New Study Touts Benefits of Organic Goods, Questions Pesticides and GMOs

Scientists estimate that we humans—since our earliest ancestors—have been running around the earth for well over two million years. Only within the past century—or 0.005% of that time—have we come to rely so heavily on the use of pesticides to help feed our world's population.

  

At first, many believed that such chemicals were good things—they helped us feed an ever-growing population. They also helped bring the overall price of food down, making it easier for poorer people to afford a nutritious diet.

But over the last twenty years, many have started questioning the overall benefits of such a production system. The benefits of chemical use—and more recently, genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—have been researched and debated passionately since the start of the new millennium.

A recent meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed publications on the matter promises to add even more fuel to the fire with its most basic conclusion: organic food is simply better for you than conventionally grown fare.

The three major conclusions
While those of you who wish to dig into the numbers yourself can click on the link above, the researchers—led by Professor Carlo Leifert of England's Newcastle University—reached three key conclusions from their study.

First, antioxidant levels in organic goods were significantly higher than in conventionally grown food. Using the database of studies, the prevalence of antioxidants was 18-69% higher in organic food. Antioxidants have been shown to have a positive effect on human health, by lowering the incidence of chronic diseases and having anti-inflammatory properties.

Second, levels of cadmium were 48% lower in organic food than they were in conventionally grown food. Cadmium is a toxic and carcinogenic metal that has been linked with numerous health ailments.

And third, food that was conventionally grown was four times more likely to have pesticide residue on it than if it was grown organically.

Why this matters...sort of
While some are already questioning the results of Newcastle's study, the researchers point out that their database was far larger than any previous study, and it was unique in its focus on antioxidants, toxic metals, and pesticide residue.

More importantly—for organic grocers, chemical, and seed companies—is whether or not findings like this could affect the bottom line. When a U.K organization asked people why they buy organic goods, this is what they had to say.

Top Reasons for Buying Organic

Fewer pesticides/chemicals

 37%

Natural/Unprocessed

 34%

Healthier for me (and family)

 33%

Better for nature/environment

 29%

Tastes better

 24%

Better animal welfare

 21%

No GM ingredients

 21%

Safer to eat

 20%

More ethical

 19%

Other

 20%

Source: Soil Association, February 2014 

Without a doubt, the ability to avoid chemicals and eat healthier food plays a huge role in the decision to purchase organic food. 

But industry observers should be quick to realize that there's a huge spectrum of reasons people buy organic goods—outside of these health benefits. And they should also be aware that conflicting results have been found—and published—before.

If the Newcastle study was confirmed by further studies in the future, it could be a real coup for organic grocers--and very bad news for big seed and agrochemical companies. But as it is, this single meta-analysis alone probably won't be enough to meaningfully move the needle for any of the major players.

What investors of organic grocers should keep their eyes on
Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM  )  has been on the front line of educating consumers about where their food comes from for three decades—whether it be an organic/conventional sticker next to produce, or a map showing exactly where in the world food came from. The Newcastle study only bolsters what many Whole Foods shoppers already believe: organic is better.

But the debate over conventionally vs. organically grown food has also taken on an added dimension over the past ten years as "GMO" has entered the common vernacular. By definition, GM seeds cannot be labeled organic, even if no chemicals are used to treat them once planted. It's unclear if the studies used for the Newcastle report differentiated between conventionally grown food and those which used GMOs.

For its part, Whole Foods will be one of the first nationwide chains to ban GMO products from the shelves by 2018. 

What big agribusiness investors should be watching
As with the grocers, this recent study isn't earth shattering. Instead, its one piece of a long puzzle that will take years--if not decades--to play out. I liken it to the average American's slow-but-steady defection from drinking soda. This didn't happen overnight, but as more and more evidence came out that regular soda drinking was bad for you, purchases plateaued, and actually slipped.

By no means am I saying that's a forgone conclusion with conventionally grown food, but it serves as a warning.

Over the long-run, who could this affect the most? Below are a list of the top five seed and pesticide companies in America, by sales.

Top Agro-Companies

World-Wide Rank

Seed

Pesticides

1

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )

Syngenta

2

DuPont (NYSE: DD  )

Bayer (NASDAQOTH: BAYRY  )

3

Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  )

BASF (NASDAQOTH: BASFY  )

4

Vilmoren (Limagrain)

Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  )

5

WinField (Land O' Lakes)

Monsanto

Source: Seed info. from 2011, via ETC Group . Pesticides from 2012, via Agronews 

Of the group, Monsanto obviously has the most to lose by a move toward organics. The company has by far the largest seed market share worldwide, and is also one of the leading pesticide producers through its Roundup glyphosate product.

Only time will tell how this plays out. The most important factors for investors to watch--beyond the obvious revenue and profit figures--will be the results of further studies on the topic, and how they are received by the general public.

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The recent advances in agricultural technology are mind-boggling, but it's not the only field pulling off such feats. Some early viewers of Apple's newest gadget are claiming its everyday impact could trump the iPod, iPhone, and the iPad.

But one small company makes Apple's gadget possible. And its stock price has nearly unlimited room to run for early in-the-know investors. To be one of them, and see Apple's newest smart gizmo, just click here!


Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2014, at 11:04 AM, ardoucette wrote:

    What this misses is that Organic and GMO are two different worlds.

    GMO is for our GRAIN crops, most of which feeds our animals (or makes ethanol)

    We eat very little of it, except in refined form as Oils and Sugars, none of which have ANY anti-oxidants, organic or not.

    Organics are our Veggies, which with very few exceptions are not GMO (Summer Squash, Hawaiian papaya)

    So its NOT an either/or situation.

    GMO is here to stay.

    We grown over 200 MILLION acres of field corn, Soy and Canola that are GMO and US/Canadian farmers are NOT going back to the 20th century where they had to spray not only more, but more toxic pesticides.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2014, at 12:12 PM, CrazyDocAl wrote:

    The world couldn't produce enough food to support human population if only organic growing methods were used. Secondly if we were to try the added cost would starve half the planet because of the added costs.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2014, at 2:15 PM, 18RC wrote:

    Monsanto stock will blow the doors off Whole Foods because the organic movement is nothing but a fad of liberal elitist white anglos. Check out the ethnic diversity you see at a Whole Foods market. There's none because all the shoppers are white anglos.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2014, at 3:38 PM, ZonedIn wrote:

    Lots of ignorance there, ardoucette - or are you intentionally being misleading? GMO is turning up in all kinds of things, not just grain crops. What about the bananas now being tested on consumers in the midwestern US? And the salmon that's dangerously close to being green-lighted? Further, almost everything on the shelves at the local supermarket has GMO additives from the inclusion of corn and soy. If you're eating animals fed with GMO grains, you're still getting the GMOs. Also, your statement that there are no antioxidants in oil and sugar is false - olive oil, for instance, has a particularly high content. Refined sugar will have no antioxidants, but non-refined substitutes DO have them:

    "Substantial differences in total antioxidant content of different sweeteners were found. Refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar contained minimal antioxidant activity (<0.01 mmol FRAP/100 g); raw cane sugar had a higher FRAP (0.1 mmol/100 g). Dark and blackstrap molasses had the highest FRAP (4.6 to 4.9 mmol/100 g), while maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey showed intermediate antioxidant capacity (0.2 to 0.7 mmol FRAP/100 g). Based on an average intake of 130 g/day refined sugars and the antioxidant activity measured in typical diets, substituting alternative sweeteners could increase antioxidant intake an average of 2.6 mmol/day, similar to the amount found in a serving of berries or nuts."

    This doesn't even address other alternative sugars, like date and coconut.

    Meanwhile, field tests have proven that organic corn yields just as well as GMO.

    About pesticides: what use is it to spray fewer pesticides when we are radically increasing the use of herbicides? There's zero diminishment in the use of toxic chemicals in commercial foods. Meanwhile, the runaway use of herbicides is causing weeds to develop into superweeds that require even more chemicals. Oh yeah, and they're wiping out monarch butterflies. Thanks, Monsanto, for nothing.

    Your cause of industrialized food is a myth, ardoucette. Big profits for big ag is the bottom line., and spreading misleading information with the intention of keeping consumers in the dark is Monsanto's battle cry.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2014, at 3:47 PM, ZonedIn wrote:

    18RC, the organic food "movement" is comprised of people of all races, religions and political backgrounds. It is not "elitist" - that is merely your judgment of something you don't seem quite capable of understanding. Some people simply want to eat food, period, without toxic residue, without genetic engineering, without artificial colors or flavors or other means of enhancement. If food needs enhancement, it means that it was deemed insufficient to begin with. I suppose that it's elitist to not want to poison oneself with known carcinogens. Wow. And to pull the race card on the issue of organics? Some people will stoop to any level in their attempts to give their irrelevance a semblance of gravity.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2014, at 11:00 PM, Shrewd wrote:

    The jury is still out about whether there are long term consequences to eating GM produce and GM ingredients in processed foods. But the debate will have effects on many investments.

    There was an interesting article that noted the potential impact from Monsanto to Whole Foods.

    http://seekingalpha.com/article/2308475-digesting-the-gmo-fo...

    I would concur that we will begin to see more farmers moving away from GMO. Not because they are being altruistic. But rather due to the premium pricing available.

    Whole Foods wants their vendors to come back with "No GMO" labeling by 2018. Why? Because having a deep selection of non-GMO will draw more and more consumers to their aisles.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:09 AM, Gralin wrote:

    @ ardoucette: What YOU are missing is that most of our veggies aren't organic and get sprayed with the same chemicals that GM industrial use crops do, and in the same amounts in many cases. "Dinner table vegetables" do not equate to "organic food".

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:13 AM, Gralin wrote:

    http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/11/2/2125

    "Researchers hypothesized that while glyphosate is toxic, it alone is not capable of destroying kidney tissue on the scale recently observed in rice paddy regions of Northern Sri Lanka, or in El Salvador where it is the second leading cause of death among men. They propose glyphosate becomes extremely toxic to the kidney when it mixes with 'hard' water or heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium, either naturally present in the soil or added externally through fertilizer inputs."

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:25 AM, Gralin wrote:

    @ 18RC: Have you ever actually been inside of a Whole Foods Market? I live near 3, and only one of them is "mostly white", and not by very much. Indians, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews, and Asians wall-to-wall. You see, they are elitist, but in a high IQ kind of way- tens of thousands of shoppers employed in the Houston Medical Center. But back to the subject at hand, and to point out your lack of familiarity with it, Whole Foods Market is hardly a paragon of organic food offerings. It's better than a Kroger's but not by much. Suggest you make an outing to your local farmers market, where once again you'll find yourself surrounded by Asians, Latinos, Indians, etc. (Gasp!). Not as "elitist", just people who actually save money, considering the specimens of produce they buy give them more nutrition for their dollar, if not by weight.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 9:12 AM, Weitzhuis wrote:

    There are many problems with that meta-study. Two of the biggest is it included data that other similiar studies threw out due to the poor quality of such data, only by the inclusion of this data was this meta-study able to show its results. Most studies comparing Organic vs. Conventional (with all thee variances existing in conventional) show little nutrtional differences in the two. This meta-study is the outlier.

    The second problem was, in all of th data, organically approved pesticide levels were never tested for, only synthetic. So, of course organically grown foods seemed to have less and fewer pesticides. This is simply not known as levels for pyrethrins, rotonene and copper sulfate were never looked at (as well as other organic pesticides, such as nicotene). So the claim that there are less and fewer pesticides are specious at best.

    Other problems were lack of controls of growing conditions, soil makeup etc. It's easy to have lower cadmium if it's not in the soil to begin with, regardless of growing method ! Or more Zinc, if said soil happens to be rich in it.

    Basically its a study made to give the results that the sponsors wanted to hear.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 9:28 AM, Weitzhuis wrote:

    Gralin, that so called study tries to link some sort of kidney disease with glyphosate. Yet the India, El Salvador and Sri Lanka do not grow RR GMO's. So, glyphosate wouldn't be sprayed on crops there.

    Yet, here in the US and Canada, where hard water, heavy metals and RR crops exist, we see none of this.

    Ever notice that these dire mysterious diseases attributed to GMO use always seem to be reported to westerners as only occuring in far off hard to verify regions?

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