Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Is "Organic" Food Better for You than "Conventionally" Produced Food?

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has just completed a study of the scientific literature commissioned by the Food Standards Agency in the UK [Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature].

According to the press release ...
An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food. The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: ‘Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.

'The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.’
This makes a lot of sense. There was never a good reason for assuming that organically grown foods would be more healthy than conventionally grown food and now we have scientific evidence to support that assumption. From now on, whenever you hear someone say that "organic" foods are more healthy you can inform them that what they are saying is contrary to scientific evidence.

There may be other reasons for wanting to eat organically grown food. It may be better for the environment and it may contain fewer traces of pesticides and herbicides. Those claims haven't been refuted by this study. (Although, as far as I know, there's no scientific reason to believe that treating food with herbicides and pesticides is dangerous to the consumer. Besides, organic food is also treated.)

You may wonder why this is such a big deal. Maybe you never thought that organic food was more nutritious than conventionally grown food. If so, you are one of the more rational consumers. Most other consumers are more inclined to believe what the image above shows and what they think are scientific studies proving that organic food is better. That image is from this report in the Daily Mail from 2007: Organic food really IS better for you, claims study.

[Image Credit: The top image is from Green Expander where they say, "Organic food is becoming more and more popular. This is the healthy food, without any additives, with higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals. Organic food comes from trusted farms and food companies, that are inspected at least once a year."]


  1. I have never really bought into the organic being healthier stuff.

    I do sometimes buy organic produce, mainly dairy products and then only because in my village we have two dairies, both organic. One produces award winning cheeses using organic milk from their own herd, and the other produces milk and cream, both of which are superb.

  2. I've been urging scepticism over the health benefits of Organic for years. However, when it comes to ethical considerations, all bets are off. If you're eating organic because you disagree with how farming is done, then Organic is for you.

  3. I have often wondered if the environmental arguments make sense - prevent soil erosion, reduce chemicals leached into soils, groundwater and streams - were valid. If the soils would genuinely improve as claimed, wouldn't it benefit farmers enough that they would do it of their own accord, and if so, why should we be paying so much more for this? If the chemical leaching was a significant issue, why isn't this dealt with as a regulatory problem?

    The point which raises the biggest sceptical flag has been the branding. Health or environmental impacts have never been checked under the brand, instead it's cosmetic details. It has the feeling of a religious movement (e.g.: kosher food) rather than anything evidence-based.

    (I do think that organic food at the home-garden level may have benefits because chemical use is likely to be hugely disproportionate, it's so easy to manually tend to weeds and there seems to be good evidence of chemical waste causing damage to water systems. Again, I'd borrow what works from the ideas and not the "Organic" branding process.)

  4. TwoYaks - can you elaborate on the ethical considerations?

  5. Many (probably most) people buy organic not for what the food contains, but what for what it doesn't. From the Executive Summary of the cited study:

    "This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs ..."

    When it comes to meat and dairy products, I think most people who buy organic are motivated by the diet (no antibiotics or hormones) and humane treatment of the livestock.

    The press release is misleading when it says there are no "additional health benefits" of organic food, as this claim is not made by the study.

  6. @Tyro: Sure. With the massive caveat that I don't follow such logic myself, I've been told that people purchase Organic because it's more humane to livestock, and because it tends to support smaller farms. I would counter that much of Organic is becoming a big business in its own right, but I can appreciate there was a time when that argument was more true than it is now...

    Me? The fact that all my meat is organic is coincidental. I'm an avid hunter and fisher, so I never buy meat anyhow. I'm highly sceptical that pesticide residues have the major health effects some people claim they do. I know a lot of claims of pesticide residues are nothing more than FUD wrapped in sciencey sounding words.

    I'm open to peer-reviewed evidence to the contrary, though.

  7. Yeah, because organic foods command such a high premium, most organic foods come from a handful of mega-farms, so if people are trying to support The Little Guy, they're doing it the wrong way.

    I know absolutely nothing about organic meat. I took a few minutes to read up on it and it seems to be filled with the same FUD as organic farming. Maybe there's a good idea in there somewhere but it it looks like it's been lost.

    As a side note, the claims made by anti-organic farmers are about as whacky, fallacious and unscientific as some claims on the pro-organic side. Clearly it's an emotional issue and some people let this lead them to standing behind some silly things merely because it agrees with them.


  8. I never believed the healthier thing, either. If something seems too good to be true (and look at that higher price) . . .

    I will say this, though. I buy from my local farmer's market when it's open. That is environmentally better because the food is being shipped 20-50 miles instead of hundreds or thousands of miles. It tastes better, too, but that's because the fruits & veggies are allowed to ripen naturally instead of on a truck.

  9. The study says the nutritional content is the same. That's a very different thing than what you're claiming, that it's equivalently "healthy". That's a mighty fuzzy term, and your argument would be better served if you defined it. Is it "healthy" to ingest more/different pesticides? Is it more "healthy" to live in an environment where organic farming practices are used versus non-organic ones? I don't know, but the study does not disprove either point. As someone who is a stickler for terms like "junk DNA", one would think you'd be a little more careful in your statements here.

  10. Many of the organic claims have always fallen flat on their face - especially to those of us who've actually worked on farms...

    The one that always "gets my goat" is the environmentally friendly claims. By most standards organic is not better.

    Its well established that chemical fertilizers greatly enhance yield, generally by ~1/3rd over "natural" fertilizers such as manure and compost (hence why the green revolution was green). Meaning that to produce an equivalent amount of food, organic farming generally requires about 1/3rd more space than conventional farming, meaning more natural habitat needs to be cleared to produce the same amount of food.

    Additionally, the use of "natural" fertilizers such as compost and manure isn't as enviro-friendly as is often claimed. Both contain high quantities of bacteria, and like chemical fertilizers, also contain significant amounts of soluble nitrates that can lead to algae blooms and the like. There are several well-documented cases where shifts to "organic" fertilizers have decimated watersheads, with the hog-farming regions of Quebec being the prime examples here in Canada.

    Its unfortunate that consumers just fall for the propaganda, rather than thinking about what their being told...

  11. I will gladly pay 2-3 times for for tomatoes that smell and taste like real tomatoes - whether organic or not. Unfortunately, all I can find in stores and on farmer's market is something that was bred to resemble a chewable plastic. And organic versions of that plastic are not any better.

  12. By costing more, organic food leaves you with less money in your food budget to spend on harmful junk food.

  13. It has been said that the purpose of marketing is to exploit the consumer's ignorance. The marketing departments of industrial-organic agriculture companies have been very effective in this regard. They invented a pastoral fantasy and have become adept at reinforcing it.

    Pollan in his book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" did a very good job of explaining the scam. Industrial organic farmers rely on input substitutions to certify otherwise conventionally raised livestock and farm goods as organic. Input substitutions are the basis of the USDA "organic regulations" at the production end.

    Pollan uses the example of how organic cattle are raised. The essential difference is that they are fed certified organic corn at the feed lot and antibiotics usually witheld. It makes you wonder how many organic, downer cows enter the food chain. I downer cow is a sick cow that can not stand on it own. Forklifts are used to cart them into the slaughterhouse.

    Chickens are considered "free range" if the producer opens the doors to the coop. This is usually done after the chickens are fully conditioned to find their food within the coop. None venture out the door.

    Give me a tomato that tastes like a tomato, I'll take the risk that it was sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. Small farmers can't afford the expense, industrial farmers can afford to do without.

  14. At least in Denmark, to label a food as Organic you have to follow guidelines beyond not using pesticides.

    for instance, to produce organic milk you must follow these rules:

    *Use 100% organically grown feed.
    *No GMO allowed.
    *Calves must be fed milk.
    *No indiscriminate use of antibiotics, or other medicine.
    *Cows must be exercised daily.
    *In the summer the feed must consist mostly of fresh grass.
    *Calves must have the sucking needs covered (for instance by supplying their milk through sucking and not by through)
    *All animals must have the possibility of lying down on soft ground

    Now I know not all of these rules are particularly sane, but I choose organic milk mainly because of these reasons:

    Fewer antibiotics used - thus helping to reduce development of resistant strains.

    "Better" life for animals. I know cattle is still being systematically mistreated in organic farming, but at least the minimum requirements for their welfare is higher. If rules were in place to assure that non organic dairy farms let their cattle out on pasture in the summer or other such reasonable demands where in place, I could see no reason to buy organic.

  15. "If the chemical leaching was a significant issue, why isn't this dealt with as a regulatory problem?"

    Well, it's a kind of silent pollution. You don't see it immediately and directly.

    We currently have an example on the coasts of Brittany. There is an explosive growth of a green alga called sea lettuce, fed by agricultural fertilizers flowing into the sea. These algae accumulate on the beach where they form a thick layer, decompose and emit toxic hydrogen sulfide. A few days ago, an man and his horse walked through the green mess. The horse was poisoned and died, and the man barely escaped with his life.

    This is just an example to say that, yes, there is a problem.

  16. "I know cattle is still being systematically mistreated in organic farming"

    As compared to what? Compared to life in the wild, even the most "abused" cow (or any other domestic food animal) on earth has it easy - no starvation, minimal disease, guaranteed reproduction (if female), no predation, and an end as quick and painless as possible.

  17. i'm more likely to eat locally-produced food than choose simply "organic." labels really don't mean much, but locally produced food tends to be fresher and tastier plus it supports the small farmers around here. most of the meat, dairy, and vegetable matter i eat i grow or raise myself. i prefer not to eat meat or drink milk from mass-produced factory farms, both because of the hormones/pesticides in the product itself and because i've worked on a large scale dairy farm and it is not very humane or hygenic. exposure to pesticides on a large scale does lead to health problems, but it isn't known whether simply eating foods with pesticides has any effect on a person.

  18. Compared to life in the wild, even the most "abused" cow (or any other domestic food animal) on earth has it easy - no starvation, minimal disease

    This does not sound like an honest or accurate representation of the general case, that of life in a factory farm.

    For the several days before being slaughtered, animals are denied food & water because it won't have time to translate to meat so it's not true that they never face starvation. And while I don't know exactly what you mean by "disease", a big reason why factory cows have a near constant drip of antibiotics is because they're fed corn, soy and grains they can't easily digest and which lead quickly to ulcers (not to mention disease which spreads rapidly in confined spaces). As well, milking cows virtually all suffer from mastitis.

    Factory pigs have their tails docked and teeth clipped because they go a little crazy and injure themselves and others (chickens have their beaks burned down).

    I don't want to try to present a case that there aren't some advantages (maybe there are), but life spans are uniformly low and suffering is the rule, not the exception in factory farms. Yes, some animals graze and don't suffer like this but these animals are the small minority.

    To that extent, some of the guidelines for organic meat production sound reasonable (e.g.: eating hay or grazing rather than being fed corn).

  19. This does not sound like an honest or accurate representation of the general case, that of life in a factory farm.

    Those are some interesting stories you tell, but I spent the first 22 years of my life working farms; I even spent one summer of undergrad working in an abattoir. Not one in any of the 6 or so farms I worked at, the 2 feedlots I delivered animals to, nor the abattoir I worked at, did I see anything like you describe.

    I think you need to stop using PETA as a source...most of what you describe is illegal under Canada's animal welfare legislation.

  20. Bryan,

    What specifically do you have a problem with? All of this and more are discussed openly in respected journals and other sources, no need to stoop to PETA.

  21. Bryan,

    Ulcers in cows due to corn

    Mastitis third most popular reason for a cull, after disease/death and reproduction.

    Debeaking on wikipedia, quoted "Mortalities mainly due to cannibalism can be up to 13 to 15% in egg laying flocks housed in aviaries. [4], straw yards"

    Docking and teeth trimming in pigs

    There are many other problems with farming including bone breaks and developmental disorders due to lack of exercise and constant confinement.

    You may be right that this is illegal in Canada but I've no information either way.

  22. "What specifically do you have a problem with?"

    Five things, but this'll take 2 posts, so hold on:

    1) Your apparent confusion of US farming practices with those of your own country. Corn (outside of parts of Ontario) is not a major cattle feed, as feed corn simply does not grow well enough in Canada's major cattle-producing regions (Alta, Sask and Man) to compete with conventional feed. Barely is used on occasion, usually when the crop does not meet the "malting standard" required for human consumption. Other grains are used infrequently outside of the short periods animals stay in feedlots - for the simple reason they are too valuable as a consumer good to waste as cattle feed. Alfalfa at straw are the major feeds used in the west, although (at least in southern Alta and Sask, where I used to live) cattle are free-range for all but the last week or two of their lives.

    Also, Canadian organic standards do not prevent grain feeding; only grain feeding with non-organic grain. So you're not improving welfare at that level if you eat organic.

    2) You seem to be interpreting normal farming practices - those conducted by both organic and inorganic farmers - as being somehow bad when the inorganic farmers practice them. Take your example of culling due to mastitis. Culling is a normal part of animal production, and from the few sources I checked, organic farms do it as much, if not more, than conventional farms. I'd also point out that the organic opposition to antibiotics likely means that they cull more animals due to disease*.

    *a brief look at the literature shows this is inconclusive - some find organic has higher rates, others find conventional has higher rates. For example:


    I'd also point out that culling is usually done on "humanitarian" grounds - when an animal is in suffering. Compare that to nature, where animals simply waste away.

    3) You seem to not understand the reasons why basic farming procedures are done. For example, the trimming of pigs teeth. Its normally done under local anesthesia (as is castration and branding; not that many people brand anymore). The reason for clipping is not exactly as you make out - pigs are highly aggressive animals who, even under low-density conditions, frequently engage in fights for dominance. Teeth clipping is done to limit the damage they do to each other, and is required anytime you have >2 pigs of the same sex sharing an area. Responsible farmers clip teeth; farmers who do not care about the welfare of their animals do not.


  23. Part II:

    4) You assume that natural behaviors, and the consequences of them, are somehow a product of farming. Take the previous example of pigs, and your example of chickens.

    As dominance behaviors go, chickens and other birds are the bastards of the animal world. They engage in some of the most violent dominance behaviors out there - including male-on-male rape , cannibalism (usually of competitors young), and what can only be called deliberate and planned murder.

    Its not farming that leads pigs and chickens to engage in these kinds of behavior. Nor does organic farming magically make those go away. If anything domestication reduces these tendencies, as we tend to breed for lower levels of aggression. And the very practices you decry - beak and teeth clipping - are designed specifically to reduce the damage caused by those natural behaviors.

    I'd also add that I know little of chicken farming at a commercial level. I do not know if beak clipping is common in Canada, nor if analgesia/anasthesia is the normal way of doing things here.

    You may be right that this is illegal in Canada but I've no information either way

    5) And herein is my biggest beef - the information on Canada's animal and farming laws are easy to come by. As is the numerous government and NGO reports on farming practices and standards. Yet, despite the ease of access of that info, you're relying on inaccurate information, largely collected by organizations opposed to US-style commercial farming, as the basis of your information.

    If you were to have said "the US agriculture industry engages in abominable practices" I'd have agreed whole-heartedly with you. As would the majority of Canadian farmers - most of whom abide by voluntary codes of practice specifically formulated to keep that crap out of Canada.

    Just as an example of how far off you are, lets look at your "48 hours without food or water". That violates Altas minimum standards (which are notoriously lax, compared to Ontario for example). Its also in violation of the CBEF voluntary code of practice (most auctions won't sell to non-signatories to CBEF's). There is a well established legal minimum as well - for example the Ontario farmer Aurelien Marcotte was successfully prosecuted under Canada's criminal code for not providing water for 24 hours (among other things) - which is exactly 1/2 of the 48 hours you claimed being the norm. Meaning 1/2 of what you claim is common practice is considered a criminal offense, one which lead to a 2-2 year sentences.

    If you're actually interested in understanding Canada's laws and standards, may I recommend the animal cruelty section of the Canadian criminal code, as well as the federal health of animals act.

    Most farming and animal husbandry standards are set provincially, and can usually be accessed via the webpage of the corresponding provinces agriculture ministry. CBEF and various other farming associations also post their voluntary code of practices on their webpages.

  24. Bryan,

    Yes I'm a Canadian but the question of Organic food affects many countries and as the US laws affect an order of magnitude more individuals than Canadian, I don't see the problem in taking stats from there. It may well be that the difference between Organic and non-organic food in Canada is less than in the US.

    I don't think I said or implied that I was talking about Canadian farming practices. The OP was based on a study in the UK (and the summary was from a UK paper) so an international perspective was set early.

    Also, Canadian organic standards do not prevent grain feeding; only grain feeding with non-organic grain. So you're not improving welfare at that level if you eat organic.

    Remember that I brought this up as a reply to your claim that life in a factory farm was superior to that in the wild, not that organic was better than inorganic. This reply doesn't rebut that point, it just confirms that grazing is better than organic or inorganic (if that's a term).

    Take your example of culling due to mastitis.

    You challenged my claims about mastitis, I provided a study which showed it was a serious problem. Culling is incidental, except insofar as it establishes that this is a significant factor. I couldn't find a more direct means of measuring the presence of mastitis.

    You seem to not understand the reasons why basic farming procedures are done. For example, the trimming of pigs teeth.

    Again, you're shifting the goalposts or something. I brought it up only in response to your claim that life in factory farms was happy golucky. The fact is that farmers burn off the beaks of chickens and cut the teeth and tails of pigs, something that does not happen in the wild. And yes, for large farms in the US this is not done under aesthetic.

    Responsible farmers clip teeth; farmers who do not care about the welfare of their animals do not.

    Let's be clear - the farmers care about their merchandise, not the animal's welfare. That's why people who care for the welfare of dogs don't cut their teeth and keep them in cages jowl-to-jowl before slaughtering them. A farmer may try to minimize the harm to their animals in some general fashion, but animal welfare is never a primary concern.

    And herein is my biggest beef - the information on Canada's animal and farming laws are easy to come by.

    Again, this feels like smoke to cover up your earlier claims. I regret that there was a confusion but I don't see anything in the OP or the comments which implied that the discussion was specific to Canada.

    Meaning 1/2 of what you claim is common practice is considered a criminal offense, one which lead to a 2-2 year sentences.

    Looking into the question of transportation, I don't know whether to feel vindicated or crushed. The laws in different countries vary but 28-32 hours seems to be the max duration without water so you're right to a point. However, the conditions are still horrific.

    Since you seem keen to misinterpret what I write, I'll say again that many of these may be only mildly ameliorated by going to organic meat, most are a feature of the meat industry as a whole. I am addressing your preposterous claim that life in factory farms is better, safer and happier than life in the wild. Totally at odds with the evidence. No matter how much you attack me personally or shift the focus, you haven't addressed this central fact.

  25. ...I [wasn't] talking about Canadian farming practices

    You did however made the false claim that US farming practises represent farming practises in general. US production represents ~1/3 of livestock produced in western nations & standards-wise the US is bottom of the barrel. We have much higher standards, and the EU has higher standards still. Claiming the US is a "representative example" is like claiming that Stephan Harper is characteristic of Canadians.

    your claim that life in a factory farm was superior

    I never once used the word "factory".

    But compared to survival in the wild even factory farms are a gentle environment. Most farm animals are not raised in factory farms, but either way farm animals live a life most wild animals can only dream of:

    1) Low "childhood" mortality. In the wild most offspring die before reaching adulthood; this is not true on farms. For example, feral bores have litters of ~12, of which 2-3 reach adulthood.

    2) No starvation. Starvation is a fact of life for animals in the wild. In the case of farm animals, they all descend from ancestors that would have feasted summer and starved in winter. With only rare exceptions, animals don't starve on farms. With only rare exceptions, animals starve in the wild.

    3) Low parasitemia. Animals in the wild carry high parasite burdens - intestinal worms, flukes, etc. These confound starvation, cause other forms of morbidity & can be quite painful. Farm animals generally have few, if any, of these agents.

    4) Frequency & severity of infection. Farm animals generally experience fewer and less severe infections, for the same reasons why us clean & well-fed westerners experience fewer and less severe infections than our 3rd world brethren.

    5) Injury/death. In the wild adults die of infection, of starvation, or of predation. Injury generally equals death, death is generally painful & is often prolonged. Farmers make efforts to prevent injury, including injuries animals cause to each other. If injured, farm animals are either treated for their injuries or euthanized in a humane manner. Even in abattoirs animals are given as quick and humane a death as technology allows.

    So option a: Probably die shortly after birth, but if you make it you get to spend the rest of your life starving, infected, and you get to end it all by dying in what is usually a painful - and often prolonged - manner.

    Option b: As close to guaranteed survival past childhood as you can get, ample food, treatment for disease, and a quick and low-pain death. Yes, in some cases the food may be less than ideal, and in some cases you may be crowded, but in comparison I'd call those minor in comparison to disease, pain & starvation.

    farmers care about their merchandise, not the animal's welfare.

    Sure...just like all scientists like torturing lab rats.

    Your understanding of the motivations of farmers is about as ignorant as your understanding of what represents common farming practises in your own country.

    I think I'll stand by my PETA claim; they're about the only people on this earth silly enough to come up with crap like that.

    people who care for the welfare of dogs don't cut their teeth...

    Boy, you live in a dream world, don't you! Many dogs have bobbed tails - as in it was cut off, almost always without anaesthesia. Its also not uncommon to remove dew claws, clip ears, and even remove teeth in young dogs - often without anaesthesia (especially the ears). And yes, people who love their dog very much do these things...

    ...& people do eat dogs in many parts of the world...

    you seem keen to misinterpret what I write

    No, I was keen to point out the huge misconceptions you were perpetuating about farming practises.

    If you want to argue the benefits and costs of farming vs. "natural" lifestyles, fine. But at least start from a factual position, rather than a Disney-esque view of the natural world and complete ignorance of the farming world.

  26. MediaCurves.com just conducted a study on 308 viewers of a news clip stating there is no added nutritional value in organic food products. The majority (65%) of viewers stated that they will not change their purchasing behaviors after hearing this information. The majority of respondents (71%) also reported that the main reason why they purchase organic foods is that they are free of food additives, and 66% indicated that the main reason why they purchase organic foods is that they are lower in pesticide residue. For more in-depth results please visit http://www.mediacurves.com/NationalMediaFocus/J7478-OrganicFood/Index.cfm.

  27. No amount of studies can predict what chemicals/hormones used in the current food industry does to the human body in 10-20 years time. Organic foods are the only safe long term alternative.

  28. To grow organic food, farmers are required to use natural fertilizers and no pesticides. This makes growing vegetables, fruits, rice and soybeans more difficult during the rainy season, when crop-destroying insects are more prevalent.