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.