Of Organic Food and Measured Risk

My Generation

Stanford University study says organic food isn't more nutritious. But what about pesticide risk? And what about risk in general?

Published on: September 5, 2012

So, you may have heard: Stanford University released a study yesterday that shows organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional produce. Farm Progress reported on it here, too.

The knee-jerk reaction among conventional agriculture has been – and will continue to be, I suspect – a hearty "we told you so." And I'd be lying if I said that didn't cross my mind, too, along with a sarcastic comment or two…"shut the front door! Organic isn't any better? Wait, didn't we say that already?"

Stanford University study says organic food isnt more nutritious. But what about pesticide risk? And what about risk in general?
Stanford University study says organic food isn't more nutritious. But what about pesticide risk? And what about risk in general?

I've written for years about the rise of organic agriculture – today, it's a $27 billion business in the U.S. I've also written about the need for choice, and the simultaneous need for consumers to be informed about that choice and not swayed by savvy marketing.

Yet, there's a vast segment of the population that is swayed by marketing. And by Internet fear mongering. And, simply, by misinformation by people hocking a product, as seen here.

Sometimes, those folks work in the grocery store, as seen here.

Sometimes, they show up on Facebook with bugs in their broccoli, as seen here.

The takeaway in the study is this: the Stanford researchers conducted the study to offer definitive analysis of the health benefits of organic produce. In their own words, they expected organic to be more nutritious and were surprised when it wasn't.

Dr. Dena Bravata, the senior author of the paper, to the New York Times: “When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food. I think we were definitely surprised.”

Bravata and her team did find detectable pesticide residue on a third of the conventional produce, and on 7% of the organic produce. Of course, organic enthusiasts will say that's why they buy organic: to avoid pesticide residues. But the Stanford researchers say virtually none of the residues they discovered were above the allowable limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Certainly, you can question whether those limits are stringent enough. And many people do.

But you can also wash your food.

And you can think about measured risk.

Here's my take: I am for choice. And I am for recognizing that life is a series of measured risks.

I choose to accept, for example, that when I get in my car and drive down the road, there's a chance I will get in an accident and die. Not much of a chance, but a chance.

I choose to accept that when I take my kids to the park, there's a chance one of them could fall and land wrong and break an arm. Not much of a chance, but a chance.

I choose to accept that when I had my babies, there's a chance I could have died – and I say this as someone whose best friend died in childbirth. So I know it's possible. I know there's a chance. But not much of a chance.

And I choose to accept there are traces of pesticide on many kinds of produce. I know I can wash them away – and do – and I know the Stanford study confirmed what others have found: virtually all detectable traces were below EPA's allowable threshold.

I very much support choice, which means if you want to take an absolute zero tolerance approach to residues, you should be able to do so. You should also be willing to pay for it.

But I wonder. What would your life look like if you made all your choices with the same zero tolerance approach? Would you drive? Would you go to the park? Would you cross the street? Would you have even had your children in the first place?

Life is a series of measured risks. And for the organic enthusiast who's willing to pay for less risk – even for risk that's only a minor degree lower – it may well be worth it. But the Stanford study confirms for me what I already knew: we have a safe food supply that, minus the hype, is just as nutritious as what the best money can buy.

And with that, I'm gonna go eat an apple.

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  1. blog writing service of website-content.net says:

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  2. Sustainable farmer says:

    I do not see why we need to have such debate. I would like to see mandatory labeling so we can all make informed decisions what we feed our family. If folks want to eat apples sprayed with toxic chemicals, that is fine. I don't so buy organic. Organic is not just a designation, it is a method of farming that we will all be doing within 50 years as our fuel and fertilizer run out.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the practical, level-headed response! I really appreciate your point about washing produce. We all have a level of responsibility for safe food handling and food preparation. Even though my tomatoes, green beans, peppers, and potatoes can be considered "organic", I still wash them after I pick them! Same goes for the sweet corn from the farmer down the road - once the food is in my hands or my house, it's my responsibility to ensure that I handle and prepare it safely.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Holly, I think you hit the nail on the head with this statement: "...there's a vast segment of the population that is swayed by marketing. And by Internet fear mongering. And, simply, by misinformation by people hocking a product..." This kind of behavior can exist on both sides of any debate whether it be organic vs conventional, local vs national, small-scale vs industrial, etc. I read a lot of biased articles in Prairie Farmer. Your synopsis omits a few interesting points from the Stanford study. First, this 'study' does not include any new information, experiments, or tests to compare organic and conventional produce, it is simply a data extraction from decades of independent studies comparing a wide range of food grown in a wide range of conditions; some of those studies show organic to be better and some show conventional to be better. The average of these tests results in the 'inconclusive' evidence. Second, the study finds that conventional pork and chicken are much more likely to contain antibiotic resistant bacteria. Third, the authors explicitly state "Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present". To me this means that study data varied wildly and all conclusions need to be taken with a healthy amount of salt. Fourth: Yes, pesticides applied by sprayer can be washed off the vegetable, however, many pesticides are applied through irrigation and taken up by the plant and incorporated into the tissues, not to mention the GMO crops where the pesticide is contained in the DNA, the very building blocks of life. I think you might have a tough time washing that off. Finally, you advocate for well-informed consumers who are able to make decisions for themselves based on fact instead of slick marketing. Yet, many agribusiness and food processing corporations (such as Monsanto, Dupont, Pepsico, BASF, Dow, Syngenta, Coca-Cola, among many others) have pledged upwards of $25 million to fight GMO labeling legislation in California. If GMO crops are just as healthful as organic crops, why don't these companies embrace the GMO label as a powerful marketing tool? Instead they want to keep consumers in the dark. Obviously there needs to be many more rigorous studies performed in order to find a more conclusive answer to these questions, though I feel the real debate is not about which food is healthier but which cropping system is more healthful? The one that views the land as simply a growing medium to be pumped full of chemicals, and mother nature battled with chemicals and crude trans-gene technology, or the cropping system that is focused on building natural soil fertility through judicious use of compost/cover crops and working with mother nature to find innovative pest/disease solutions? When God told us to have dominion over the world I don't think he intended for us to destroy the land and decimate biodiversity in the pursuit of short term financial gains. Phillip Swartz For your reference, a source for alternative interpretations of the Stanford study: http://mosesorganic.org/organicbetterforhealth.html

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Hello Phillip! I believe we have corresponded before? I appreciate your counterpoints, but am concerned that you find Prairie to be biased. Certainly, I hope you can appreciate the differences in our news pages and our editorial/opinion pages. We strive to be very unbiased in our news and analysis, and save our personal opinions for our opinion pages - where, I should point out, we often host guest editorials, in case you are ever interested. I'd also point out that we just had an editorial meeting this morning regarding an upcoming cover story on organic agriculture in Illinois. If you are from Illinois and are, perhaps, an organic farmer or involved with the organic industry, we'd love to talk with you. I think you have my email, but if not, you can click on a link to it above. Thank you for your feedback! --H. Spangler

  5. Anonymous says:

    Feeding your family fruits and vegetables that have a trace of pesticides on them (that can be washed away), is better than feeding them junk food.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      I agree - out with the junk! But always wash produce carefully...!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks. Have some acquaintances that are terrified of the pesticide residue problem to the point of suggestion that we in agriculture are negligent and irresponsible. "We just pander to the big chemical corporations."Since they live in an urban environment it is often difficult to communicate the "other" side. Thanks for the help!

    • Holly Spangler says:

      I hope this is helpful! I've often been confused by the accusation that farmers pander to chemical companies...as if we can afford to haplessly apply expensive pesticide products at random. Good luck with your communications!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Their marketing sort of reminds me of the ASPCA.

  8. Aimee Whetstine @ everydayepistle.com says:

    Thank you, Holly. Very well said. I agree wholeheartedly. Enough of pitting one food against another. There's room at the table for organic, conventional and biotech. There's certainly enough hungry mouths to feed. Food choice rules!

    • Holly Spangler says:

      Absolutely - food choice rules! There is much room for all! Thank you, Aimee!