1:25 PM EDT, September 7, 2012
Consumers who spend up to twice as much on organic foods naturally want to know what they're getting for their money, and on first glance, a report this week by Stanford University health researchers seems to say, not much.
The report looked at dozens of previous studies on the health and nutritional effects of organic food, and concluded:
"The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
This would seem to pose a threat to an organic food industry that the report pegged at $26.7 billion in 2010, up from $3.6 billion in 1997. Then again, the reaction among consumers seems muted or nonexistent, several organic farmers and advocates told me this week.
They are perturbed but not alarmed. Perturbed because the Stanford report looked at health effects far too narrowly, and, anyway, missed the whole point of the organic movement -- it's not about better nutrition, it's about a healthier planet and a sustainable food system.
"One of the major things about organic is the holistic principles and practices," said Bill Duesing, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Connecticut, and president of the 7-state NOFA council.
Duesing speculated that fallout from the report could make organic advocates' jobs a bit harder, but should not change the way they educate the public.
"I don't know if we've ever advocated that organic food is healthier for you," said Duesing, himself an organic farmer in Oxford, where the NOFA chapter is based. "It's not the main reason we're doing it…organic is really working with nature, conventional agriculture is working against nature."
It's also about local food production, economic fairness and health for farm workers and creating a system that avoids nitrogen runoff, a major global threat to waterways. Duesing recently wrote a short essay on the advantages of organic, and it did not even mention healthier nutrition for consumers.
But in the long run, organic advocates say, there is a very real benefit for consumers' health, as they avoid pesticide residues, and as organic methods restore trace elements of minerals to the soil, and perhaps to the food that grows there. A rebuttal by Washington State University researcher pokes holes in the Stanford review, which was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In fact, the Vermont-based Organic Trade Association went as far as to put out a press release with the headline, "Stanford research confirms health benefits driving consumers to organic."
That takes some brass, to steal a phrase Bill Clinton used Wednesday night about Paul Ryan's Medicare accusations.
I asked Duesing a decades-long godfather of Connecticut organic, along with George Hall of Simsbury, which he would choose if he had to eat organic food grown in China or conventional food produced here in Connecticut.
"I would go for the local Connecticut," he said quickly, adding, "They're both very important."
At the West Hartford farmers' market on Thursday, Kathy Caruso of Upper Forty Farm in Cromwell, known for her heirloom tomatoes, said she had not had a single query from a customer.
"I would venture to say that they buy my tomatoes because of the variety and because they taste good," Caruso said. "To me, there's no issue here. Vegetables are good for you."
At the George Hall farm, Hall's granddaughter Brooke Lindstrom said some customers have asked about the report. "The people that are really in organic are going to keep shopping here," she said.
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