Common sense reasons to support organic agriculture

Everyone loves a good [rhetorical] food fight. This week, a ruckus erupted over a Stanford University study, which found that organic foods are no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. With headlines like "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce", consumers were presumably left to conclude that buying organic was pointless at best and a waste of money at worst.

Perhaps this made for good headlines, but it makes for terrible common sense.

Lots of voices sprang up to defend organic agriculture. I won’t rehash all the arguments, but you can check out a great compilation here.

Put simply, the focus on health advantages in nutrient density terms largely misses the point. While more study is certainly needed on the relative antioxidant and nutritional profiles of organic vs. conventional foods, the biggest difference between the two is in how they are produced—and that is intimately tied with their impacts on our health. (As the study itself concluded, organic food is far less likely to be contaminated with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But more on that in just a bit).

It’s easy to be confused about what exactly separates organically produced food from its conventional analogue. So here’s the scoop. The USDA’s organic standards center around a list of approved and prohibited inputs for organic production, which means that organic foods must be produced without the use of:

  • antibiotics
  • artificial growth hormones
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • artificial dyes (made from coal tar and petrochemicals)
  • artificial sweeteners
  • synthetically created chemical pesticide and fertilizers
  • genetically engineered proteins and ingredients
  • sewage sludge
  • irradiation

I don’t know about you, but I consider my exposure to pesticide residues and “superbugs” (antibiotic-resistant bacteria that breed within our dominant conventional livestock production system) to be pretty important to my health, not to mention the health of farmworkers. But on both counts the study’s authors offered this anemic conclusion: “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

Let’s start with a basic finding that the paper then minimizes. Organic fruits and vegetables are far less likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues. This is significant even before you consider the differences in the extent of the contamination.

Tom Philpott and Dr. Charles (Chuck) Benbrook do a fantastic job of breaking down and critiquing the Stanford report’s treatment of pesticides. Benbrook has served a lifetime as an agriculture expert, including as the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. Philpott is an independent investigative journalist and cofounder of a non-profit center for sustainable food education. As they both point out, conventional produce is much more likely to be contaminated with multiple pesticides, more toxic pesticides, and at higher levels. The paper minimizes this difference because the pesticide residue levels are below EPA’s maximum allowed limits. But as they both note, the “cocktail effect” of the chemical mixtures is not taken into account by the EPA in setting the limits.

Most notably, Philpott and Benbrook point out the authors’ omission of the body of science focused on pre-natal and children’s exposures to highly toxic organophosphate pesticides, which are so dangerous to children’s health that they are no longer legal for use in homes or on residential lawns. NRDC has been working to ban them from agriculture because of the high number of human poisonings they cause each year, as well as their link to learning deficits in children exposed prenatally as a result of pregnant mothers being exposed.

Their conclusion? That the Stanford researchers dismissed statistically significant differences in the severity of pesticide contamination between conventional and organic food.

Likewise, the authors focus on the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on organic vs. conventional meats, missing the much larger public health crisis caused by an increase in antibiotic-resistant infections and conventional animal agriculture’s significant contribution to this pool of resistance.

In conventional factory farms, massive quantities of antibiotics are fed routinely at  low levels to chickens, pigs, cows, and other animals we eat, to speed animal growth and compensate for filthy—and avoidable—conditions. This constant, low-level dosing of animals creates a dangerous breeding ground for “superbugs”, which escape in soil, air, and water that comes into contact with animal waste. Animal waste is allowed to be used as biosolid fertilizer on conventional (but not organic) produce where the superbugs make their way onto our vegetables and fish.

These “superbugs” can not only be found on the meat in our grocery stores, but antibiotic-resistant bacteria can swap resistance genes with each other, spreading resistance, including transfers from harmless bacteria to pathogenic bacteria. Multi-drug resistant infections, such as the life-threatening disease MRSA, are on the rise while the development of new antibiotics is coming to a standstill. Antibiotic use in livestock is part of the problem.

The Stanford report appears to downplay the connection between the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in conventional livestock production and the rise of superbugs, concluding that farm use of antibiotics “may be related” to the problem of antibiotic resistance. But as my colleague Avi discussed here, there’s now a significant body of science that establishes that the use of antibiotics on livestock operations (and not just human use of antibiotics) contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control has said that there is “strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” The American Medical Association agrees:

“Antibiotics are one of the most useful and important medical advances in recent history. Their effectiveness, however, is being compromised by bacterial resistance, arising in part from excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.”

Organic meat producers, on the other hand, are not allowed to use antibiotics and so do not contribute to this problem. Instead of dosing their animals with drugs to prevent them from getting sick in unsanitary environments, these farmers find better ways of managing their flocks and preventing illness—for example, using better feed and cleaner housing.

Last, but certainly not least, it is the substantial environmental benefits that organic farming brings, from better management of soils to reduced fertilizer runoff into watersheds, that represent a key reason to support it. An analysis of the lifecycle impacts of conventional agriculture—from the pesticides discussed above, to nitrogen fertilizer and chemical herbicides—on farmworkers and surrounding communities, and on our soils, watersheds, air, and biodiversity shows that organic practices are better for our health, animal health, and environmental protection compared with conventional farming.

Let’s not confuse media buzz and sensational headlines with reality. Supporting organic agriculture for our health and the health of our environment is just common sense. For more information, check out some of these great posts on NRDC’s work to curb the use of toxic pesticides and non-therapeutic antibiotics in agriculture.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture programs

Join Us