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.