Why Organic?

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

The latest media buzz over organic foods is a bit of a non-event here at the Rodale Institute. The Stanford study asks the question, "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?" It is a good question, one that many citizens ask themselves each time they head to the grocery store. The fact is the researchers didn't really answer it, despite the headlines claiming organic food is not healthier or safer. In fact, the questions they did answer point firmly toward organic as a better choice.

The study is a meta-analysis (or review) of existing research comparing pesticide residues, bacterial contamination, and nutrition content of organic versus conventional foods, as well as the potential for an allergic reaction when consuming either. Shoveling all the hype aside, some of the things they found were:

  1. Organic foods were just as nutritious as conventional foods.
  2. Conventional fruits and vegetables were more likely to carry pesticide residues.
  3. Organic milk contained more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Conventional meat was more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Just those facts alone should be enough reason to eat organic. But let's dig a little deeper.

The Stanford researchers focused on whether or not there were pesticide residues, but didn't evaluate the latest research regarding the SAFETY of these potential exposures.

We have little long-term research on the health impacts of chronic, low-level pesticide exposures. And the research that is out there is troubling. Exposure to these toxins has been linked to brain and central nervous system disruption, infertility, cancer, and even changes to our DNA. A number of recent studies have associated prenatal pesticide exposures to ADHD, low birth weight, and lower IQ in children. Have we already forgotten the recommendations of the President's Cancer Panel, which urged the public to reduce environmental cancer risks by choosing foods grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers?

And there are more than just pesticides lurking on that apple in your fridge. Agricultural chemicals regularly show up in our water supply well above what are considered "safe" limits. We believe the water we drink and the air we breathe account for a portion of our health and safety.

The Stanford researchers have narrowly defined HEALTH in terms of nutrient content. This shortsighted definition of health is what has gotten us in trouble with so many fad diets and alternative foodstuffs like margarine and saccharin. Would we be truly healthy if we lived on vitamin pills rather than food?

The fact is nutrition research on organic foods is very much in its infancy. The "literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional food," as the researchers concluded, partly because there is very little research to speak of. And much of the research out there has been criticized for having too many variables. For example, ripeness directly influences nutrition content.

One recent study out of Washington State University that actually compared strawberries in an "apples-to-apples" fashion found the organically grown fruits had higher levels of both vitamin C and antioxidants. This study was, unfortunately, left out of the Stanford review.

As the birthplace of American organic agriculture, shouldn't the Rodale Institute be in an uproar like the rest of the organic community? We know organic food and farming are both healthier and safer for individuals and families nationwide. But, 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. And we're ripe to take on the challenge. The institute has side-by-side research fields that have been managed organically and conventionally for more than 30 years. Our Farming Systems Trial would be the perfect location for a sound nutritional study.

Of course, nutrients only tell part of the story. We believe in telling the whole story here at the Rodale Institute, and in getting good food to the good people of this country without poisoning our water, our air, and our soil.


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.

6 Responses to “Why Organic?”

  1. JOHN

    Hi Mark

    Good article, and good questions coming out of it.

    I too have been pondering the implications of the Stanford Study, and, on digging a little deeper, can understand when they say there is insufficient data. If only the organic industry could fund its own research based on the value of its IP rights, or even better, get the government to open its chequebook on demand… I guess thats not the way it works.

    However, taking the Stanford study at face value, what the study reports is absence of evidence. That is not the same as evidence of absence, although you could be forgiven for thinking that based on much of the media reports of the study.

    I support the project to fund research of the Rodale plot legacy. I believe that study, when it happens, and more like it, will inevitabely ‘prove’ what many already know.

    By the way, in the meantime and in case you havn’t seen it, I provide the following reference to a study of interest at UCD.

    best regards

    “Ten-Year Comparison of the Influence of Organic and
    Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of
    Flavonoids in Tomatoes”



  2. Pliny keep

    The Stanford study could be subtitled “Eating food with poison on it is not bad for you, because it has not proved that eating poison is bad for you”. It is mystifying to me that so many people don’t comprehend that most toxins aimed at micro-organisms are toxic for us “macro-organisms”. We are after all evolved from (and still are!) communities of microorganisms, and science has only scratched the surface of our biological complexity.

  3. Bruce

    What the study did not mention is huge! What about taste? Your tongue preforms more test than stanford in a heart beat! I will put up my strawberries against any store bought strawberries! Even those soil-o-ponic so called organic lack something! Elaine keep exploring the soil system! We would not exist with out it!

  4. Tanya Maria

    Thinking of buying ….are your foods made with gmo,or come from Monsanto

  5. Cecile Charles-King

    The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD – parent or Rio [Agenda 21] Earth Summit) how civil society engages with the UN. Civil society can, should, does serve as watchdogs to global governance and making sure that civil society’s voices are heard.

    Right now, there is a need for empirical evidence of the benefits of organic agriculture to the environment, economy, and society…as a whole. The chemical company’s have paid for their “independent” research that says otherwise. Two or three years ago and about $100,000 for a full page New York Times ad, Monsanto claimed to be “sustainable agriculture”.

    Since the UN listens to all sides of an argument and the agribusinesses and chemical companies have a large war chest than women, indigenous, peasant or landless farmers…they are making large inroads into international/national/regional policy making. We need assistance with compelling data…immediately. This is a battle, humans cannot afford to lose. GMOs are in our land, water, forests. When does it stop? How does it end?


  6. Cecile Charles-King

    Sorry – omitted that the Open Working Group is working on how civil society can continue to be involved in these UN processes. Right now it is in the interactive discussion stage. We HAVE to have this research information as soon as possible because there is a summer break and discussions/negotiations begin in September.


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