In the past couple weeks there have been numerous skirmishes on social media and in the news on the not-so-new debate over the benefits of organic vs. conventional foods and farming. A Stanford study published in the September 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine pissed gasoline all over the fire and set it alight anew.
Let me begin with one semantic gripe about this debate. To call this “organic vs. conventional” is a misnomer. Conventional farming is an invention of the 20th century whereas organic farming was invented some time around 8,000 b.c. Therefore the burden of proof is upon “conventional” farming, not organic. But I digress.
I read about the Stanford study the day it was published. There wasn’t anything too surprising or groundbreaking about it. The study’s conclusions were basically that no significant difference was found between organic and conventional meats and produce in nutritional value. It also concluded that organic foods contained considerably less pesticide and antibiotic-resistant bacteria contamination.
The conclusions were based on 17 studies in humans and 223 studies on nutrient values in foods. One detail I think was important but largely overlooked was that the study was non-clinical and heterogeneous. Meaning, for example, its conclusions could be drawn by comparing a ripe tomato from one part of the US to an unripe tomato from a different part of the US.
The problem started when the media grabbed ahold of it, knowing this could be spun into a controversial topic, and a frenzy ensued. Headlines read “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce” from the New York Times and “Organic food no healthier than non-organic: study” from Reuters. Really Reuters? Is that the most accurate way to depict the findings?
Following the media reaction as always is the social media over-reaction. First came a million “I told you so tweets” from the curious anti-organic camp.
Dozens of foolish straw man arguments have been popping up on the internet recently to purport this as the silver bullet that killed the organic movement. Their approach is to poorly refute an argument that we never made, and then call us all hippies (I wish this was a joke).
Gee.Shocker that Organomaniacs will ignore: Stanford study finds Organic food no more nutritious than cheaper foodgoo.gl/TncJu
— Michael Specter (@specterm) September 4, 2012
I don’t know if Michael Specter would characterize me as an “organomaniac,” since I generally prefer organic foods but have been know to occasionally devour an entire bag of Cheddar Cheese Jalapeño-Flavored Cheetos. Nothing but full on hypocrisy here at Mr. Delicious, and that’s a promise!
But ignore it they did not. To the contrary this study became a huge inflammatory topic amongst organics enthusiasts and activists with many crying conspiracy, even attacking the scientists behind the study.
Now everyone, please, take a deep breath and relax. The organic movement isn’t going anywhere, and for those of you who prefer the taste of pesticides on your produce, I’m sure Monsanto isn’t either. This study really didn’t change anything and we’re all going to die on December 21 anyway. So you might as well just settle in.
For those that are at all informed on the topic, it was never about nutritional content, but rather a distrust of the effects of chemical pesticides and reckless use of antibiotics in or foods.
It’s also about the effects that conventional farming is having on the environment. With a relatively short history it’s hard to determine what the long term effects might be. I remember being stung by a lot of bees when I was a child. Somehow I suspect my son will not be so imperiled as they’re a lot harder to find now.
Many of us find it hard to believe or even a bit arrogant the claim that science has an exhaustive understanding of the effects all of the chemicals in our lives. Each generation looks at the last in disbelief. How could they not have known better? What will the next generation think about this?
The conclusion here is that there is no conclusion. I really don’t believe these scientists did anything wrong and were only furthering our understanding of important issues. So don’t kill the scientists, we might need them. By there own admission there is still much to study. And the debate will go on.