My View From The Country

The Stanford Organic Food Study

While the Stanford study on research about organic foods validated a lot of opinions, it raised some concerns as well. Editor's Note: This article was updated at 11:55 am.

Nearly every agricultural publication has had stories recently highlighting the Stanford study that looked at more than 237 previous studies and concluded that there are no health benefits to organic products. Of course, this was heralded by mainstream agriculture that saw this as additional validation of traditional agriculture at a time when virtually all forms of modern agriculture are under attack.   

Of course, it was validation of what everyone already knew. There is no reason that organic foods should be healthier. In fact, there are good reasons that it might actually be less healthy for consumers. 

Still, it is important to remember that the growth of organic foods has had little to do with science or health. Organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the clinical significance of this is also unclear. I had several very good scientists suggest to me that the previous studies were flawed, and pointed out that there is bacterial resistance found in both pork and poultry, regardless of how they are raised. 

The reality is that there is a perception that organic production reduces bacterial resistance, and whether or not the science justifies that is largely irrelevant. Whether bacterial resistance in animals is a major contributing factor is also irrelevant.

I cut off the tip of my finger in a trailer door this weekend and the doctor prescribed antibiotics at rates I never would dream of. Humans are not going to reduce their use of antibiotics, so whenever there is a discussion about resistance, animal agriculture will be blamed. Even when we use antibiotics at levels considered to be 100% safe, people believe it is an issue, so it exists. 

The terms “factory farming” and “corporate agriculture” may be maddening to anyone who truly understands modern agriculture, but like “pink slime,” people are going to consider it to be a bad thing, even if your family-run operation is somehow considered to be a factory farm by the activists.  

Growth promotants may make sense economically, scientifically, and from a health perspective, but consumers have concerns about their use. The organic movement capitalizes on both the reality and the misperceptions associated with them. To their credit, consumers seem to have some common sense and these are battles that have largely been fought and lost in the war of consumer perception. 

But challenges remain. I will never forget listening to two carnival workers at the state fair. One lady had just returned from her smoke break, the other was consuming a deep-fried corn dog in between handing out her sugar-covered funnel cakes. She was discussing that, while it cost a lot more, she purchased organic orange juice because it was healthier.  

We will not be able to feed a growing world population, take care of our environment, and provide consumers with a safe, wholesome, healthy and abundant food supply without modern agriculture, so we must be able to defend it. But we must get much better at defending it.

Discuss this Blog Entry 13

shaun evertson (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

From down here in the trenches it makes sense to point out to consumers that they are in a win-win situation. If they have the cash they can buy organic and be reasonably sure they are getting very good food. If they can't afford organic or choose to purchase non-organic, they can be just as reasonably sure they are getting very good food. Back up the in-place safeguards with common sense food storage and preparation at home and it's hard to see how either option can be better or worse. Consumers have a choice between two superb options -- what a deal!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

The only " beef" I have with traditional farming is the lack of testing they do for their GMO's and pesticides, germicides and herbicides. See articles in the news today about Monsanto corn and herbicide . Also can we not benefit from organic farmers keeping the heirloom seeds going. What I would like to see is more transparency and validation fom both sides to each other . Room for all. I would also love to see pocket gardens that had help so that they flourished , maybe even coordinated so one grows this , another that etc. Feeding the world should be healthy, easy and fun. Without transparency we have starvation, obesity, disease , and a lot of confusion as to what to buy. People who can afford organic do not buy it because of some myth , they buy it because if you buy and eat organic , you don't have have to fuss and choose, and figure it out. It's the figuring out what is ok to eat that drives us all nuts.

shaun evertson (not verified)
on Sep 24, 2012

Since all gmo's, pesticides and herbicides are exhaustively tested by USDA and FDA, I have to conclude that you are either endorsing the precautionary principle (which states that since we cannot know the future, and since we must do nothing which can possibly have an adverse effect, we must never do anything) or you are unwilling or incapable of objective assessment. If using your cognitive abilities "drives you nuts," fine. I'm not sure why you imagine that your standard of transparency about something you refuse to study should be applied universally. There's an old and true saying -- the problem isn't what you know it's what you think you know. You've taken that to a new level. You seem to be saying that the problem is that it's too hard to think.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 24, 2012

Gardening and canning is not "easy". Like anything else in agriculture it is hard and in a personal garden labor intensive!

Organic Farmer (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

Wow. What an incredible piece of shameless, ignorant propaganda.
- “Of course, it was validation of what everyone already knew. There is no reason that organic foods should be healthier. In fact, there are good reasons that it might actually be less healthy for consumers. “
There is plenty of reason why organic food is healthier. Modern agriculture is more involved in “mining the soil” than in producing nutrient dense food. In their incredibly ignorant and short-sighted assessment, they equate soil-fertility with N-P-K. Fact is, soil fertility is MUCH more complex and is highly dependent upon trace minerals (depleted by industrial ag) as well as a rich and diverse microbial population (destroyed with RoundUp and the other numerous industrial herbicides and pesticides). The second part of his statement has no credibility and is without merit. It is nothing more than a distraction from the facts.

-“Still, it is important to remember that the growth of organic foods has had little to do with science or health.”
Obviously the author has not even bothered to read the extensive and comprehensive scientific reports produced by the Organic Center and other researchers. It is ALL about HEALTH and SCIENCE.

- “There was some concerning news in the Stanford review as it indicated there is research that shows organic poultry and pork are more likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I had several very good scientists suggest to me that the previous studies were flawed, and pointed out that there is bacterial resistance found in both pork and poultry, regardless of how they are raised.”
That’s because the resistant strains created by routine, non-therapeutic use are EVERYWHERE. Secondly, this is an out and out lie. Virtually and medical or veterinary researcher will tell you that any use of antibiotics (or any anti-microbial) will produce resistant strains of microbes. The more anti-microbials are used, the fewer susceptible organism there are to breed with the resistant ones. The rest is simple statistics. Any process of selection will result in the selected traits becoming prevalent or exclusive.

-“ The reality is that there is a perception that organic production reduces bacterial resistance, and whether or not the science justifies that is largely irrelevant. Whether bacterial resistance in animals is a major contributing factor is also irrelevant”. The truth is what seems to be irrelevant to the author. What shouldn’t be irrelevant is that we spend 5 billion dollars a year treating resistant strain infections in humans and loose thousands of lives needlessly.

-“ I cut off the tip of my finger in a trailer door this weekend and the doctor prescribed antibiotics at rates I never would dream of. Humans are not going to reduce their use of antibiotics, so whenever there is a discussion about resistance, animal agriculture will be blamed. Even when we use antibiotics at levels considered to be 100% safe, people believe it is an issue, so it exists. The terms “factory farming” and “corporate agriculture” may be maddening to anyone who truly understands modern agriculture, but like “pink slime,” people are going to consider it to be a bad thing, even if your family-run operation is somehow considered to be a factory farm by the activists”.
No one I know of would suggest that humans not use antibiotics. They have saved countless lives and we need to preserve efficacy for the future! To do this we MUST stop using them routinely outside specific therapeutic criteria. “Family run” has nothing to do with the issues. You can have lousy small farms and pretty good big ones. Everyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in factory farming is now an activist. I am not an activist. I am a common-sense thinker who is smart enough to know what every high school chemistry student knows; Add chemicals to an eco system and they will disrupt it. That is their job, that is what they were created to do. That disruption does not magically stop at the edge of a bacterium and leave the host, be it animal or human, unscathed. This statement is nothing more than another attempted misdirection by the author.

-“ Growth promotants may make sense economically, scientifically, and from a health perspective, but consumers have concerns about their use. The organic movement capitalizes on both the reality and the misperceptions associated with them. To their credit, consumers seem to have some common sense and these are battles that have largely been fought and lost in the war of consumer perception.”
Again the author really doesn’t care as long as he gets what he wants; Cheaper production. Fact is that there are consequences to our actions and the use of growth agents and growth hormones in our food supply have profound implications for human health. rBST leads to higher metabolic IGF-1 which has been conclusively linked to cancers, especially those of the female reproductive tract. Arsenic in broiler production has conclusively been show to leave resides in chicken and is a powerful toxin and carcinogen. The list is extensive.

-“ But challenges remain. I will never forget listening to two carnival workers at the state fair. One lady had just returned from her smoke break, the other was consuming a deep-fried corn dog in between handing out her sugar-covered funnel cakes. She was discussing that, while it cost a lot more, she purchased organic orange juice because it was healthier.”
Yes, there are a great many ignorant, short sighted, non-thinkers in our society. The author provides an example no more flattering than the two carnival workers he seeks to disparage. Does that give anyone the right to kill them with “food”?

-“We will not be able to feed a growing world population, take care of our environment, and provide consumers with a safe, wholesome, healthy and abundant food supply without modern agriculture, so we must be able to defend it. But we must get much better at defending it.”
I don’t advocate a return to the Stone Age. It has been clearly show that organic agriculture CAN feed the world. We just need to use technology appropriately and let it benefit the entire human condition rather than just a few industrial ag moguls’ pocketbooks. As for the Stanford study itself, what would you expect a bunch of corporate prostitutes to say when funding and their jobs are on the line?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

"Add chemicals to an eco system and they will disrupt it."

Especially Dihydrogen Monoxide [http://www.dhmo.org/]

I know that chemophobia is en vogue but this kind of statement discredits your assertions. The air is chemicals, as is the soil, the produce, et cetera. Focus on both the benefits and negatives of various additives in the effort to help us all make the wisest decisions about how to best produce food while addressing *all* of the needs of the participants in the system we are a part of.

Personally, I find the strongest benefits of organic produce to be the manner in which buying it is a decision about the supply chain and the methods used in production. On the other hand, it appears to be sold at a premium that does not correlate to the increased costs of the approach because of the religious-like proponency of believers.

Susan (not verified)
on Sep 24, 2012

Thank you for the throughtful and well written rebuttal. Your words reflect my astonishment at such short sighted vision as that reflected in the Sanford study. We all know studies can be compiled to portray about any viewpoint but I feel the Sanford study leads consumers down the wrong track. Long term investment in our soil and ecosystems is what our sustainable farmers prioritize. How can anyone think those are bad things?
Thank you again.

ChemieBabe (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

Bottom line, consumers are free to buy what they believe is best for them. That is the best of both worlds. Some times I shop at Whole Foods, some times I shop at Food For Less. The fresh produce at Whole Foods looks better than the fresh produce at Food For Less. The nutrient content may be the same, but the "eye appeal" is different. If I buy in season the price difference is not that great. The choice is often more about driving further and dealing with more traffic to get to Whole Foods!
Some times I do it, some times I don't!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

I don't think that there is enough known by any organizations about the health benefits of organic foods versus conventionally grown foods. There is however plenty known on the reduced production of organic farming. Organic methods generally reduce yields by 45 to 50% as compared to conventional farming methods. From a chemical and fertilizer standpoint organic farming is cheaper, the labor expense, however goes up considerably. It is the reduction in yelds however that makes up the majority of the cost increase. It is this reduction in yield that also makes it unsuitable to feed the world rapidly growing population.

John R. Dykers, Jr. (not verified)
on Sep 21, 2012

We don't really need to discourage organic farming; it just makes for more farmers. We do need to recognize that antibiotic use in feedlots does create resistant bacteria. Human antibiotic use is often inappropriate, as it may have been when the author cut his finger tip off. If the wound were left open and was cleaned and simply allowed to heal by granulation, no antibiotics were needed yet. If there were other damaged tissue that could not be removed or if the wound were sutured closed, then big antibiotic doses would be appropriate for 48-72 hours untill the wound could be reexamined and treatment reevaluated. This is generally the applicable approach to any acute infection in which the offending bacterium is unknown, as is usually the case. Big dose, two or more antibiotics, short term, then reevaluate.

Paul (not verified)
on Sep 23, 2012

The taste alone gives me reason to eat organic or naturally grown foods

Mark (not verified)
on Nov 26, 2012

Organic whole food is a very controversial topic in today’s health industry. Nutritionists all over the world try to answer the question of whether organic food is better and healthier than processed food.

http://wholefoodsconnection.com/organic-food.html

on May 13, 2013

Organic foods are the best foods available in all over the world. People are more interested in having organic foods as they are the best foods. In a recent study by the Standford university it was confirmed that some of the organic foods are not so healthy in comparison to other foods. So it is better these types of foods.
http://www.gsplantfoods.com/

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As a fulltime rancher, opinion contributor Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.

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Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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