Dissecting our health

By Coach Mark Smallwood
Originally appeared at www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com

The end of 2012 raised quite a few eyebrows and much ire as some quiet and some not-so-quiet snubs were aimed at organic foods. First, the Stanford meta-analysis, which claimed organic foods were “no better” than conventional foods (though their actual findings showed some clear organic benefits). Then, the timid report from the American Academy of Pediatrics hesitantly providing a wishy-washy statement for pediatricians to use as a guide when discussing organic foods with patients. And, finally, the betrayal of Dr. Oz, a formerly staunch supporter of eating organic, who tucked tail and spouted support for GMOs (and venom at “elite” organics) like a well-paid industry mouthpiece.

All these messages claim to be focused on “health” and whether or not certain foods help or hinder our progress toward this mystical perfection for which we are all supposed to strive. But, as I was just coming to realize last fall, all these detractors have one thing in common: They narrowly define health in terms of nutrient content. And it struck me: Maybe the problem is we are speaking a different language.

Organizations and researchers working on organic issues over the years have focused primarily on a different definition of health. For these groups, broader, more holistic concerns like contaminated water, soil degradation and loss, and the effects of toxic pesticides on environmental and human health have taken precedence over a reductionist study of individual nutrients.

Why? Because organic farming (and, therefore, organic research) is based primarily on biology rather than chemistry. Whereas conventional farmers look to synthetic fertilizers to provide their plants with specific nutrients (N-P-K), organic farmers focus on nourishing the living interactions in the soil, water, air, and even wider wildlife and insect communities to create strong, healthy plants. Organic farming recognizes the complicated interactions that go on within the natural world that result in true health—interactions we might not necessarily be able to control by adding or deleting individual nutrients.

Medical science is really just beginning to glimpse and talk more freely about these natural interactions in human health—think antioxidants and phytonutrients, the incredible health benefits of which weren’t “discovered” until the 1990s. While conventional medicine has historically focused on increasing this or that vitamin or mineral to promote health or on substituting this or that “bad” food with some “healthy” engineered foodstuff (think margarine instead of butter or saccharin instead of sugar), we are coming to realize there are complex interactions of often unknown factors that result in true health.

Although we would (and do) argue that there is more to health than nutrients, maybe the organic community has done itself a disservice by essentially ignoring the nutrient density of the end product. As I wrote before, “if nutrient content is how organic foods will be weighed and measured by American shoppers, it is time for some long-term, hands-in-the-dirt research to really find out how organic and conventional foods stack up.”

So 2013 will be a year for new plans at Rodale Institute. Our Farming Systems Trial (FST) has side-by-side research fields that have been managed organically and conventionally for more than 30 years—the perfect location for a sound comparative nutritional study. The crops are all grown in the same soil, are processed in the same manner, and can be tested after the same number of days following harvest. Plus, it takes at least five years to begin to see the full impacts of organic and conventional practices on soil and, therefore, crops. It only makes sense this would translate to the full impacts on nutrient density, as well. The long-term organic and long-term conventional fields of the FST provide an excellent field laboratory to address the impact of growing methods on nutrient density.

The organic community has been baited, and we’re ready to bite. We believe we can put the skeptics to rest once and for all.

Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched Your 2 Cents, a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs, and driven a team of oxen.


Food pyramid photo by Beth Rankin/Flickr.

3 Responses to “Dissecting our health”

  1. Natasha

    I am very excited for this research project to commence! Thanks for taking the lead.

  2. Andy Radin

    I was an organic farmer for 10 years in New York state. My purpose for farming organically had everything to do with reduction of environmental degradation and production of residue free produce. It never had to do with nutritional quality. I always felt equivocal on that matter. The Stanford study didn’t surprise me at all. I was trained as a scientist (entomology, as well as soil fertility/plant nutrition) and now work as an ag extension agent. I strongly believe in the use of the scientific method and I am open to conclusions drawn from well designed, well executed, and thoroughly reviewed studies. Your statement: “The organic community has been baited, and we’re ready to bite. We believe we can put the skeptics to rest once and for all.” doesn’t impress me as one that indicates your interest in the truth. You want your side to win. You have an agenda, just like the GMO lobby does. While I believe that your agenda is based more in the spirit of Good for all of Humanity than the GMO industry’s (and I don’t buy their “feed the world” hokum), I think you and your colleagues can only perform good science by keeping an open mind to whatever null hypotheses that you can’t reject. That’s what good science aims for and I suggest that you keep it in mind.

    Andy Radin
    University of Rhode Island

    • amanda

      Hi Andy… We aren’t afraid of disproving our own hypotheses, but believe there is a serious lack of well-designed nutritional studies so far. This, in fact, was the real revelation of the Standford study. In the end, we’d like to be able to give growers and eaters more information on what biological practices can make a carrot/eggplant/etc. more nutrient dense. And, as the rest of the article suggests, we know there is much more to health than individual nutrients. We also “strongly believe in the use of the scientific method” and always aim to create “well designed, well executed, and thoroughly reviewed studies.” We look forward to being able to look at the nutritional aspects of organic and conventional crops in this way.


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