Organic food has been the subject -- and victim -- of recent media hysteria. Reductionist, misleading, and sensational headlines have screamed from the pages of otherwise respectable publications. There has been hyperbolic speculation that grocers Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFM ) and The Fresh Market (Nasdaq: TFM ) and organic food suppliers Hain Celestial Group (Nasdaq: HAIN ) , Annie's (NYSE: BNNY ) , and SunOpta (Nasdaq: STKL ) would suffer losses as consumers abandoned organics. Let's take a closer look at what we've learned about organics, and what it could mean.
I beg your pardon? I never promised you more vitamins.
Stanford University released a study earlier this month that attempted to assess the nutritional quality of organic versus conventional food, among other things. A few days later, Charles Benbrook from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Washington published a comprehensive analysis of the Stanford study, identifying concerns about its design and conclusions.
According to Benbrook, Stanford built trouble right into the research question: Is organic more nutritious? This is interesting to know, but the arguments for organic never hinged on nutrient content. Sure, in theory, better-managed soil should eventually retain more nutrients, and your organic food could take these up in greater concentrations in the long run. But this is not the primary health prospect of organics, and Benbrook notes that the Stanford study considered too short a time horizon anyway.
Meta-study, mini-time scale
Stanford's study was a meta-study, which means it analyzed results from more than 200 other studies and performed no new research. Of those studies, none lasted more than two years. That is an incredibly short period when it comes to agriculture. Consider that the USDA requires three years of organic farming practices just to certify a formerly conventional field as organic.
Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb also points out that the study failed to include several recent studies that found a nutrient intensity in organics that was 20% to 50% higher than that of conventional foods. Having said that, Whole Foods' commitment to organic farming does not mention nutritional value. The company focuses on the many other benefits that we will discuss below.
Another problem with the meta-study approach is that it necessarily seeks to compare a vast collection of data that was gathered under widely varying conditions. Each study may have defined or measured things differently, some questions may not have been universally addressed, etc. Benbrook notes that there have been other, better-designed studies of organic foods' health effects with results more robustly favoring organic foods. When considering a sensitive and complex question, disparities in data can be critical. So how sensitive and complex is this question?
Your body is a wonderland
The human body is dizzying in its sophistication. There are infinite mysteries of its function that we have yet to unlock. External environmental influences only complicate matters further. Consider how pesticides affect our health. This example is relevant because the Stanford study also found significantly less pesticide residue on organic foods.
The major health concern associated with consuming pesticides is that they can disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates functions like metabolism, growth and development, fertility, and mood. But pesticides are hardly the only endocrine disruptors in our daily environments. Such compounds are literally everywhere, in our packaging, gadgets, furniture, and houses. The aggregate effect of one's lifetime exposure to multiple sources of endocrine disruptors matters most. Indeed, multiple endocrine disruptors in a person's system can amplify one another's health effects beyond what would have been their individual impacts. The best a consumer can do is to limit their exposure where they have some control. Choosing organic food limits exposure to pesticides.
The other point of this example is to illustrate the complexity of linking a single variable to human health outcomes. The researchers answered the wrong question in an inadequate manner. Now what?
Into the mouths of babes
The case for organic food remains as strong as ever.
- Even if a consumer is not too worried about their own ingestion of pesticides, they might think twice about their baby, before and after she is born. Babies weigh a tiny fraction of what adults do, but are exposed to the same amount of toxins. Studies have found that they are much more susceptible to negative health effects from such exposure.
- On conventional farms, farm workers are exposed to massive doses of pesticides, frequently in direct violation of federal law. Their health outcomes are bleak.
- Organic standards preclude the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals. This is vital, because agriculture is the single biggest culprit in today's alarming rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases. We are literally farming ourselves into a future in which we have no drugs to treat our sometimes-deadly illnesses.
- The pesticides and fertilizers that fuel conventional agriculture are running off into our oceans and severely harming global fish stocks. It hardly makes sense to grow one food by killing another.
Delicious bottom line
Consumers still have plenty of reasons to continue choosing organics, and there is no reason to expect that the organic food market will suffer in the long run. Indeed, with the exception of The Fresh Market, these companies' stock prices have increased in the last month and seem not to have suffered from the Stanford study's publication. The organic food market is still projected to grow by 82% between 2010 and 2015, and I don't expect the Stanford study results to change that in any measurable way. Bon appetit!
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