Nov 29 - Dec 5, 2012 
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Flash in the Pan

Side of Poison With That?

By Ari Levaux

The way headlines broke around a recent Stanford study comparing organic and conventionally grown foods, you'd think organic had been left for dead.

The New York Times, for example, ran a headline that was typical of the media’s perspective: “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” Maybe the doubt was inferred from the meta-study's lukewarm synopsis. “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” it read. “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

Now wait a minute. Organic food has never been seriously touted as more nutritious or vitamin-rich than conventional food. Nor is it the cure for HIV or the preferred food of unicorns.

Now wait a minute. Organic food has never been seriously touted as more nutritious or vitamin-rich than conventional food. Nor is it the cure for HIV or the preferred food of unicorns.

Organic has always been defined by what it isn't, and the first rule of organic food is that it’s free of things like “pesticide residues” and “antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” The study confirms what organic supporters have long said to be the case: Organic food is less adulterated by things you don’t want to ingest.

The Stanford research synthesized the results of 240 previous studies that examined nutrient and pesticide residue levels in organic and conventional food. While residue levels were compared to the Environmental Protection Agency's allowable levels, the organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute complained that Stanford didn’t discuss any of the specific health dangers posed by pesticides. A 2010 article in the journal Pediatrics, for instance, found that children with organophosphate pesticides in their systems were more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Another organophosphate pesticide is chlorpyrifos, which also poses a risk to the brains of children, especially via prenatal exposure. Once widely used as a residential roach-killer, chlorpyrifos was banned for home use by the EPA in 2000. The chemical is still permitted for agricultural use on fruit trees and vegetables. According to the EPA, 10 million pounds of it is applied annually to crops in the U.S.

Also, research on rats shows that chlorpyrifos lowers testosterone, which in humans could lead to a drop in male IQ, as the hormone is crucial to male brain development.

While the danger of any given pesticide is constant, regulations are changeable. Unfortunately, lobbyists and political appointees who might be neither concerned nor educated about pesticides can have undue influence over if, when and how they’re used. Given our slowly evolving scientific understanding of pesticides and the glacial pace of political change, the Stanford results actually support the idea that eating organic foods reduces exposure to chemicals we may someday realize are bad for us, as well as chemicals we already know are harmful.

A self-contradictory conclusion exemplifies the general confusion the Stanford report generated: “The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues, and organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

In other words, organic isn’t any better, but it might be less worse. But if the Stanford team’s idea of health includes pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in my system, I'd hate to meet its criteria for sickness.

 
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