An uproar over organic

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As you know, we carry a bunch of feeds from other sites that might be of interest to you all. The ScienceDaily posts are the most frequent, and I usually can’t keep up with them. Their headline about organic food having  “little evidence of health benefits” did grab my attention however. The Stanford study that prompted it got a lot of coverage elsewhere; an NPR report prompted a flood of angry responses, and a New York Times op-ed by Roger Cohen praising it got a stinging retort from Donna DeViney of Soilent Greens in which she calls him an elitist halfwit among many other things.

The response to Stanford’s study from almost everyone I know has been the same—a big, ringing “so what.” Gardeners don’t grow produce without chemicals because they think it has more vitamins. As DeViney states:

Spraying Roundup is easy. Mulching and hoeing in the hot Texas sun on this little patch of organic acreage is way freaking harder. But we find it worth the extra work to not develop tumors, disease, genetic defects, or the sense that we’re above it all, out here in the actual dirt…You know, where food comes from.

And, of course, taste is never mentioned in the study. Homegrown produce—which is generally organic—just tastes better, as do the vegetables from our area organic farms. I never thought organic food being “good for you” had anything to do with nutrition; I thought the label was more about what the food didn’t have, in terms of pesticides and other chemicals.

Studies like these don’t weigh very much when put in the scale against common sense. I get that there has to be research, but each individual study only tells  part of the story. Unfortunately, when a small (and somewhat irrelevant) piece of the puzzle receives such widespread distribution—and then gets distorted further in pieces like the Times—you have to wonder if the research has any benefit whatever.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


    • So there are organic gardening cranks in the US as much as here in UK. The organic gardening fraternity who get their misinformation from fellow gardening cranks and believe everything they are told have never managed to grasp the fact that whether plant nutrient is applied as organic or inorganic the plant can only take the nutrient up as inorganic chemical compounds. Organic nutrient has to be converted to inorganic compounds by soil bacteria before the plant can use it. By the time the nutrient is being absorbed by the plant it is the same whether from organic or inorganic sources. Therefore there is no way an organic vergetable or fruit or whatever can be any way more nutritious or healthy than one grown inorganically. Organic based pesticides (organophosphates eg Pyrethrum) are just as deadly if used incorrectly so eating crops sprayed with organic pesticides is also no healthier than pesticides divised in laboritories from chemistry research and development. I am a former professional gardener.

      • Collin, I think a big difference is that in the organic garden, pesticides are used as a last resort; in the conventionally-grown garden, pesticides are used as prevention. An organic gardener has to pay more attention to the soil, to the environment he/she is growing food in, to work with nature to keep crops healthy. The conventional gardener seems at war with the outdoors.

        It’s not a matter of “our food’s food is all-natural so it must have more vitamins”. It’s a matter of our food being grown in a way that put fewer toxins on it & into the environment … and if we did it ourselves, we are very proud & a little better fit for it.

        • Laura

          I think you’re right. I am the same in that I do not spray anything as a prevention but only when it become nessacary. I am not an organic gardener or inorganic but a mix of the two. Some organic gardening rules are not environmentally friendly. Pyrethrum spray is permitted and yet that spray is non-selective and will kill bees and other benefitial insects. Here many organic gardeners boil up rhubarb leaves to make spray which is oxalic acid and highly toxic to many creatures of benefit.

          Many organic fertilizers leave residues which are harmful if they get into waterways. Animal derived fertlizers and manures can carry disease and viruses if not properly heat sterilized. Organic gardeners complain that NO3 nitrates produce Co2 gas but they do not mention about the 20 times more powerful methane gas which is produced from animal manures and from composting.

          It is more often fungicides which are sprayed as a prevention and here many fungicides have become ineffective due to over use and the fungi has become resistant. I try to get a balance between organic and inorganic and I do not have much faith in the rhetoric which is put out by the hardened organic gardeners who want to live their lives like cavemen and are against development and efficiency.

      • Colin, I don’t disagree that a plant will ingest vitamins and minerals only as an inorganic byproduct of micro-organisms. I do take some exception to your wholesale dismissal of the benefits of applying those undiminshed vitamins and minerals in a more environmentally friendly way. The biggest difference between an organic and an inorganic fertilizer lies in the delivery system. Those nutrients attached to synthetic or petroleum based products will be absorbed eventually by a hungry plant, but many times, those synthetics remain persistent in the surrounding soils. Their presence often disrupts or eliminates the natural processes that you so readily dismiss.

        I also grant you that any pesticides, if they are applied improperly, are unhealthy for the end user. However, it is more the practice of inorganic gardening to apply such measures preventatively (and often unnecessarily) than the organic gardener, who uses pesticides (as commenter Laura Bell thoughtfully points out) reactively as a last resort.

        It may be true that organic produce has no more nutritional benefit than so called conventional produce (though there have been as many studies that would advocate that they do), but such is the world of advertising (does drinking a certain beer guarantee you a well-appointed blonde on your arm)? What can’t be argued is that gardening with a method that preserves a natural balance several million years in the making is, by most measures, a better method. I am currently a professional gardener.

        • Bonoponio

          My rant was too rantified I admit and I didn’t properly explain myself. I sounded like I was dismissing all things organic. What you say is true and I agree with you. I am not at all environmentally unfriendly in my beliefs and attitudes but it isn’t easy to know what to believe and what not to believe and as I am a former professional grower with a reasonable knowledge of plant nutrition and pesticide chemicals.

          I know I said a plant cannot take up nutrients as organic compounds but only as soluble inorganic chemical compounds and therefore there can be no diffence in taste or health benefits and I know that to be the case. I also know and should have said that that doesn’t mean soil does not need a regular supply of organic matter to maintain a good soil structure for airation and nutrient buffering and water retention/drainage, because soil does.

          Organic growing when kept sensible and sane and applied along with inorganics where appropriate is the not only the most productive but also the most environmentally friendly. It too much of a simplification for people to say that all things organic means ‘good’ and all things inorganic means ‘bad’

          Organic gardening crankies who are not interested in the science or the facts only want to believe and promote what they want to believe and they attack anything which is modern and efficient and productive because it doesn’t suit their own chosen way of life. They live in their dream world of organic play gardening while the inorganic farmers and growers get on and produce the food everyone needs. If we left it to the organic gardening devotees to produce the worlds food they could not ever produce a fraction of the needs.

          Fact is in the real world if someone has a few hundred acres of crops getting eaten by caterpillars or aphids then there is only one option and that is to spray them as the farmer has not planted crops to feed them. Adding Animal manure to the soil is essential, but there is never going to be enough of that to adequately cover thousands or millions of acres. Neither can animal manures be relyed on to supply all the required nutrients. Fertilizers have to be used. It isn’t correct to say all Organic fertilizers are safe to the environment and all the inorganic ones are damaging to the environment. And like I said before organic or inorganic doesn’t matter to the plants themselves as the soluble nutrient they take up is the same in the end.

          • Bono

            To add a bit more because I didn’t take up your point about organic produce being free of chemical residues and therefore more healthy. If you are talking about home grown produce grown by yourself then you know for sure what the produce has had applied to it and if the crops have been grown totally free of sprays. Then you can be sure you are not eating anything which could be unhealthy.

            What you say can’t be applied to organic produce which has been bought from a shop. As we know many organic based pesticides are certified as acceptable for application to produce produced as organic. Therefore organic produce bought from a shop may well have been sprayed with organic based pesticides which are not at all healthy if eaten.

  1. Whereas I agree there are lots of benefits to growing organic produce irrespective of nutrition, I am annoyed, as a population health scientist, by the public reaction to the results of this important and well conducted study. The investigation in question was not about taste or environmental issues; it was about the levels of nutrients in organic compared to non-organic vegetables. It’s important to remember that the organic food industry is just that; an industry concerned only with making money, and for a long time now making completely unfounded claims about organic food being more nutritious. It’s important that we know that organic veg is not more nutritious than non-organic veg, as many people are spending a fortune on organic produce, even thinking that it would be wrong to feed their children anything else, under this false premise sold to them by the food industry. The question now is whether there is any real evidence for the contribution of environmental toxins in sprays and fertilizer to public health and disease. I suspect there may be some evidence, but either way, we will need to use an objective scientific approach to find out. Science is not the enemy here.

    • Quote:
      “The question now is whether there is any real evidence for the contribution of environmental toxins in sprays and fertilizer to public health and disease.”

      Actually that’s not really in question. Those things do exactly that. That’s why field workers come down sick with cancers and all manner of ailments. Some of the newer Monsanto ideas

      “We will need to use an objective scientific approach to find out. Science is not the enemy here.”

      It is depending on what kind of science is being used and what Scientists and who signs their pay-cheques. Industrial profit driven Ag science is what rules. If the other science is so out of touch , then why are they spending of million$$$ to character assasinate or personal attack them as opposed to revealing the supposed flaws in their research exposing the dangers ? This is exactly what happened to to researchers like Irina Ermakova amd others who revealed organ damage caused by GMO Soy to animals.

    • I agree with you kevinb on your post.

      I suspect the organic industry (as it is) is the same the world over as probably as bad in the US as here in the UK where it is basically a money making scam to attract government and European Union subsidies and to load a price premium onto the finished produce in the shops. They then gush out endless misinformation to guilt trip the ignorant public into buying it.

      Our TV and other media has been hyjacked by the ”politically correct’ with hidden agendas and various campaigns to promote. All of our media whether it be gardening magazines or TV gardening shows are dominated and controlled by the ‘Organic Gardening’ Nuts. As gardening and growing your own is not taught in schools here people who become interested in gardening have no knowledge from childhood so have to learn from the media. Therefore the Organic Gardening belief system has gathered pace unchecked and is now dominant yet based on very little factually correct information.

      People in positions of power have been on a Banning Rampage over the past 3 decades (known often as the Banning Gestapo) so nearly all of the products to kill and prevent pests and diseases which actually worked have been taken off the market. The new ones are based on substances like ”fatty acids” acceptable to the ‘Organic Dictators’ in power but the pests laugh at them.

      If organic produce that has become more and more produced and consumed over the past 3 decades is so good and healthy then how is it that here in UK the population has become less nutritionally healthy over the past 3 decades with obicity becoming more and more of a problem year one year. Everywhere I look now there is fat children and yet in the 70s when I was a child very few people were overweight.

    • Spot on, Alan! I seem to gnash my teeth a lot when reviewing studies that have been noticed by mainstream media. I see a lot of titles that tell me they had a foregone conclusion and structured the study to prove it. Then there are the “well, duh” studies proving clinically-ish something there’s reams of evidence for, usually involving insomnia, migraines, weight loss and wait gain.

      What really bugs me, especially relating to those four topics, is the “can’t win for losing”, “you’re stuck with this situation, genetic or environmental, and also this result from that”. Thanks, guys. Cheers me right up.

      Studies that don’t consider enough factors drive me nuts. Sometime after I was a mother, there was a study about folic acid intake and neural tube defects. They gave all women, regardless of weight, the same dose (400mg), and then said the results weren’t as good for heavier women. Well, why didn’t you try a none, 400, and 800mg branch for them? Not doing so proved nothing about results for the heavier women, except that someone hadn’t thought enough in constructing the study. Heck, they could have titrated dose to weight across the study population, but that didin’t occur to them, either.

      Studies funded by an industry it will affect are likewise suspect, to me. One always has to follow the money to determine what bias or possible conflict of interest there might be.

      While I’m sure that some organic programs of pest & weed control can have bad side effects (including stench), “chemical” (yes, I know most everything used in gardening is some organic (containing carbon) chemical) ones are worse, in general. I cannot stand the stench of piperidine/pyrethin based sprays. St. Gabriel’s BurnOutII weedkiller (has clove oil in it), and any of the orange-rind-oil based pesticides, furniture polish, and cleaners, smell nice and work for me, or I wouldn’t buy them again.

      I buy heirloom vegetables, fruits, seeds, and (edible) plants because the taste is better. However, in my Santa Cruz house, there was an old apple tree, a Golden Delicious we think, which once pruned, was a beautiful and healthy tree. I have never had any store-bought apples of the Delicious family that tasted as good as that apple–but its juice was even better. I let my gardener take all the apples he wanted, and I’d get a half-gallon of juice in return.

  2. Study after study has shown the same results but you tree huggers just won’t let go.

    Give me fresh local food from my garden or nearby farm as opposed to USDA organic garlic from China. Freshness is the key, where it came from is the key not what controls were sprayed on it.

    Organics are better for the soil in preventing runoff and maintaining a healthy soil profile. That’s it plain and simple.

    Second is the carbon/economic footprint. You mean to tell me that USDA garlic from China is better for the wallet/earth than non organic garlic grown thousands of miles closer?

    Not even close………wake up and measure the shoe size not whether it’s organic or not.

    The TROLL

    • I live near Gilroy. Few of us want to use Chinese garlic. We like Christopher Ranch brand, and many of us in the South Bay enjoy it when the wind comes up from there during harvest or processing time.

      Few of us want Chinese pine nuts, either. Not quite the right taste, rather like using piñon pine nuts as a substitute in Italian dishes also doesn’t work.

  3. The actual concerns people have which were not at all addressed, actual true purpose and timing of this study were suspicious to me when it first came out a few days ago. While I live way over in frozen Timbuktu Sweden where most things have to be imported anyway(because we can’t grow much anything without greenhouses) , I am still aware from reading the News over there of the political fight that will be waged in November over labeling whether or not something is GMO or NOT. And it’s not just fresh produce folks want labeled, but even the usual processed things like Chips, Breads and so forth.

    Monsanto and other companies like them with a vested profit interest in such consequences apparently have been dumping million$$$ into destroying any hopes of such a labeling coming into reality.

    As the post and others have already mentioned, that has never been an issue with most who purchase Organics or grow their own. It’s always been about GMOs, Pesticides and other synthetic chemical fertilizers and down the line health consequences. Another EXCELLENT point mentioned was TASTE. They also taste richer in flavour than industrial farming goods. Greg’s point on localization is also well taken. Even Joel Salatin preaches localized production and eliminating the transport elements which are clearing not a part of sustainability. Garlic from China isn’t worth the petroleum for shipping and the Chinese Freighter bilge water sucked in over there and released 1000s of miles in some other overseas ports releasing millions of microscopic organisms which turn into invasives elsewhere is another issue. The issues are endless and yet the very one (nutrition) this group of bought and paid for scientists picked on I can never recall people complaining about the nutrition angle as a major issue for their choices of opting for organics.

    I’ve never voted ever, mostly because I don’t believe it really accomplishes anything, but I respect others right to try changing things the way they see fit. But I must say this issue coming up in a couple of months will be entertaining to say the least.

  4. “Extra work not to develop tumors…”

    You mean like the benign throat tumors from organic pyrethrins?

    The taste issue has been tested in blind taste tests and organic doesn’t come out on top. Well except when testing for placebo effect then people erroneously think the “organic” is tastier even though the foods being tasted are exactly the same.

    But of course no amount of evidence matters because CONSPIRACY!! C.c

    • Try this one SKR

      I use to buy my mycorrhizal inoculum from Plant Health Care Inc (PHC). They became more and more disconnected from their customers and were more interested in pimping their publicly traded stock for which they have several pages on their website dedicated to. I quit purchasing their product when they went to bed with Monsanto on a technological product called Harpin Technology. It’s genetically Engineered E-coli bacteria sprayed on vegetables meant to trick the plant into thinking it’s being attacked and boosting it’s immune system. So vegetables are sprayed with E-coli. but it’s supposed to be safe. Like everything else Monsanto gets it’s dirty fingers on.

      • You do realize that E. coli is one of the most diverse species of bacteria in the world and that there is more genetic variation between strains of E. coli than between humans and chimpanzees, right. Yes, there are strains of E. coli that are very dangerous. There are others that live in you intestines and help you out.

        • Come on Skeeter, you totally missed the point. Yes everybody knows the kindergarden understanding of E-coli, but I was speaking about Monsanto’s Franken-Defecation on Veggies. If you are kool with such things then by all means eat them.

          And I have no idea why you bring up the religious worldview of Chimp/human mythologies being inserted in the discussing here. Save it for the combat forums.

    • “‘Extra work not to develop tumors…’

      You mean like the benign throat tumors from organic pyrethrins?

      The taste issue has been tested in blind taste tests and organic doesn’t come out on top. Well except when testing for placebo effect then people erroneously think the “organic” is tastier even though the foods being tasted are exactly the same.

      But of course no amount of evidence matters because CONSPIRACY!! C.c”


      First of all, you’re the worst kind of troll. The one who sounds reasonable, but upon even cursory inspection has only a little Googled knowledge to pass off as “fact.” And wants attention for Google-mastery. And perhaps actually thinks he knows of whence he speaks.

      Oh, and kudos on a decent vocabulary.

      Secondly, start being an actual “organic farmer” on a decent-sized plot, and get back to the rest of us who are on how this life really is.

      “Real”organic farmers don’t use ANYTHING that isn’t produced on the farm or in our own kitchens as amendments, insecticides, or pesticides. We know that heirloom organic seeds, home-made compost, organic mulch, Neem oil, baking soda, white vinegar, garlic, chili peppers, and our hands are the most powerful tools in our arsenals, and we use them VERY effectively. Achieved goals: a little bug damage, significant crop yields, no chemicals, no disease from our crops.

      We don’t rely on the “Permitted” list of ingredients from the USDA, since we already know that the USDA has been bought out, and the list of permitted amendments jumped the shark years ago, to the benefit of chemical producers and huge “Organic” labels mass-produced in Chile and China.

      Whatever you’re eating, keep on eating it, Perhaps the tumors will stop the voices in your head that are telling you that you know what the fuck you’re talking about, and anybody with a brain is actually believing you.

      As we say when we really mean “fuck you” in the south: Bless your heart.

  5. i agree with previous commenter’s (greg draiss) statement “Organics are better for the soil …” and would add a quote from the book _Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations_ by David R. Montgomery :

    re: the US agriculture industry: ” This puts us in the odd position of consuming fossil fuels –geologically one of the rarest and most useful resources ever discovered– to provide a substitute for dirt –the cheapest and most widely available agricultural input imaginable.”

  6. Yeah, add me to the “nutritious shmitious” camp. I garden (and eat) organically because of bugs, frogs, birds, and all the other critters that are harmed by pesticides, not because I expect organic food to be a panacea.

    Frankly, I get pretty annoyed with the Organic = Awesome And Good For You fallacy anyway–cyanide is organic, strychnine is organic, and there are plenty of perfectly organic plants in my garden that will really ruin your day if you eat them. Plants are not inherently benevolent organisms.

    • I’m certain that Amy Stewart here has a few more plants in her garden that will make you rue your day, or worse.

      Speaking of rue, I can’t stand the taste of that herb. Tried it once in medicinal use and foreswore it ever after.

  7. The purpose of the massive exposure of this “study-of-studies” is/was to influence the California vote on labeling genetically modified/engineered food or content in processed food.

    It is about spin and politic and profit and has nothing to do with science, taste, nutrition, or health.

    Look deeper and the funding or hope of future funding/payoff by the GM/GE food giants and pesticide firms will become clearer.

  8. Yes, the over blown organic is good rhetoric has gotten really tiresome, and if you understand plants you realized that the spinach doesn’t care where that nitrate ion came from. There are many good reasons to consider organic farming, and most of those are ecological, but nutritionally, fruits and vegetables are going to be the same, so these findings are no surprise at all.

    • I was explaining to a friend what rainwater did to a container plant and why her plants would perk up after a rain. Of course the explanation involved EC and ions in water (your NO3- comment made me think of this). She replied,”Oh ionized water, that’s a whole other conversation.” My face was firmly planted in my palm. Seriously, they need to make basic chemistry a required course in high school.

  9. Does anyone else think that the farther away from our food sources we get (and the less we understand about how it’s grown/raised and processed), the more paranoid and conspiracy-minded we become about it (and the more likely to accept what fear-mongers tell us to believe)? Hmm, come to think of it, the same logic applies to government and politics–the farther we get from being participants ourselves, the more we think government is an outside entity, out to get us…..

  10. There has never been a blind taste test that shows any difference in taste in organic vegtables, There have been hundreds of studies that show no nutritional difference. There is a recent study that shows pesticide levels between organic and conventionally grown produce are identical.

    It is mostly an addiction for elitists with no health benefits and far greater cost.

  11. Think soil, not plant.

    One nice thing about organic gardening is that because the fertilizers/compost whatnot are organic (as in, the nutrients are tied up in organic compounds, like nitrogen in dried blood for one example), that there is an inherent slow-release action of those nutrients into the soil, making more of the nutrients available to the plant. Also, the soil life is responsible for breaking those organic compounds, which means soil life thrives, which in turn means healthier soil.

    Miracle-grow type fertilizers don’t provide either of those benefits.

  12. Many of these posts are missing an important point. At a time when every Big Food corporation is pouring money into trying to defeat Proposition 37, the Right to Know measure, which merely calls for labeling genetically modified foods, a study dismissing organic food health benefits is released by Stanford, which has ties to Monsanto and Cargill, two of the most anti-right-to-know corporations. The real question is this: Does Stanford have the best scientist money can buy?

    • Thank you Lionel, that is exactly the issue despite some dweeb’s attempt at deflection and hijacking this thread to water down the subject.

      As to your question, yes it appears Stanford does have the best researchers money can persuade. There is a sad fact of life when it comes to Science as a tool and discipline, the bad science is what controls our world. It’s interconnected with the political powers and Big Business powers that decision make. Their obsession with consumerism and keeping the average consumer in the dark is of utmost priority.

      Good science gets shelved away unless people start paying attention to it and making practical applications of it in the real world. If that grows then Corporate Science won’t have a prayer.

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