scientific studies, common sense + organic food : ne’er the three will meet

Lots of hype and hyperbole out there in the blogosphere right now surrounding the recent study published by Stanford University regarding the nutritional value of organics vs. conventional produce.

The trouble with scientific publications & the media

I’ve looked high and low for a copy of the study itself online to share with you, but of course, as usual it’s not easy to find. We have to rely on the media to tell us what’s in it and how to feel about it. Having worked in a job that gave me intimate knowledge of legal decisions that the press regularly reported on, I can tell you that they get it wrong as often as they get it right. I even had one case where the press repeatedly misnamed one of the parties. Repeatedly, and not even close – as in someone else entirely, despite it being a matter of public record.

So I strongly urge you, whenever you can – read the original document and come to your own conclusions.

The best I could find was this summary of the article, you have to pay for the rest, apparently.

Interesting to note that although they state that their study doesn’t have outside funding, the study itself was primarily a review of OTHER studies, and there is no mention in the summary of where THEY got their funding from. Pair that with this quote from the article and you can’t help but get thinking:

Limitation: Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present.

Conclusion: 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 residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

(Emphasis my own.)

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about it.

So of course, I’m out there reading the blowback online. I don’t know why I read the comments on these articles. I end up losing a hour of my life to internet trolls with handles like “urbanredneck2”.


No good can come of it. And yet, there I was yet again today – getting angrier by the minute.

I’m not even going to bother addressing the ridiculous arguments (from both sides). There’s no point. These folks don’t listen (on either side). I resisted the urge to ad my voice to the fray. Barely.

What frustrates me is how these sorts of studies completely ignore the vast and varied range of both organic farming and conventional farming.

Organic tomatoes grown on a farm someplace far away in a greenhouse using hydroponics and tons of energy or in a huge monoculture are not the same as tomatoes lovingly tended by me in my backyard.

Organic doesn’t mean its free of pesticides or chemicals. Organic doesn’t mean better taste. Organic doesn’t mean better nutrition. Organic doesn’t mean less carbon footprint. Organic doesn’t mean sustainable. Organic doesn’t mean safe. Organic doesn’t mean respect for human rights and worker’s rights.

Organic doesn’t mean better.

In contrast, conventional doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

Many non-organic farms practice reasonably ecologically sane practices like Integrated Pest Management, whereby beneficial insects and mindful farming practices are combined with chemicals as a last resort.

Sometimes, a conventionally grown tomato from close to home will be better quality than one trucked in from far away.

There are also amazing organic farms who refuse to get organic certification because they object to the commercialization (and consequent relaxation) of government organic standards, or don’t want the government meddling unnecessarily in their farm, or want the freedom to purchase feed from neighbours who aren’t certified organic, but whose farming methods they respect.

Deep organic food, food like the kind I grow on my urban farm – food that sees no sprays, chemicals or pesticides, “organic” or otherwise, that benefits from a judicious use of homemade compost, cover crops, beneficial insects drawn by complimentary plants, inter-croping, season extenders like row covers and unheated greenhouses, manure from my chickens . . . This is as far away from industrial agriculture as you can get – organic OR conventional.

Reductionist science misses the point

We can’t take one narrow (and arguably flawed) measure like nutrition and judge the overall worthiness of sustainable farming, which gets undeservedly heaped in under the traditional “organic” banner. The two are not one and the same.

What about run off? What about pesticides in the air and water? What about erosion? What about biodiversity? What about protection of our heirloom varieties? What about protection of wild-lands? Frogs? Insects? Water quality? Salinization? Dropping water tables? Drought? What about super weeds and anti-biotic resistant bugs? The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico? What about carbon sequestering? What about the health of local economies? The future of the family farm?

All of these things are problems that sustainable farms are trying to address. Dismissing organic food as not worth the money or no better than conventional perpetuates the myth that our health is somehow divorced from the health of our soil, air and water.

Unfortunately, the overall impact on all of these things on our health is not easy to quantify. We don’t really know what effects this slow poisoning will have. We probably won’t until it is glaringly obvious – and too late.

We need to forget about jargon & focus on farming.

What I do on my urban farm is often dismissed as merely “gardening”, something less than farming. I say that’s bull. What I and others like me are doing challenges our preconceived notions about what farms and farming look like. We are trying to bring into being what we imagine farming could be.

We don’t have to have only one way of doing things. In fact, its better for everyone if we don’t.

We too easily accept what we are told, whether that be from our politicians, our teachers, our media, our religion, on pretty much any topic. This sort of apathy of imagination creates societies that stagnate and rot from the inside out. We have to constantly seek a better way, to keep asking questions, keep moving forward to keep our culture – our agriculture – vibrant, adaptive and vital.

We have a serious lack of critical thought happening when it comes to food and farming. All these nonsensical generalization and sweeping statements and suggestions based entirely on conjecture and propaganda and marketing slogans are not the way to a better food system.

Rather than wasting our time arguing about semantics, we need to be out there working on solutions. Real solutions. Not advocacy for advocacy’s sake, not dissent for dissent’s sake, not hollow gestures rooted in consumerism and the misguided notion that we can buy our way to a better world.

We need to look at the work of farmers like Elliot Coleman of Four Season Farm, who successfully grows gobs of produce YEAR ROUND in MAINE and – wait for it – MAKES A PROFIT. He works a small amount of land, minuscule compared to modern farming standards, and he does it with lots of hand labour, minimal inputs and an abundance of carefully considered planning. If you want to see a vision of a future for better farming in action, watch Elliot on YouTube. Be amazed.

Ironically, but not surprisingly – Elliot says no university has ever asked him to study his practices so that his immense knowledge and success can be shared. Corporations don’t stand to make any money from models like Elliot’s. Farmers do. Go figure.

A man who does not think for himself, does not think at all.

-Oscar Wilde

Here’s the thing. When it comes to food, farming – pretty much everything, we can’t rely on labels and what other people tell us.

We have to ask questions, inform ourselves, see with our own eyes and think for ourselves. Seems the powers that be believe that that’s more than we’re capable of these days. But it’s not true.

We are capable, and it’s high time we start.

Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families . . . re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,

dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem . . .


What are your thoughts about Stanford’s study? Do you eat organic? Does the article change your thoughts about organic food?

4 thoughts on “scientific studies, common sense + organic food : ne’er the three will meet

  1. Growing Up in the Garden

    Awesome post, Stacey! I loved this. I completely agree that it is not black and white and you can’t depend on the certified organic label as a stamp of sustainability. I heard a radio piece about this study where the journalist went to a number of different kinds of grocery stores and asked people why they choose organic produce. Nobody said they made those choices based on nutrition. People’s reasons were varied and nuanced.

    1. The Slow Foods Mama Post author

      My sense is folks reasons are pretty complicated too – which was why I was especially annoyed to see our local media only air clips of clearly uninformed yuppie shoppers in whole foods blathering nonsense. But that’s the trouble, isn’t it? A huge section of the organic band wagon know nothing about it give fodder to the fire for those who argue we’re all a bunch of self-indulgent food snobs. It’s a shame.

  2. oceannah

    Yah, what a bunch of tripe! Strike another blow to food safety and sanity. Pity for those who ride the maniacal swing of ‘current scientific study’. If the authors won’t reveal who funded the study/meta analysis then it likely is Big Ag in one sheepy-looking-wolves outfit or another.

  3. Susan T's Kitchen

    I had to shake my head when I saw the study discussed on tv by newscasters. All I can say is to take those studies with a grain of salt. People should educate themselves on food. I buy produce in season and local from the Farmer’s markets. I also grow some some items. The only items that are not local are banana’s.


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