I generally enjoy reading the columns by Mary Mertz. I applaud her efforts to raise awareness of local farming and of the availability of local food in our community. However, I need to correct some factual errors in her column last week under the headline, “Organic crops are no better.”
I am familiar with the Stanford University study that Mary cited; it has been much discussed in organic farming circles and in the national media after its release last fall. Unfortunately, most people who refer to it seem not to have read beyond the first page, and the common headline in the national media was the same as the one on Mary’s column, claiming that organic crops are no better. If one reads the entire study, there are some very interesting findings that contradict the headline.
First, of the 237 studies reviewed, several com-pared the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables grown under different con-ditions but handled identi-cally post-harvest. There were no statistical differences in most vitamins or minerals, but there were statistically significant differences in the phosphorus content (examined in 30 studies) and total phenols (examined in 34 studies); both were higher in organic crops. Phosphorus is normally not limiting in our diets, but total phenols, also known as “anti-oxidants,” are known to be good for us in many ways and are promoted on many food labels. One can also get more total phenols by simply eating more fruits and vegeta-bles. But these two significant findings already make the headline technically incorrect.
If we look further, we find a statistically significant lower incidence of detectable pest-icide residue in organic as compared to conventional foods (7 percent vs. 38 percent). Many people argue that exposure to pesticides does not necessarily result in ill effects, especially at low levels. Consumers should be aware that the determination of “safe” levels of pesticides on food and in our homes is constantly being re-evaluated by FDA and EPA, and in my lifetime many pesticides once approved as safe have been banned. In terms of efficacy at low levels, take your favorite prescription medication off the shelf and calculate the level of active ingredient as compared to your body weight. You’ll often find that medicine is effective at levels of parts per million, which is also the levels at which most pesticides are found on fruits and vegetables, some of which have been deemed “safe.”
The report also summarizes the detection of E.coli and other human pathogens in fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, eggs and milk products. Overall, they find no significant difference between organic and conven-tional plant or animal products. In general, plant products showed much lower incidence of detection than animal products for both growing methods. For the animal food products, five studies measured the number of samples with antibiotic resistant bacteria. Of these samples, there was a significant difference between conventional (48 percent detection rate) and organic products (16 percent detection rate). To me, this should have been the headline of the story. I had no idea that I have about a 50:50 chance of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria if I’m eating improperly cooked, conventional animal products. Why the high levels? Antibiotics are commonly in the feed for conventionally pro-duced livestock. They are only allowed in organic production to treat a sick animal, and then that animal may not be sold with the organic label.
This issue was thoroughly explored in a study published in 2008 by the Pew Foundation and John Hopkins School of Public Health. Two of the authors should be familiar to Kansans; John Carlin, former governor, and Dan Glickman, former congressman and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. These are not wild-eyed radicals, but would be considered by most to be pragmatic, thoughtful sup-porters of Kansas agriculture. The study was called “Putting Meat on the Table” and is free and easy to find on the Web. Their findings? Recommenda-tion No.1 is “restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibio-tics.”
Back to whether organic foods are really different — you bet they are. According to the Stanford authors’ conclusions: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide resi-dues and antibiotic-resist-ant bacteria.” So if you are looking for more vitamins, simply eat more fruits and vegetables. If you are look-ing for GMO-free, safer food (less exposure to pesticides and antibiotic resistant microbes), purchase organic.
In addition to using different methods of pest control and soil fertility, organic crops must be produced using a diverse crop rotation, which saves soil and reduces nutrient run-off. Livestock must be produced with access to fresh air and sunshine. So the methods used are very different, in addition to the safety of the product. Are organic labels trustworthy? Since 2002, the USDA has accredited organic certifiers, and an inspection system assures compliance.
As consumers, you have a right to know more about how your food is produced. The best way to find out is to talk to “your farmer” and also to read the whole report, not just the headline.
Rhonda R. Janke is an associate professor and sustainable cropping systems Extension specialist in the Department of Horticulture, For-estry and Recreation Resources at KSU and a fifth-generation Kansas farmer.