Why Organic?

by guest blogger Coach Mark Smallwood, Rodale Institute executive director

The latest media buzz over organic foods is a bit of a non-event here at the Rodale Institute. The Stanford study asks the question, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?” It is a good question, one that many citizens ask themselves each time they head to the grocery store. The fact is the researchers didn’t really answer it, despite the headlines claiming organic food is not healthier or safer. In fact, the questions they did answer point firmly toward organic as a better choice.

The study is a meta-analysis (or review) of existing research comparing pesticide residues, bacterial contamination, and nutrition content of organic versus conventional foods, as well as the potential for an allergic reaction when consuming either. Shoveling all the hype aside, some of the things they found were:

  1. Organic foods were just as nutritious as conventional foods.
  2. Conventional fruits and vegetables were more likely to carry pesticide residues.
  3. Organic milk contained more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Conventional meat was more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Just those facts alone should be enough reason to eat organic. But let’s dig a little deeper.

The Stanford researchers focused on whether or not there were pesticide residues, but didn’t evaluate the latest research regarding the SAFETY of these potential exposures.

We have little long-term research on the health impacts of chronic, low-level pesticide exposures. And the research that is out there is troubling. Exposure to these toxins has been linked to brain and central nervous system disruption, infertility, cancer, and even changes to our DNA. A number of recent studies have associated prenatal pesticide exposures to ADHD, low birth weight, and lower IQ in children. Have we already forgotten the recommendations of the President’s Cancer Panel, which urged the public to reduce environmental cancer risks by choosing foods grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers?

And there are more than just pesticides lurking on that apple in your fridge. Agricultural chemicals regularly show up in our water supply well above what are considered “safe” limits. We believe the water we drink and the air we breathe account for a portion of our health and safety.

The Stanford researchers have narrowly defined HEALTH in terms of nutrient content. This shortsighted definition of health is what has gotten us in trouble with so many fad diets and alternative foodstuffs like margarine and saccharin. Would we be truly healthy if we lived on vitamin pills rather than food?

The fact is nutrition research on organic foods is very much in its infancy. The “literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional food,” as the researchers concluded, partly because there is very little research to speak of. And much of the research out there has been criticized for having too many variables. For example, ripeness directly influences nutrition content.

One recent study out of Washington State University that actually compared strawberries in an “apples-to-apples” fashion found the organically grown fruits had higher levels of both vitamin C and antioxidants. This study was, unfortunately, left out of the Stanford review.

As the birthplace of American organic agriculture, shouldn’t the Rodale Institute be in an uproar like the rest of the organic community? We know organic food and farming are both healthier and safer for individuals and families nationwide. But, if nutrient content is how organic foods will be weighed and measured by American shoppers, it is time for some long-term, hands-in-the-dirt research to really find out how organic and conventional foods stack up. And we’re ripe to take on the challenge. The institute has side-by-side research fields that have been managed organically and conventionally for more than 30 years. Our Farming Systems Trial would be the perfect location for a sound nutritional study.

Of course, nutrients only tell part of the story. We believe in telling the whole story here at the Rodale Institute, and in getting good food to the good people of this country without poisoning our water, our air, and our soil.


Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched “Your 2 Cents,” a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs, and driven a team of oxen.



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10 Responses to Why Organic?

  1. Barbara September 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Thank you for this honest review of the ‘review’ on organic vs conventional foods. When asked about the choices, as a long-time coordinator of a natural foods buying club, I always have members consider not just the price difference but the whole picture of choosing organic over conventional as you outlined so well. Living in the center of ‘Monsanto-controlled’ agriculture and ranch lands, espousing organic has been slow and difficult, but I believe the tides are turning in the right direction by educating one consumer at a time. Rodale Inst. has been a great help in my own education on organic and I appreciate the hard work of everyone involved.

  2. dk September 20, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    The sad thing is the fact that soils have been depleted of minerals over many years of use. It takes 12 years max to deplete farm land, unless it is bottom land that gets flooded each year with added minerals or fed from glacial waters, and just adding N-P-K to the soil does not give us what we need in the way of minerals to survive.
    Crops through the process of photosynthesis, make vitamins, amino acids, and enzymes. They cannot make minerals and can only absorb what minerals are in the soil they grow in. This goes for both organic and conventional farming. Pesticide on the other hand is a whole new ball game, because it curtails (to some degree) the plant’s ability to absorb what minerals are in the soil. It also hurts the soil’s composition, and this would take awhile of reading and for me to explain. A small pamplet this is not.
    In the greater scheme of things, plants get the minerals from the soil and we eat the plants for our health. As an example, Magnesium alone, will prevent and cure over 150 known diseases. If we do not get the minerals our immune systems gets weakened. You lose, but who gains from you taking drugs, and going to the hospital? We need 90 nutrients every day. This will prevent and cure over 900 diseases. The Ag industry has known this fact since the middle of the twentieth century and yet we do not add minerals to the soil of large (taxpayer subsidised) million dollar farms across America.
    Who cares what Sanford University says, since they get grants from large corporations and chemical companies, how can you trust their word? They used documents gather over 20 years and threw out what they didn’t want. They did not do their own study.
    The bottom line is fact; Crops that are heavily sprayed and saturated with pesticides and herbides get into the soil. The plants absorb these toxic poisons and you and your love ones eat these crops. All this, so co-op farmers do not have to cultivate weeds, and large chemicals companies can sell their products and make money. Well guess what; some plants and insects are already immune to all of these sprays and Monsanto, Dow, and others, now want to use stronger herbicides, like the ones from the basic building block of Agent Orange. The same herbicide that ruined the health of 158 thousand American veterans in Vietnam, (and led many to early cancer deaths) and an estimated over half a million Vietnamese people that are still having mutated effect in newborn’s today.
    This is all for financial gains, with disregards and disrespect for your health.

  3. Brian September 20, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Add to this the recent news reports about arsenic in rice, due primairly to the fertilizers being used.

  4. Walter Haugen September 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Since the NOP standards are not based on safety nor nutritional levels, the claim from so-called “certified” organic producers and retailers is a fraud anyway. “Certified” organic is a marketing tool pure and simple. It is quite different from using organic methods. I have been using organic methods for over 50 years but I am not “certified” organic. The branding is a fraud because it depends on the consumer conflating safety and marketing.

  5. Dyan September 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    I think the most important reason to grow and eat organic is the life that lives in these fields. Three quarters of the joy of garden/growing is the birds, butterflies, bees, worms and bugs that come to the garden. It hums with life in the spring summer and fall. I’m pretty sure if you go by a garden and you don’t here the hum of life you probably shouldn’t be eating the food.

  6. MaryJ September 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    I have eaten organic and natural foods for years and will continue to when possible. However, the thing that always stands out to me is the belief system that proponents of organics have. Basically ANY study that comes out will be refuted by you if it does not agree with what essentially has become a religion. The topic of my e-mail from Rodale said it all-“Why the Stanford study doesn’t matter”. Like any religion you don’t want to be confused with the facts. Sorry that is just a little too extreme for me.

  7. Sharon September 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    People who eat organics are typically NOT doing it because they read the label for nutritional value. In fact, organic produce doesn’t come with a label for nutritional value anyhow! Most of us are trying to minimize damages inflicted on us from things we have little or no control over, things such as what chemical fragrance someone chooses to wear next to me at work, or spray in the restrooms of public areas; the exposure to pesticides the city or county choose to spray in the park or on my street; the herbicide my neighbor 2 streets over had sprayed on his lawn so he didn’t have to change his mower height, habits, watering techniques that floated on the breeze to my yard while we were having an alfresco dinner; the in utereo exposures before we were born; bad choices we and others in our lives/realm of influence have made in the past that we are reaping the consequences of now. Consequences like asthma, migranes, cancers, malaise, insomnia, ADHD and numerous syndromes.
    If we were only worried about “nutritional value” we would all just pop a vitamin pill (think Jetsons) rather than strive for home cooked meals. Hey! No dishes! No recipe books or chopping endless veggies.
    The research misses the point, and like someone else already pointed out, is biased from the get-go.

    Organic agriculture is not hype. It is our future. Ignore it, and we have no future. Because conventional agriculture is NOT solving the hunger problems. It is NOT less expensive (Farm Bill is paid for by our taxes, prices are subsidized by government) and it is NOT for our good….long term or short term for us or our planet and fellow inhabitants.

  8. Alexxander September 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    I believe in organics. I realize like in all areas of life, people commit fraud. I stand behind my belief that I am more likely to avoid pesticides by purchasing organic food rather than conventional food. Two points for anyone interested. 1) In 2005 my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was getting chemo for her treatment until she asked me if she had to continue chemo because it made her very sick. I told her no and we told her doctor who argued and tried to convince me to continue with therapy. Mom was getting a PET Scan every 3 months, so I told the doctor that we could keep an eye on the cancer & maybe Mom might change her mind but other than that, no more treatments. 3 mo. later there was no change, but 3 mo. after that there was no cancer. The doctor looked at me like I was crazy when I first told her “…but we’re eating organic”. I’m sure she was thinking, AND? Six years later she is still cancer free. 2) I use this analogy: If you are building two identical houses with equal amount people and equal skill. The difference being on one house everyone is healthy and in the other house they are not. Like the cells in our body the sick side is going to be constantly interrupted & removing the sick slowing progress and working less effective.

  9. Milo September 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    The real question is: Who funded this research? At my university, the grad school is almost completely funded by gov’t grants in return for research. This study was probably funded by some entity who wanted to sway the public to continue to eat cheap, conventional food to 1) keep the $ inflow into major food corporations and 2) they realize the infrastructure and capacity just isn’t in place to feed America completely organic food. So, yeah, I can understand why they’re tip toeing around what’s blatantly obvious. It’s up to *us* to question and do the research ourselves!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  10. Larry September 28, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    I’m about ready to unsubscribe because the Rodale approach seems to be “this MIGHT cause you cancer” or whatever. MIGHT is worthless, except to those with paranoia who expect (and/or hope for) the worst from our scientists. I’m weary of the scare tactics used by Rodale. MIGHT could be applied to anything.

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