Let's Ask the Right Questions about Organics and Health

As an environmental health scientist, and as a mother of a toddler with another baby on the way, I closely followed the recent media flurry on the health benefits of organic versus conventional foods following the release of a study by Stanford University scientists earlier this month.

The study concluded that there is no strong evidence to suggest that organic foods are healthier than conventional foods, so they may not be worth the extra cost. This provocative result brought about a chorus of criticism from supporters of organics, who rightly pointed out many issues with the study.

Looked at more closely, the Stanford study actually does not do much to damn organics. The authors' conclusions of no difference in health outcomes between people eating organic versus conventional foods are virtually meaningless because their study was based on a small number of studies, so did not have the power to detect a difference. And the results of the research actually point to important potential health benefits of organic foods, such as reduced levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat, and fewer pesticide residues on produce. All of this is certainly good for individuals and families who hope to reap some benefit from spending the extra money on organic foods.

But the emphasis on personal health has eclipsed the much larger questions we should really be asking about the health impacts to the population at large associated with producing organic foods.

The term "organic" refers to a production standard. It is not a standard for the final product we buy at the grocery store. Organic production standards ensure safer and healthier ways to grow food, without the use of pesticides. In addition, the standards prohibit the use of genetically engineered organisms and promote healthy tillage and other land management practices. Organically produced meat does not allow for the use of hormones or antibiotics, and requires that animals have access to the outdoors.

How our fruit and vegetables are grown and how our meat is raised is important because when used in agriculture harmful chemicals end up not only on our food but also in our air, water, and soil. So even those who eat nothing but organic food are still subject to the pesticides used in conventional food production.

Some people argue that it's elitist to make the decision to spend hard-earned dollars on organic food. But is it elitist to use those shopping dollars not only to care for ourselves but to reduce human costs to the people who feed us?

If we really want to talk about the health benefits of organics, we should consider not only those who consume them but the more than 2 million people who plant and harvest our nation's produce, and those living near conventional farms. These populations are exposed to higher-than-recommended doses of harmful pesticides on a daily basis. They also have been shown to have elevated rates of several different types of cancer, birth defects, respiratory ailments and learning disabilities.

There is ample evidence for harm to humans from pesticides. Exposure to the nearly 1,400 pesticides registered by the Environmental Protection Agency has been linked to at least 13 different types of cancers. Pesticide exposure is also associated with ADHD, lower IQ, neurodevelopmental deficits and changes in brain structure. Organophosphates, some of the most commonly used pesticides, are by design toxic to nervous systems, in order to kill pests. But that design unfortunately also harms our own bodies.

As a public health scientist and as a public citizen, and I have come to the conclusion that for the health of our families, the health of the environment, and the health of the people who work to put food on our dinner tables, we should stick with organic.

Karen Levy is an assistant professor of Environmental Health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and is Public Voice Fellow at The Op-Ed Project.