Conventional Agriculture: Is It Equal?

Filed under: General Health, Nutrition

I recently got an email from a reader that intrigued me. He wanted my input on an article he had read about organic food.

The article started with a very bold statement. It claimed that based on a “major” recent study just published, organic food has no nutritional or health benefit over conventionally raised food. This major recent study was a meta-analysis. This means thats the researchers gathered all the data on the subject that they deemed relevant, which is to say they may have omitted studies that could have gone opposite to their conclusion, and came up with a conclusion based on all the pooled results.

Do not get me wrong, meta-analysis is very important as it allows us to gather all of our data and develop conclusions that shape our health policy, but it can be a very biased method depending on the researchers conducting the analysis, and who is funding it.

The researchers did admit that there were a small number of differences in nutrient levels seen between organic and conventional produce, but they were insignificant to overall health. The truth is I wouldn’t really argue with him on that point. The nutrient differences seen are not going to make or break your health. I don’t think that personal health differences should be the main reason why we purchase organic foodstuffs anyway.

While it is true that on an individual level the infinitesimal amount of pesticides and herbicides ingested from conventionally raised produced probably won’t have much of a negative effect on our health or well-being, the slightly greater nutrient content may or may not have any truly significant direct health benefits either.

The true benefits of choosing organic are that you are choosing a food that is raised in a manner that is sustainable and healthy for the environment. It is a method of food production that does not cause frogs to become asexual or deformed due to the not-so-infinitesimal amount of pesticides and herbicides and ammonium fertilizer run-off into streams, ponds, lakes, rivers and oceans.

The amazing fact is there is a dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico that ranges from 6,000 to 8,500 square miles (about the size of New Jersey) where due to the toxic run-off from conventional agricultural production, oceanic life can no longer be supported. The chemicals cause the gulf to be a hypoxic wasteland where only algae can proliferate, wreaking havoc on the surrounding environment, as well as the fishing industries. This is the most well known of 250 dead-zones like this around the world. 250. That is an astounding number. But conventionally raised food is definitely just as healthy for us as organic. Right.

The problem with reviews like the one that started this rant is that it only looks at direct impact to human health, not the big picture. So, on an individual basis is organically grown food any healthier for human consumption? The answer is probably no, it probably isn’t much healthier. On a world basis, for the next generation, and for our food production as a whole is organically raised food any healthier for human consumption? The answer is a resounding YES. To make an even better choice, try buying local, seasonal and fresh produce from local farms and farmer’s markets.

I know I am fond of this statement, but it is important to keep the big picture in mind, we need to not miss the forest for the trees.

To read more about why our conventional food production sucks, please check out Michael Pollan’s amazing The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

For more reading on the problems to frogs.

For more reading about the Gulf of Mexico Deadzone.

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Posted on August 3rd, 2009 by Brian St. Pierre

7 Comments

  1. Arthur Says:

    Brian,

    Even for us callous folk who really don’t focus on the “bigger” picture of conventional versus organic, can it still be said that even slight differences in contribution to our own toxic burden can make it worthwhile to purchase organic? I’ve always taken the position that every little bit helps, especially when our bodies are bombarded from so many directions.

    But at the risk of sounding like a jerk, my primary concern is my family’s well being, and I don’t lose sleep over whether each and every habit is sustainable.

  2. Doug Says:

    Journey of a thousand miles… The problem with that thought is that it is shared by a large majority of the people who influence the decisions made by food producers. Sure, big organic isn’t the ideal solution; Pollan talks about that in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. But I think it’s a step in the right direction. What you buy is what they will produce more of. If we are content to sit back and fill ourselves with processed, industrial filth, then that is what we will get until we inevitably run our planet dry. I know it’s a hard change to make these sacrifices; and yes, they really are sacrifices. Riding your bike to work instead of driving sucks. Spending more money on healthier foods sucks. But in the end, we have to think about more than just ourselves and our families. This world is full of nearly seven billion people. I am not content to let my actions contribute to their slow death just because I felt that since I’m only one person my actions can’t make any difference, whether good or bad.

    This comment has been full of generalizations and a lot of hype, and for that I apologize. But I think this topic is so much more important than the rest of the things out there that people think are significant.

    Brian, I appreciate your blog quite a bit. Keep up the good work.

  3. Ray Says:

    Brian,

    What are your thoughts about toxic burdens? Surely, one piece of conventional food isn’t much to worry about, but years of eating such foods certainly will produce unsafe levels of toxins in our bodies. These chemicals don’t disappear from our bodies overnight. Not mention that a lot of the extremely dangerous ones to our nervous systems are not dangerous on their own, but act synergistically with other toxins. This type of relationship (which can’t be modeled with the simple correlation statistics used in the food industry) is seldom accounted for by the FDA and others when deciding what levels of chemicals are “safe” within our bodies.

  4. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Arthur,

    Is buying organic still going to be beneficial for you and your family on an individual basis? It certainly won’t hurt, and it definitely might be better, but the evidence is so strong to leave no doubt. The nutrient levels are higher, and the toxin levels lower, so I certainly wouldn’t tell you to stop if you prefer organic. Every little bit does help, so feel free.

    I agree 100% with your last comment. There is only so much you can control, but like someone else mentioned above, what we choose determines the direction of industries. Choosing mostly sustainable practices is certainly better than choosing none.

  5. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Doug,

    Thanks for the kind words. Good points too.

  6. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Ray,

    One piece of conventional produce certainly won’t harm, but a lifetime of consumption still might not. I don’t think you can say with certainty that it will because the research doesn’t bear that out. Now I am not saying that it might not, because there is certainly still the possibility, but it is not definite.
    I am still pro-organic, don’t get me wrong, but lets look at the evidence, not some theoretical idea with no substantial backing. Same thing with your point about synergistic interactions. There certainly might be some validity to it, and I am all for diminishing toxins in the food production (and life in general), but your claims are not evidence-based, so they are impossible to substantiate.
    Again, I am not saying that you are wrong, I am just saying that for your points to be taken into real consideration there just needs to be more research based evidence on the topic. Maybe it will come and you will be proven completely correct, but until then it is all just what we want to be believe individually, not fact.

  7. tushar Says:

    thanks for this thing. i have a debate and i am lead lawyer for conventional and this will probably help a lot. your bibliography is in the presentation.

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