Is Organic Food Really The Same As Conventional?

by | Sep 5, 2012

Organic Golden Beets

On Monday a study from scientists at Stanford made headlines by concluding that there isn’t much health value in choosing organic food over conventional food. The headline didn’t surprise me in the least, I’ve seen similar ones at least a dozen times before, but there is still so much confusion among the general public around this topic that it’s worth revisiting in the wake of this new data.

Despite what organic zealots are telling you, this wasn’t a bad study. It was a meta-analysis that examined a number of relevant health measures comparing organic versus conventionally grown foods over the last several decades. They excluded processed foods from their analysis (this is a good thing), and looked at nutrient levels as well as pesticide contamination and antibiotic resistance in both produce and animal products. They were also careful about which organic standards were included in the study. Though the analysis has plenty of limitations (all meta-analyses do), their statistics were sound and the researchers were honest about their findings. What’s really annoying is how their results were interpreted by the media.

One problem is that the word “organic” is a huge umbrella that includes sustainable, biodynamic farming practices as well as huge-scale industrial operations that barely squeeze under the “certified organic” labeling standards. As a result there is a tremendous amount of heterogeneity (a scientific word for a wide range of differences) between the organic foods being tested, as well as the types of studies that are performed. As a result, it is difficult to measure consistent differences (aka statistical significance) between organic and conventional foods in this kind of study. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do much to further our understanding of how growing practices affect health.

The huge variance among farming practices that fit under the organic umbrella is not trivial. By far the largest segment of organic products on the market could be considered industrial organic, and the farms are closer to traditional industrial farms than most of us realize. Large organic farms are typically monoculture fields just like large conventional farms, though more crop rotation is required. Industrial organic poultry and beef farms also look oddly similar to conventional industrial feedlots, even if the animals are eating organic feed. In fact, both organic and conventional industrial farms are often owned by the same mega-corporations, and share the same bottom line of profit. There’s no reason to suspect that these industrial organic foods would be markedly more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.

In contrast, smaller biodynamic farms have extensive practices designed to build soil, improve robustness of crops and ensure bio and nutrient diversity. Instead of monocultures, these farms grow huge arrays of different vegetables and fruits. If a biodynamic farm raises animals they are given their natural, preferred diet of grass (for cows) or bugs and seeds (for birds). The animals are treated well and fed well, and are healthier as a result. If you want to learn more about the differences between conventional agriculture, big organic agriculture and biodynamic farming I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Joel Salatin’s latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

Interestingly, despite the wide range in the quality of foods that qualify as organic, the Stanford study did find some significant differences. Organic produce contained significantly more phenols, the cancer fighting chemicals found in red wine, green tea, chocolate and many fruits and vegetables. However, this finding was glossed over in favor of the non-significant differences found between vitamin C, betacarotene and vitamin E levels in organic versus conventional foods.

It is reasonable to hypothesize that organic agriculture (at least in some cases) would be more nutritious because the soil standards for organics are much higher than for the depleted, synthetically fertilized conventional fields. Soil quality and weather (the raw ingredients) are by far the biggest factors in the nutrient levels of produce, with freshness and storage methods being next in line. Indeed, organic agriculture typically has more minerals and the Stanford team confirmed they contain significantly more phosphorus. But there is so much variety among plants, and from season to season, that you shouldn’t necessarily expect large, consistent differences in the levels of common vitamins like C and E from genetically identical plants.

That the Stanford team found measurable differences in total phenol content is pretty impressive. There are dozens of phenolic compounds that could benefit health in different and subtle ways. Nutrition science still can’t explain the benefits of all these nutrients, but having more of them certainly seems like a good thing.

Still lack of pesticides, not better nutrition, is the most commonly cited reason for buying organic over conventional foods. Pesticides are designed to kill things, and have been shown repeatedly to be dangerous for farm workers and other wildlife. They also accumulate more in the bodies of people who eat conventional produce compared to those who eat organic, and susceptible populations such as children, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly are at particular risk. The Stanford study confirms organic agriculture has substantially fewer pesticide contaminations, but for some reason this finding was also glossed over since the conventional produce levels “didn’t exceed maximum allowed limits.” Logically, however, if limiting pesticide exposure is important to you (as it should be) organic produce is the better option.

The animal studies were even more encouraging. Small but significant improvements in fatty acid profiles were found for organic milk and chickens, which contained more healthy omega-3 fatty acids. More importantly, antibiotic resistant bacteria, the kind that are becoming more common (and deadly) in our own hospitals, were 33% more likely to be found on conventional meat products than on organic meat. Antibiotic resistant bacteria being created on industrial farms is one of the scariest threats to human health in modern history, and any measures that limit their proliferation should be seriously considered.

From this study it seems reasonable to conclude that organics, even industrial organics, are superior to conventional foods in some ways. Organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, sewage sludge (yes, human sewage is used on conventional food), irradiation or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and must help maintain or improve soil quality. These practices are much better for the environment, significantly limit the amount of pesticides you are exposed to, reduce the proliferation of dangerous pathogens and may be more nutritious.

Organic agriculture certainly sounds like it has some advantages over conventional ag to me.

Do you buy organic? Why?

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24 Responses to “Is Organic Food Really The Same As Conventional?”

  1. I agree that it’s lack of pesticides, NOT better nutrition, that makes me buy organic. I actually prefer local first, as long as it’s pesticide free, but I think people get majorly confused as to what organic actually means. The label has nothing to do with nutrition!

    • Eby says:

      I think it is important to note as it is also often confused is that organic does not equal pesticide free. It just means that the pesticides are approved for organic use and usually organically derived. Some of these are toxic and/or carcinogenic either to humans or the environment.

      There are also synthetic conventional treatments allowed under organic such as the antibiotic streptomycin for fire blight in apples which has a sunset period until 2014 last I looked. So just because you see the organic label doesn’t mean they aren’t spraying antibiotics in their orchard.

      Another reason knowing your farmer and their practices can help make an informed decision no matter what the label.

      • Darya Pino says:

        Great point, thanks. I couldn’t find a list of approved organic pesticides or would have included it in the post.

      • Aileen says:

        Totally agree. For example rotenone is permitted under organics but has been found to cause parkinsons. Many organic pest controls are quite indiscriminate, killing all they contact whereas the newer softer biologically derived conventional pesticides are very specific only killing the target organism. I often make the point that organic farming has been found to pollute the groundwater and the environment more than best practice conventional farming due to the heavy use of manures (phosphorus). There is best practice organics and best practice conventional. They do overlap quite a bit. Incidentally many of the greenhouse/hydroponic growers I know use ONLY biological pest controls (as in predatory mites, etc) and pretty much no chemicals at all. Modern farming and horticulture is a long way from what is often portrayed in the media.

  2. What is the “qualification” to call yourself an organic farm? Is this regulated by any government agency or private entity for verification?

  3. Tuck says:

    Great post, Darya. Very well put.

    “sewage sludge (yes, human sewage is used on conventional food)”

    Yes, this is gross, but if we’re going to have sustainable agriculture over the long therm, this is a necessary step. It’s the only way to get nutrients back into the ground from which they’re removed.

  4. Chic says:

    My top reason for buying organic produce is the flavor anything else that comes with it is a bonus. Tomatoes, strawberries, carrots and many more remind me of the flavors I grew up with in the 1950’s. This also goes for grass fed beef, the flavor is wonderful compared to industrial beef which to me has no flavor.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Totally agree. When vegetables are tasty it’s much easier to eat more of them. I haven’t had as much luck with industrial organic produce as far as taste goes, but my local farmers market sells food that is lightyears better than the out-of-season grocery store stuff shipped from the other side of the universe.

  5. I think they asked the wrong question. It’s not are organic foods more nutritious? The question should be “are the truly conventional big corporation farm produced products more dangerous, or more toxic.” I buy as much local, seasonal as I can. Lettuce cannot be local here in Tenneessee most months. I do seek out organic lettuce, kale, etc.

  6. Maria says:

    Great post, Darya. Most of the media coverage of this study has been awful, so your post is thoroughly refreshing.

    I’ve always bought organic, but I just started buying locally grown veggies from my farmers market this summer and was amazed at the difference in quality. (Carrots look dirty and lumpy and imperfect, and not like perfectly-shaped orange sticks) But for me, farmers market season lasts only three or four months a year. Everything else I buy year round is organic, and at a grocery store. Do I also buy industrially grown organic food? Probably. But I would rather spend a few extra dollars and err on the side of caution, than gamble with long term health risks.

  7. Katherine says:

    Thank you for the great review Darya! I’ve read a lot about this study this week and your analysis is the most in depth.

    To answer your question, I buy mostly organic produce and dairy. In the summer and fall, I shop at the farmer’s market and the produce taste amazing. Like you, I don’t find industrial organic produce tastes very different than regular produce, but in the winter here I don’t really have the option of going to the farmer’s market. We do get a winter CSA but it only lasts until March. Like many others have said, I buy organic because of the restriction on pesticide use and the more sustainable farming practices. That is important to me.

  8. Laura says:

    I wish I could afford to buy organic all of the time, but sometimes the cost is so high. Thanks for the informative post!

    • Darya Pino says:

      Totally. That’s why things like the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen are so helpful. It can help you prioritize when to spend the money and when to save.

  9. Whats the difference between conventional and organic? And where was this study done? I’m quite curious about this matter.

  10. From the start, I always believed in organic farming and in choosing organic products compared to its conventional counterpart. It obviously has more benefits to the environment as well as to the consumers in terms of its processing. Organic farming doesn’t involve the use of chemicals in growing its products dubbing it as natural farming. With this, people who eat the products are not exposed to the same chemicals used in processing.

  11. Natashia Lee says:

    Just a quick question.. One of the regulations mentioned is that organic labels are not able to use “genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”. My impression (I could be wrong) is that it is incredibly difficult to find non-gmo breeds of animals (i.e. turkeys that are able to reproduce naturally..). Given that the label is slapped onto so many brands and companies, from small biodynamic farms to large industrial ones as you’ve mentioned, I find it a little hard to believe that all organic food out there is strictly non-gmo… Am I missing something here? :\

  12. dan says:

    Organic food will always be healthier food than conventional food and even more so in regards to dairy, eggs and meats. It’s really simple and isn’t as common sense as i thought with all these organic and conventional arguments, but the more natural your food is the healthier you will be, that’s the big secret. Scientists can do all the studies they want however they will never understand how synthetic chemicals are dangerous for human health in all its aspects. It makes sense that a billion dollar organization and conventional food supporter like Monsanto would put up a fight against organic foods and their supporters to protect their interests and wealth wouldn’t you think?? I’m sure they’ve funded many biased studies in support of conventional foods by top schools like stanford because they can afford it.

  13. Billy Bob says:

    I do not think there is much nutritional value in pesticide residues

  14. Anne says:

    Darya – Great post. What do you think of GMOs? Is there any science behind, as to whether GMOs are detrimental to health? Or is it just a “scare tactic” to sell more books or for some bloggers to create controversy and get more readers?? I would love to see your investigation on this, from the scientific literature. Thanks!! Anne

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