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.
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