In most public policy debates, everyone favors “science” until science begins to favor one side over the other. When that occurs science, suddenly, isn’t so hallowed and name-calling soon takes over.
Rare, however, is the instance when an apparent winner in a science face-off uses so much name-calling during a victory lap that the intended loser turns the table.
But that’s exactly what played out last month in the New York Times. It was a lesson on how poor results can come from good science and how good food can be made to look bad.
The spat began Sept. 4 when Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy published a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine that, according to the Times, “concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive.”
The Stanford study — actually a “meta-analysis,” not new research but a statistical compilation of 237 previous studies — went on to note that organic food was not “less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria” nor were there any “obvious health advantages to organic meats.”
Those two points made the lead of every print and broadcast story on the report. What didn’t make the news, though, is a key shortcoming of meta-analyses; in this case, using widely-varying data from 237 separate papers to arrive at one conclusion.
That process is akin to measuring 237 men, women and children to determine the appearance of a “human being.” The resulting average might be mildly representative of you and me but it would be wildly inaccurate when compared to you and me.
Facts like that didn’t bother a Times columnist Roger Cohen, whose Sept. 6 piece on the Stanford work, titled, “The Organic Fable,” labeled all organic food as a “fad.” He went on to say organic food is “premium branding rather than science,” and likened its usually higher price to parents paying tuition “to send (their) child to private school.”
“It is a class-driven decision,” Cohen wrote, “that demonstrates how much you love your offspring but whose overall impact on society is debatable.”
Not so. Parents pay extra for both private schools and good food because they believe — even have proof — that the investment carries value. Both Harvard and organic growers count on people making informed choices that favor their product, be it Ivy League or organic spinach.
Besides, if Cohen’s reasoning has merit, everyone should drive $18,000 Ford Focuses rather than $50,000 Cadillac XTSs or $60,000 Range Rovers. After all, cars are cars and choice — or class — should play no role, right?
But that’s not how it works in a free society and free market. As the columnist, himself, noted, “In 2010 . . . organic food and drink sales totaled $26.7 billion in the United States, or about 4 percent of the overall market.” So choice, class, has its place.
While “organiacs,” the name Cohen gave organic supporters, went after him with forks and knives, medical doctors, nutritionists and ag economists — the latter two were not on the Stanford panel that compiled the meta-analysis — responded, also.
One was Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources, who says he “may be the only person on the planet that actually read more than 200 of reports used by Stanford.”
After reading the Stanford paper, Benbrook labeled it either “a very shallow, questionable analysis” or a “naïve, sloppy job . . . cleverly or intentionally designed to raise questions where none existed” about organic production and food.
Cohen responded to the criticisms by Benbrook and others with another column Sept. 27 that, to his credit, listed “several good points made by my critics.”
Soon, however, he returned to taking pot-shots at the “organic bourgeoisie, with their babies in reusable cotton diapers . . . inveighing against genetically modified food.”
Wow, now that’s clever name-calling. What it isn’t, however, is science.
So score one for the bourgeoisie and the farmers and ranchers who know they're right.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at http://www.farmandfoodfile.com.