by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
In what can only be seen as a public relations move similar to the old tactics used by the tobacco industry, a study by Stanford University released last week made headlines for its misleading assertion that organic foods were no more nutritious than conventional crops.
The extremely flawed “study” contained no new testing of foods and was actually only a review of several other studies that focused on differences in nutritional value of organic vs. conventional crops. The report made the correct observation that consuming organic foods reduced exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides by up to 33 percent. It also concluded that eating organic meats reduced exposure to superbugs (antibiotic resistant bacteria) by up to 30 percent. It can also be said that when looking at nutritional value alone (as the Stanford report did), organic foods and chemical foods are more or less the same – that roughly the same amount of proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates, etc are in conventional foods as are in organic foods.
However, the Stanford report is most misleading when looked at for what it completely ignored in the study. For one, there is no mention of the impact of exposure to genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply. Organic foods contain zero GMOs. The study left out the health benefits of organic milk which, unlike its conventional counterpart, doesn’t contain any bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Hormones in milk are associated with a variety of health problems for people, including reproductive issues in adults and issues surrounding puberty in children. The study also failed to mention the effects of artificial sweeteners and other additives in products that are not certified organic. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin have been linked to certain forms of cancer in previous studies.
Another disturbing omission in the Stanford study was the environmental devastation caused by conventional crops. Conventional crop fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides have wrecked entire habitats around the world for decades. Bodies of water are the most susceptible to poisoning. The “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is entirely attributed to the overuse of chemical fertilizers along the Mississippi River. Ground water contamination from pesticides is rampant in much of the midwest where large corn crops are grown to produce unhealthy corn sweeteners. The animal waste produced by the conventional cattle and poultry industries also contaminate ground water, leeching hazardous bacteria into our drinking water.
But perhaps the greatest and most glaring omission in the Stanford report was the line that listed the study’s sponsors which read “None.” Are we to believe that the university’s scientists funded this report with their own money? It seems that in this post-Citizens United political landscape, corporations are getting more emboldened with the idea that they can make anonymous donations to not only political parties but to universities as well. There is quite a bit of evidence to support that this study was all part of a carefully planned public relations campaign meant to weaken support for California’s GMO labeling initiative that will be voted on in November. Prop 37, the so-called Right to Know Campaign, would force the hand of industry to clearly label any product that contains GMOs. Chemical companies such as Monsanto and Dow, who produce pesticides, herbicides and the GMO crops doctored to grow with these poisons, have spent millions of dollars to sway voters in California to stay in the dark about the foods they eat. And polling has shown that their efforts might be for nothing as Prop 37 is, so far, expected to pass. So what better way to misinform the public about organic foods than to put out a report by one of the state’s most prestigious colleges that says that there is no difference, other than price, between organic and chemical foods?
Although the mainstream media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, Fox and NPR did their best to tow the corporate line reporting the Stanford study as a vindication for conventional farming as a safe practice that saves consumers money at the checkout stand, the backlash from the organic community, the scientific community, the environmental community and the free press was swift in condemning the report. NYU professor Marion Nestle summed it up best when he pointed out that nutritional content alone isn’t the reason people buy and push for more organic foods in the market. “Additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier,” he wrote in his blog, adding that the report fully acknowledged that organic foods reduced pesticide exposure. “But aren’t those lower levels—in production and in the body—good reasons to buy organics?”
The backlash by organic consumers seems to have made an impact on at least one of the study’s authors. In an interview with public policy website Remapping Debate, Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler answered critics to the report by saying, “It was beyond the scope of our article to review and be able to really answer” any questions having to do with the environmental effects of non-organic farming; the human health effects of agricultural chemicals leeching into groundwater; the effects of pesticides on farm workers; or the risks of non-organic farms serving as fertile breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Smith-Spangler added, “A study that would examine the question, ‘Is the amount of pesticides in our food safe?’ would include a lot more data on dose response and maybe some animal data. And there are lots of experts out there who can weigh in on that issue.”
What Smith-Spangler didn’t respond to were questions about why her report didn’t include such obvious questions about the health benefits of organic food over chemical food. She also failed to mention the study’s sponsors and did not adequately answer why the report’s wording so obviously downplayed the effect of pesticides and bacteria in foods by regurgitating the same platitudes that companies like Monsanto and Dow have used for years – that cooking meats kills bacteria and that conventional crops are sold with standardized levels of pesticides approved by the USDA. (Which we all know is in the pockets of the very chemical companies it should be regulating). In a rather lame-excuse response, Smith-Spangler said, “Our goal was to present the evidence and try to help people understand the evidence. But our goal was not to tell people what or what not to do.” Yeah, right. It was just to infer that people are wasting their money on organic foods – we get it.
For a complete look at the Stanford study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, click here: http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleID=1355685.
Stanford School of Medicine article: http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html.