for the benefit of Big Pharma, Big Ag., like Monsanto, who have smoke screened California with over $50,000,000 to keep a consumer from knowing whether a product contains GMO's or not. The organic farmers are the true custodians of our food supply and although it may cost more then the Franken foods, the health of the consumer will always be more vital. because of it. This is a choice that we should all have and protecting our soil is paramount.

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ABOUT Robin Broad
Dr. Robin Broad is Professor of International Development at the School of International Service at American University. She teaches courses on economic globalization & development as well as environment & development, with a focus on social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

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