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    Is Organic Food More Nutritious And Safer Than Conventional? Reviewing A Recent Systematic Review
    By Hank Campbell | July 13th 2014 05:28 PM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    A recent review in the British Journal of Nutrition concluded that the nutritional quality and safety of organic food was higher than conventional food. Fruits, vegetables, and grains, organic versions were better in all ways than conventional farming, they determined.

    Organic food had fewer pesticides, a much different result than other studies, and also had more important nutrients, also a much different result than other studies.

    You always want to try and take each paper on its merits but when something is dramatically in defiance of the science consensus, you also have to look for other factors that might be involved. And this has some red flags. To start with, one of the designers of the new review is Charles Benbrook of Washington State University, a noted anti-GMO activist with a history of agenda-driven claims and poorly designed studies. That raises eyebrows outside the environmental community. Anti-science activists and sites like Mother Jones love his work, but he is an economist, not a biologist. Nothing wrong with economists talking about science, but if environmentalists and Mother Jones don't let economists overturn climate studies, why would they endorse it in biology? That's a mystery.

    This new work is right in line with his 2013 paper which claimed organic milk had more omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk. Why is a study of pesticides done under EPA supervision disqualified by activist front groups if a pesticide company has to pay for it (required by federal law), but a study endorsing organic milk that this author paid to have published, that was funded by an organic milk company, remains free of concern about neutrality? Another puzzle. 

    Ordinarily, talking about individuals rather than issues is a personal no-no, it is the kind of tactic environmental groups use, but when someone is engaged in chronic anti-science behavior, it becomes part of the issue. He wrote a blog about this new paper, which contains various logical fallacies, among them that other reviews which used many of the same studies found many of the same results. I should hope they did, because one of the reviews he lauds happens to be what he modeled this one after: "The literature search strategy and meta-analysis protocols used were based on those previously published by Brandt, et al."

    Same method, just a wider net to include more papers. That can be problematic.

    So what results did they find? That pesticide residues were 3-4X more likely in conventional foods than organic.  Now, that is not really a problem. If you bought vegetables and fruits anywhere at any time, you should wash them. There are a lot of reasons that a review with such a broad reach can find issues. 

    "What do you bet they didn't control for soil, sunlight, storage, or shipping methods? And that just stuff that starts with S," Norm Benson asked on Twitter.

    Well, they didn't, we know that by reading the paper. But they don't consider that the samples in the studies they selected may be causing odd results. Instead, they explain it away that organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides.

    Did this economist reinvent toxicology? Do toxic organic pesticides dissolve into rainbows when they are placed on a delivery truck? How can there so many fewer residues on organic food when it is known organic growers simply use different pesticides, not fewer?

    We can thank meta-analysis for their result.


    Image: Organic food will also make you prettier, if we do the proper unweighted random effects meta analysis. Credit: Shutterstock

    In an unweighted random-effects meta-analysis, cows can whinny and sideways can be back and forth - if I include large outliers in the samples.


    A total of eight different meta-analyses were undertaken. The protocols used for the standard weighted and unweighted meta-analyses were based on the methodologies described by Palupi et al.(29)and Brandt et al.(20), respectively.

    They used a lot of papers, that is a good thing if there is actually a large body of knowledge and it is rigorous, but in even the most controversial toxicological issue, the EPA will end up disqualifying all but about a dozen papers due to lack of underlying data being included or methodological concern. In a review, they look at no data, of course, and 343 papers becomes the problem rather than the solution when the methodology is flawed.

    Meta-analysis, as everyone with statistics knowledge knows, can boost the strength of systematic reviews when done properly but easily suffers from bias unless the researchers are truly interested in controlling eligibility criteria and methodological quality. Without controlled eligibility, it's easy to find any pattern you want. With Web of Knowledge search terms like 'organic' and 'biodynamic', it's really easy to skew the inclusion. Then they synthesized their dramatically different studies using a random effects model. 

    In general, prospective studies are stronger than retrospective but a prospective study is not going to find organic food is more nutritious and that conventional food is toxic, so they ended up using claims by farmers about what they used as data. By using random effects, they are recognizing that the observed effects and sampling variability are very different, but then they take them all on face value anyway and average them out. Since the random effects are unweighted, credibility and confidence intervals take a dive when there are large sample outliers - like happens with the papers in this review.(see DOI: 10.1177/014920639902500602 for more on statistics)

    An example, since Washington State University goes out of their way to highlight it. One of the studies used is a 2010 paper comparing the 'sensory' quality of organic and conventional strawberries, among other things related to how much more awesome organic food is. Sensory quality is not a scientific parameter but it got used anyway. Naturally, the Washington State University scholar behind that finding, John Reganold, declared this new review using his work "an impressive study" in their press release. It would be like a Pepsi official saying he was impressed by a blind taste test finding Pepsi tastes better than Coke. I believe he is impressed, but it's not science.

    Reganold runs an organic farm and this year he won National Resource Defense Council's (NRDC) Growing Green Award. When an advocacy group is giving you an award, it's not because of your knowledge of science, it's because you write articles claiming organic farming is only not viable when you don't include 'value' such as the intangible benefit to Gaia, which he has also done.

    The review also concludes that by simply choosing organic you get antioxidants equivalent to two extra portions of fruit and vegetables per day. They mean things like Vitamin E. Organic food is, in their minds, literally a Miracle Vegetable.  How did those studies measure enough product to be sure antioxidants were really higher in a large enough sample? They didn't, that is why more neutral studies have never found that result but a review can if they are determined to do so. They include papers that would be disqualified in many cases. 

    Would that extra Vitamin E even make a difference? Well, we know there are lots of mitochondrial pathologies but we also know that if organic fruits and vegetables prevented those, people would never have gotten any of the diseases we know they have gotten throughout history. 

    As Intrepid Wanders pointed out on Twitter, these same conclusions seem to be written over and over, with just a few changes. Györéné, Varga and Lugasi in 2006 wrote 
    Organic crops contain a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals, as well as have higher dry matter content than conventional ones. Moreover, there is a lower level of pesticide residues, nitrate and some heavy metal contaminations in organic crops compared to conventional ones

    while the new paper says 
    the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods ... Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd.

    It's understandable that there are only so many ways to say the same thing, but this is clearly a bunch of people reaffirming each other. I recently interviewed Frederick Crane, Professor Emeritus at Purdue and the man who discovered Coenzyme Q, which launched the whole field of mitochondrial antioxidation research. In our phone calls and pages of emails he never once said that eating a fruit grown using an organic pesticide rather than a synthetic one would make anyone live longer. Or that any fruit would make anyone live longer.

    I think most people are looking for a compelling argument for organic food. If I had my way everything my family eats would be killed, grown, cleaned and cooked by no hands except mine. I'm certainly no fan of added chemicals in food production but I am even less a fan of starving children in the third world and the "let them eat kale" elitism of clueless Whole Foods shoppers. In the race to make more food with less strain on the environment, science is winning by a long shot. American farmers have "dematerialized" food production in a way that is an example for the entire world.

    That said, we're going to have to keep on looking for a compelling argument for the organic food process as a viable mass food source - because this review isn't it. 

    Citation: Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembiałkowska E, Skwarło-Sońta K, Tahvonen R, Janovská D, Niggli U, Nicot P, Leifert C, 'Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses', Br J Nutr. 2014 Jun 26:1-18 doi:10.1017/S0007114514001366


    Comments

    "How can there so many fewer residues on organic food when it is known organic growers simply use different pesticides, not fewer?"
    Citation needed.
    To put it mildly.
    Maybe you could start by referring to this page http://1.usa.gov/1m8VqqT and explaining which "different" herbicides organic growers use to replace the ones which comprise roughly half of all the pesticides used in U.S. agriculture.

    Hank
    Rob, are you a farmer who uses no pesticides? I'd like to see evidence of that. I live in Sacramento, California, where every legal pesticide application is logged. Based on yield, there are more organic pesticides used. You can see all the flavors of Bt organic farmers use, for example. But the authors do not try to claim they use fewer pesticides, they say there are fewer residues. This is different from other studies, including one in Canada that found organic food had substantially higher residues.

    How is that more toxic? No idea, that is why I wonder what the reason for the claim is. I wouldn't ingest a synthetic or an organic toxic pesticide/herbicide.

    ERS doesn't say anything different so I am unsure of your point. You note conventional farming uses a lot of pesticides. Well, I should hope so or a hundred million people would be starving. Because the organic process is now a $35 billion industry, and therefore Big Ag, the USDA is not letting them exempt themselves from oversight any more. That will make food safer for everyone.
    Hank, I have not used pesticides on my farm for the past two seasons. I do keep some approved substances on hand in the event that my other methods and strategies are insufficient. I can show you input records of a number of organic grain farms in my area that have never used pesticides. But neither my anecdotes nor your anecdotes constitute scientific evidence - which is what I requested from you in order to support your statement.

    Also, please provide me with a link to a study showing higher residue levels in organic produce. The study you link to found that 45.8 percent of organic produce had detectable residues (as low as 0.0001ppm), with 1.8 percent testing above the maximum residue limit. Conventional produce, on the other hand, tested positive in 78.4 percent of samples, with 4.7 percent violating the maximum levels. (http://bit.ly/1ozmwc6)Those facts directly contradict the claims you make above, and in your previous posts on the topic.

    It is now clear that you have repeatedly made demonstrably false and misleading statements. I look forward to your response on this matter.

    Hank
    It is now clear that you have repeatedly made demonstrably false and misleading statements
    Excuse me? You lack in manners, which is bad enough, but your verbage tells the audience two things: You unquestionably accepted a study which found organic food to be a Miracle Product, which means you suffer from confirmation bias and; you have zero interest in science, you just want your personal belief system affirmed and you start insulting anyone who disputes even something obviously flawed, like a review paper.

    So, no, I am not interested in watching you move the goalposts over and over.



    Hold on, Hank, I'm giving you the chance the provide evidence to support the claims and statements you are repeating, and providing the facts to support my position. Please explain to me, and the rest of your readers, how this constitutes "confirmation bias" and "moving the goal posts". Your statements set the goal posts, sir, I'm simply asking you to justify their positioning.

    I respect your right to express your opinions, and to be honest, I actually agree with your assertions that the level of pesticide residues detected on the vast majority of ALL food, organic or not, likely poses minimal health risks to most of the population.

    Actually, I bet we could find a lot of common ground here. However, I do get a little testy when people mis-state and misrepresent the facts - if I'm mistaken on this point, I do apologize. But if pointing out factual errors and asking you to correct and/or back-up your claims is perceived as an insult, I find it rather odd that your response is to hurl insults at me. Wouldn't it be more effective to counter with facts?

    I don't think he is moving the goal posts. In fact, I think his question points to a serious problem. Regulatory agencies don't measure organic pesticide residues. So we don't really have good data on this question. I think it is fair to say that data on relative amounts of pesticide for organic vs. conventional are biased by a lack of organic pesticide analysis, but we don't really know by how much.

    Why don't regulatory agencies measure organic pesticide residues? Naturalistic fallacy.

    Why don't regulatory agencies measure organic pesticide residues? Naturalistic fallacy.


    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) tests both non-organic and organic foods for contaminants, including pesticides, as part of the National Chemical Residues Monitoring Program.

     http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/fact-sheet/eng/1389651477171/1389651725636


    Canada isn't just better than the US at hockey.
    They only test organics for synthetic pesticides, as in the US. We need data on organic pesticide residues.

    Hank
    They did test for that in Canada - the problem seems to have been that the findings were politically inconvenient, so they were not published. A Canadian journalist had to file the the equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request to get the results released, which showed organic pesticide residues were higher than conventional.

    Steve Savage has also addressed this issue.
    Why do you continue to spread false information, Hank?
    To repeat my earlier comment:

    The study you link to found that 45.8 percent of organic produce had detectable residues (as low as 0.0001ppm), with 1.8 percent testing above the maximum residue limit. Conventional produce, on the other hand, tested positive in 78.4 percent of samples, with 4.7 percent violating the maximum levels. (http://bit.ly/1ozmwc6)Those facts directly contradict the claims you make above, and in your previous posts on the topic.

    Continuing to repeat a lie does not turn it into a fact, no matter how often you try.

    Whole argument is like Angels dancing on pinheads...unconnected to reality. No surprise.

    Actually, you need to change your headline to:

    Organic food found to accelerate cancer.

    Hank
    I saw the NEJM study linking antioxidants to cancer. It suffers some issues also. If I were against organic food that is exactly the headline I would write - it's what Union of Concerned Scientists and Mother Jones and Greenpeace do about science, after all.
    John Hasenkam
    Hank,
    There has been a longstanding debate, perhaps a decade now, about the possibility that high antioxidant loading is a bad idea for those diagnosed with cancer. There is data to support the idea and that data has been slowly increasing. This debate has rarely reached the light of day because of the Antioxidant Craze. There is a whole lot of stuff to go through here so I won't bore you with that but in the past I even suggested to friends the idea of "antioxidant holidays" so as make pre-cancerous cells more prone to destruction. 

    The issue cannot be resolved in any general sense, it will always be cancer type specific. The NEJM article is committing a cardinal error: treating all cancerS as cancer. 

    There are encouraging studies that large IV injections of vitamin C can induce some cancers cell death, this effect being abrogated by the administration of N A Cysteine, which promotes glutathione, the endogenous antioxidant that is particularly effective against H2O2. In large doses vitamin C is a rather nasty Pro oxidant and it is known that many cancer cells have heightened antioxidant defences to quell the damage from all the oxidation arising through growth processes and probably glycolysis as well. 
    The study seems like an important contribution, but I do question why the authors seemed unconcerned about the lower protein content they documented in organic crops. As they point out, many people in industrialized consume excessive amounts of meat, but in developing countries, reduced protein content of organic crops would be a potentially serious issue.

    Hank
    Yes, I focused on what the study addressed and its methodology but Andrew Kniss recommended an alternate headline that is sure not to show up in press releases: "Organic food has less Vitamin E, Protein, and Fiber than conventional food, study finds."
    Here are some of the inconsistencies and annoyances in the arguments of people who constantly bash organic food.(1) Yes, there are approved compounds such as copper sulfate and chrysanthemum-derived pyrethrins that are used by organic farmers as fungicides and insecticides, respectively. But while the organic-bashers dismiss the possibility that trace amounts on conventionally grown foods can do any harm--which in reality is still under study and varies with the pesticide---it's suddenly a big deal that there are trace amounts of organic pesticides, even though they consist of different compounds. The latter of course should also be scrutinized and regulated, but the organic-basher's focus is to patronize and expose the "naivety of consumers" ad nauseaum.
    (2) Herbicides, which target weeds, are not used at all by many organic fruit growers in at least Washington and Oregon. Conventional  producers worldwide rely heavily on the controversial atrazine.
    (3)  To emphasize about how "scamful" organics are, the bashers emphasize that organics are a multi-billion dollar industry. Yes they have somewhere between $30 to 40 billion in revenue in the U.S., but it's little (3%) compared to the $1.2 trillion Americans spend on groceries annually. 
    (4) Libertarians will defend personal freedom above anything else. But some libertarians make it a mission to dissuade people from buying organics, as if it will infringe upon the freedom of the bashers. It may not be possible to feed the world with any one specific approach; but it takes a variety of methods, including where and when appropriate, carefully regulated GMOs, to do it effectively and in a sustainable way. 

    (5) How will starving Africans further suffer from the fact that a minority of people in North America choose to possibly overpay for apples?  
    (In reality although organics are generally pricier, there are exceptions: the organic apple farmers in Quebec charge about the same as for non-organic! Costco actually has a better deal on organically grown British Columbia corn chips and they taste much better than the leading brand) 


    (1) I think most who bring up the organic pesticide issue do so mainly to (a) dispel the common myth that organic producers don't use pesticides; and (b) argue that finding synthetic pesticide residues on food is only half of the story. Most would agree that pesticide residue levels on US food are very low and not a meaningful health risk - for conventional or organic ag.

    (2) We rely a lot less on Atrazine thanks to roundup ready corn and soybeans. Most of the organic folks are freaking out about glyphosate these days, a pretty safe herbicide as far as that goes. And of course if you can't use herbicides, then no-till becomes very difficult. So there are trade offs to not using herbicides.

    (3) Yes, organic represents a small slice of the food-ag industry. But the size of the organic industry, and the fact that most distributors have been bought up by multinationals helps to dispel the persistent myth that organic farmers are all small guys selling at the local markets. For WA state initiative, most of the money on both sides was corporate. $7 million from out of state Big Org adn $20 million from out of state Big Ag. So no, this isn't corporations vs. grass roots.

    (4) How did libertarians get into this argument? Is anyone really trying to stop you from buying organic? Arguing that it doesn't make sense to buy organic isn't the same thing as trying to restrict your options. THe folks trying to limit options are the organic/anti-GMO activists who see labeling as the first step to getting GMOs off the shelves altogether.

    (5) Organic production requires more land per unit of food produced (lower yields). I don't see anyone arguing that this has direct impact on African subsistence farmers today, but when we project forward to a growing global population this could certainly be seen as a luxury (along with excess meat consumption, etc...).

    I appreciate the fact that you went through my arguments step by step. Two prominent organic-bashers who we've both read are libertarians, and for the record, >90% of the food my family buys is not organically grown. 
    All of the food, fruit and grass we grow(not an enormous amount overall, but my parents grow a lot more than we do) is done without the purchase of fertilizer or pesticides. I realize that it's not free of trace compounds because I compost the non-organic stuff we buy and then spread it over my garden. 

    But if I see more organic-bashing articles from an unbalanced disingenuous viewpoint, I and all those I influence will buy and grow more organic.
    , but when we project forward to a growing global population this could certainly be seen as a luxury (along with excess meat consumption, etc...)


    In such a projection, there's an awful lot that's done by Western societies and increasingly by other countries that can be seen as a luxury , but you won't see Conservatives blogging about that!
    Nothing wrong with economists talking about science, but if environmentalists and Mother Jones don't let economists overturn climate studies, why would they endorse it in biology? That's a mystery.

    This new work is right in line with his 2013 paper which claimed organic milk had more omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk. Why is a study of pesticides done under EPA supervision disqualified by activist front groups if a pesticide company has to pay for it (required by federal law), but a study endorsing organic milk that this author paid to have published, that was funded by an organic milk company, remains free of concern about neutrality?

    To answer your rhetorical question, hypocrisy and tribalism :)

    Hank
    Sure, and most people are afflicted with it, it's why tribes have been a fundamental part of our history, but it is always strange when one partisan group claims they are super-rational and science-y, and then when I deflate their pet beliefs they call me whatever they are not. In a Wall Street Journal article Monday, I wrote about issues in peer review. 350 of the comments brought up climate change though my article had nothing to do with that. 200 of them vilified me as a liberal because my article was not about climate change. Clearly it's not just organic food shoppers who are out of their minds.

    It just happens to be that I wrote that WSJ piece a while ago and this was more recent. And right wing goofballs only have two big issues, whereas left-wing people have anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, anti-energy, and more belief in ghosts (albeit secular!), astrology and ESP, which means more topics for me to ridicule.
    Why not have a salad for breakfast, especially when it contains Mom and Dad's home-grown lettuce? It's low in nitrates because they either use no fertilizer or composted manure. Fresh manure can contaminate it with both nitrates and bacteria, while most synthetic fertilizer will definitely do the former. For more information on why nitrates can be harmful and what foods contain them, see http://www.emsb.qc.ca/laurenhill/science/myessays/nitrates.pdf

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