The media sure had a field day last week with a study from Stanford University dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food.
Can I ask why the report, published in the Annals Of Internal Medicine, was considered so newsworthy when it wasn't based on original research? The paper is a "meta-analysis" of some 200 other scientists' publications over the years, the ninth in a decade and the fourth to turn thumbs-down on organic claims to nutritional superiority. Not exactly trailblazing stuff. A lot of scientists who labour in the vineyards gathering data rather than collecting studies in the library are getting a bit ticked off.
There are many questions to be cleared up about the comparative goodness of foods grown in particular ways, especially because the Ontario government is in the process of formulating a Local Food Act designed to present the Liberals as soft and cuddly at the same time as they're tough on teachers and doctors.
One of the first things I learned when I started writing about food 15 years ago is how complex determining the nutritional level of harvested food really is. Much depends on the quality of the soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally.
It also depends on post-harvest handling. Tomatoes, for example, get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they're hard and green, as they are when machines pick them. Their value is determined by how long they spent in a truck or store, how they were treated there and how they were prepared. (Some vitamins are destroyed by heat, while other nutrients only become available when heated.)
Spinach and green beans lose up to 75 per cent of their vitamin C within seven days of harvest, even when refrigerated.
A conventional ruby-red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, has more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent by truck and left sitting in a salad bar, for example.
Yes, healthier plants likely grow on organically managed soil, but healthier plants don't bulk up on more nutrients than they need to survive. Organic or not, plants live for themselves, not us.
With dairy and meat, it looks like the key issue is how animals are treated and fed. Organic or conventional, corn and soy are corn and soy, but grass-fed livestock, eating the food they're designed to eat, seem to produce a wider range of nutrients, including vitamins.
These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who thinks differently can only get away with it, as our Stanford friends did, by publishing in a medical journal, since docs have minimal training, credentials or interest in nutrition.
But back to the study. How much does this 12-person research team, which includes nary a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist, actually know? One member is a librarian, a few are graduate students, several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious diseases, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant. The heavy hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, a professor emeritus in statistics who once did work for the tobacco industry.
But the point is, organic advocates rarely make nutritional claims, so the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man. On the other hand, the study shows organic scores well in terms of having fewer pesticide residues. Interestingly, organic foods have fewer but not zero residues. That means toxins from conventional food migrate by air, rain or water table.
Why didn't that set off media alarms? It means that people who pay extra for organic are paying for everyone else to have less residue on their food, while those who save on conventional are saving money because someone else is eating pesticides that belong to them.
This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers just dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides? And is that a smart or fair way to distribute toxic leftovers from someone else's lunch?
Organic needs to compete fairly, without having to swallow the entire cost of enviro responsibility while conventional competitors get to share their pesticides with everyone for free. Since the Stanford paper makes a big deal about getting good value for the high price of organic, maybe they would like to explore this little, shall we call it, market failure?
In short order, this will become an issue in Ontario, because the government is considering submissions on its new Local Food Act. Local pricing suffers from the same problem as organics: its benefits (jobs, reduced air pollution from truck travel, etc) are shared by everyone; its costs are absorbed only by those who pay extra.
This 15 minutes of infamy for a flawed academic study will pass, but the residual issue, if I may use the term, will resurface when people ask the drafters of the Local Food Act if government will pay a fee to farmers to cover eco services and do something pro-active about all the post-harvest handling issues that determine food's final nutrient value.
Presently, no ministry, neither Health nor Agriculture, is looking at the ways produce loses its goodness depending on what happens to it from the moment it leaves the soil, for the simple reason, don't you know, that Agriculture is not responsible for health and Health doesn't care a fig about nutrition. And that's pretty much where we are.