Supporters of organic farming say a study suggesting little nutritional advantage in organic foods compared to conventional items misses many of the reasons why people go organic in the first place.
When organic farming began, "the emphasis wasn't on nutrition, it was about producing food in an environmentally ... sustainable way," said Lauren Ketcham, communications coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, a coalition of farmers, gardeners, researchers, consumers and others who focus on building a healthy food system that includes economic opportunities.
"If the focus is only on nutrition, you're really missing all those other benefits," she said.
For the study, published this month in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, doctors from Stanford University examined nearly 240 studies over the last 40-some years that compared organic and conventional foods. While the organic foods did not prove more nutritious, the researchers noted that organic fruits and vegetables pose a lower risk of exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant germs.
That the pesticide amounts in the conventional produce were within what are considered safe levels is little comfort to Vincent resident Amanda Hearn, 29.
"Just because they meet FDA regulations doesn't mean it's" healthy, said Hearn, who writes a green-living blog at theecofriendlyfamily.com. "These things are neurotoxins. ... They're designed to kill organisms."
About the study
The study by Stanford researchers examined English-language reports of comparisons of organically and conventionally grown food or of populations consuming these foods.
Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets, but studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences.
Phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant.
The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce, but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small.
Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce.
Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. However, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork.
The conclusion was that 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.
Source: Annals of Internal Medicine, annals.org
Joe Pedretti, organic education specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, a nonprofit organization promoting organic and sustainable agriculture, said individual pesticide residue may be at safe levels, but some produce is exposed to more than one type.
"So the issue is really what are the effects of exposure to multiple pesticides?" he said.
Hearn said she and her family try to buy organic food when they can out of concern for their own health as well as the environment. Chemical fertilizer can affect plants and wildlife as well, she said, noting she even feels some apprehension about eating venison from deer her husband has hunted.
"It's organic meat, but at the same time, they may be eating crops that are GMO (genetically modified organisms)," she said.
Pedretti noted that organic farming doesn't expose farmers and workers to the chemicals in some pesticides and fertilizers.
He questioned other aspects of the study, including the lack of uniformity between studies. It's only been 10 years since a national standard was established for organic farms, so what was considered organic in some studies may not have qualified in more recent ones.
"I think ultimately what the organic industry is trying to say is we need more new research," Pedretti said.
He said the Stanford study did note more of a nutritional advantage in organic milk and other studies have found more of some nutrients, like vitamins and antioxidants, in organic items.
Farmers must go through an extensive process to receive the federally approved organic certification. Gary Smith, president of the River City Farmers Market, said none of the people who sell produce at the market Saturdays at the Washington County Fairgrounds have that certification but many of them avoid the use of chemicals.
Smith is among those, saying the potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes and more from his garden in Lowell are grown with chemicals 90 percent of the time. He only uses them when he can't overcome a pest problem or other challenge in another way.
"If you don't use the chemicals, it's got to be better," Smith said.
One of the doctors that conducted the Stanford study told the Associated Press there are other reasons people may choose to buy organic, including environmental concerns and taste preferences.
Bucky Lee, co-owner of Food 4 Less, said those are among the factors customers consider when they buy organic items at the Marietta grocery store.
"It depends on the consumer, what they feel safe eating and what they feel comfortable buying," he said. "A lot of people are concerned about what (chemicals) they're putting in it."
Price is also a consideration, with Lee saying he only orders organic items when the price is close to that of conventional products.
Chris DePugh, with the Vienna, W.Va.-based catering company The Staged Fork, said she knows from experience at culinary school and working in food services at Camden Clark Medical Center that organic food doesn't really boast a higher nutritional value than conventional food. Her focus when purchasing food for the business is on buying local rather than buying organic.
"I feel that's better, to support our local people," she said.