Tom Philpott - September 2012

Debating Organics in The New York Times

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 3:47 PM EDT

The New York Times' "Room for Debate" feature is tricky: They give you a tiny amount of space (300 words) to opine on what typically is a huge and knotty problem. In the wake of the recent Stanford study on organics (which I commented on here), the Room for Debate folks invited me to weigh in on the question of whether organics are worth the money. Other participants include Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and veteran food-industry watchdog; Raj Patel author of Stuffed and Starved and a fierce critic of the corporate-dominated global food system; Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish writer who has made a career of, if not denying climate change, than comforting fossil fuel interests by arguing that climate change just isn't that big of a deal; and Christy Wilcox, a grad student in molecular biology and blogger for Scientific American whom I have sparred with before. Read our Room for Debate forum here. Enjoy!

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5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short

| Wed Sep. 5, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Is organic food little more than a trumped-up marketing scheme, another way for affluent consumers to waste money? A just-released paper by Stanford University researchers—and the reaction to it by the media—suggests as much. (Abstract here; I have a copy of the full study, but can't upload it for copyright reasons.)

"Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," declared a New York Times headline. "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests," announced CBS News. "Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it's key reason consumers buy," the Washington Post grumbled.

In reality, though, the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what's known among academics as a "meta-analysis"—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn't meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results.  

In another post I'll get to the question of nutritional benefits—the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks.