I grew up hearing that there is no difference between conventional food and organic food.
If that’s the case, I thought, why would anyone spend their hard earned dollars on more expensive food? Is eating organic just a status thing?
Over the years I became one of those organic-food purchasers, and let me tell you, it’s not a status thing. I don’t have loads of money to throw around, but I take my health seriously, so I make high-quality food a priority.
So the question is, am I doing this all for naught? Does it really make a difference whether or not you eat organic?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Well, if you insist… :) I’m going to go ahead and break this topic into three blog posts to keep this from getting too long. Today we’ll discuss some misconceptions about organic food, pesticides, and the government’s role in all of this.
In 2012, Stanford researchers reviewed several studies to determine whether or not organic foods were safer or healthier than conventional alternatives. Here’s what they concluded:
“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.” (source)
Journalists across the interwebs conveniently glazed over the bit about pesticide residues and resistant bacteria, and made sensational headlines about how organic food is no more nutritious than conventional food, so it’s all a big waste of money.
Can we really equate nutrient content with overall health and safety? I don’t think the vitamin profile of the veggies is what’s a stake here, but since they brought it up…
There have been a few independent studies which, despite the Stanford research, concluded that organic produce is indeed more nutrient dense. Typically they found that organic food is higher in Vitamin C, antioxidants like flavonols, polyphenols, and other phytonutrients. All of which happen to be left out of the Stanford study. Curious. (source and source)
But let’s keep in mind that the nutrients are only a very tiny piece of the puzzle.
If you take a look at the actual paper Stanford published, you’ll see a few alarming points about pesticides.
- The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was 30% lower among organic than conventional produce
- Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets
- The risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork
It also mentions that these findings are nothing to be alarmed about, because the amount of pesticides they found in the food usually fell within the allowed ranges, and there isn’t really any conclusive evidence that having pesticides in your urine is harmful. So… Don’t worry about it.
Here’s my problem with all of this.
It assumes that the government’s got this all under control. They have done the necessary research and conducted several long-term studies to determine which chemicals are safe to use on our food, and they wouldn’t let anyone grow/sell/eat food that’s contaminated with harmful chemicals.
Time to take the red pill.
The government doesn’t actually do the testing to check if chemicals are safe. That responsibility falls on the companies that manufacture the chemicals. There’s also not much scrutiny to make sure the tests that the company ran actually occurred, and that they were done well. A scientist paid by the industry will often get the result the industry wants. If not, the industry will just find a new scientist.
To further explain this, I’m going to quote the heck out of the 2008-2009 annual report from the President’s Cancer Panel.
“Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Environmental Protection Agency can only require testing if it can verify that the chemical poses a health risk to the public. Since TSCA was passed, EPA has required testing of less than 1 percent of the chemicals in commerce and has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals. Companies are required to provide health and safety data for new chemicals and to periodically renew approvals for the use of pesticides, but historically, chemical manufacturers have successfully claimed that much of the requested submissions are confidential, proprietary information. As a result, it is almost impossible for scientists and environmentalists to challenge the release of new chemicals.”
“At this time, neither industry nor government confirm the safety of existing or new chemicals prior to their sale and use. In fact, because companies are required by TSCA section 8e to report information about known health hazards caused by any of their products, to avoid litigation or the costly ban or restricted use of a product, chemical companies generally do not conduct toxicity tests.”
It’s also a bit curious to me that the maximum residue limits (MRLs) have increased over the years. Is that because we are finding that higher levels of pesticide residue are, in fact, safe?
I doubt it.
The more likely reason is that the limits are influenced by industry. The higher the MRL, the more spray our farmers use, the more money Monsanto makes.
Some groups in Europe have been speaking out about the rising MRLs, because independent studies have shown that the legal tolerance levels may in fact be posing a threat to our health. (source)
So basically… Conventional fruits and veggies have pesticide residues that fall within the safety standards set by Monsanto. That’s comforting.
But how do you know pesticides are actually harmful to your health?
All this chit chat about avoiding pesticides… How do we even know that they’re harmful? Check out the next post about how pesticides affect our health.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions! Do you make organic food a priority? Why or why not?