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Organicically-Produced Food NOT Better

Stanford University study confirms again the fact that organically-produced food is NOT better in any way over that grown with chemical inputs such a fertilizer!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

September 9, 2012

Again, I could not locate any number of photos to illustrate this article, so I have collected together ten shots of our garden here in Parksville. Above, first, two photos of Verbena bonariensis we now have growing in a small bed right at our seawall, the first with the Strait of Georgia (or Salish Sea) in the background, and the second, a closer-up shot; and then a visitor on some of our Impatiens; our green banana plant (which comes indoors or is protected for the winter) on our street-side patio; and a gorgeous plant here because of its extremely long blooming period—Lavatera x clementii ‘Eyecatcher’. Below, Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’ Floating Clouds, a new addition this year with beautiful foliage; moving indoors, this is Medinilla magnifica still in full flower in the Great Room—that is over two months now; also indoors, Alocasia odora with the Medinilla in the background; our Bird of Paradise now outdoors in full flower; and a little pot of Chives and our turtle nite-lite. Author photos.

Over my 50+ years of answering gardening questions, on and at various venues (radio, TV, exhibitions, news-papers, the Web etc.) one question has come often perhaps more often than any other. It usually is asked in response to a comment or suggestion I have made. And, it comes in many forms. The usual: “Are you recom-mending a chemical fertilizer over an organic one?” Or “Do you suggest a chemical insecticide, fungicide or herbicide over an organic product?”

My simple answer is always, Yes!

Let’s look at the fertilizer aspect first. There has never been, nor is there now, one iota of research that shows that any plant can tell the difference between any particular nutrient (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potash or any of the trace elements) delivered from a chemical fertilizer, vs. from an organic one. That will be argued by the organic buffs, but nevertheless, it is a fact.

So, when asked questions such as this I have generally offered the facts first, followed by the comment that there is not much wrong with organic ingredients and if that is what you want to use, then by all means use the organic product—but you should know that there is no distinct advantage. The disadvantage should also be pointed out, and the main one is that organic products are generally more expensive to produce, and thus cost more. They may also be less convenient to use.

Now, what about the pesticides? The story is a little different here. Most professionals, regardless of which side of the fence they are on (chemical or organic) will agree that chemical pesticides generally do a better (faster, less expensive and more efficient) job than do the organic counterparts. Moreover, the vast majority of “organic alternatives” may be almost ineffective unless they are used (applied) within a very narrow window of opportunity. Anyone who has tried using the living nematodes to control white grubs in lawns will know about this!

In sync with this thinking, I have always advised that organic produce, meat and other foodstuffs was not any better for the eater than the so-called chemical-produced mainstream products. The main difference between the two, almost always, is the significant cost advantage the chemical-produced products have—i.e. the organic products are a lot more expensive.

Over the years, there have been various studies conducted on the topic, and periodically I have commented on them in several media.

Now, we have what appears to be the most extensive and exhaustive review of applicable studies ever done, and it was done at the prestigious Stanford University in California. For the balance of this article I am going to quote what Michelle Brandt of Stanford University said in a lengthy item for the University.

“You’re in the supermarket eyeing a basket of sweet, juicy plums. You reach for the conventionally grown stone fruit, then decide to spring the extra $1/pound for its organic cousin. You figure you’ve just made the healthier decision by choosing the organic product--but new findings from Stanford University cast some doubt on your thinking.

“‘There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,’ said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, published in the September 4th issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

“A team led by Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA [Veterans Affairs] Palo Alto Health Care System, did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods. They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.

“The popularity of organic products, which are generally grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones, is skyrocketing in the United States. Between 1997 and 2011, U.S. sales of organic foods increased from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion, and many consumers are willing to pay a premium for these products. Organic foods are often twice as expensive as their conventionally grown counterparts.

“Although there is a common perception--perhaps based on price alone--that organic foods are better for you than non-organic ones, it remains an open question as to the health benefits. In fact, the Stanford study stemmed from Bravata’s patients asking her again and again about the benefits of organic products. She didn’t know how to advise them.

“So Bravata, who is also chief medical officer at the health-care transparency company Castlight Health, did a literature search, uncovering what she called a ‘confusing body of studies, including some that were not very rigorous, appearing in trade publications.’ There wasn’t a comprehensive synthesis of the evidence that included both benefits and harms, she said.

“‘This was a ripe area in which to do a systematic review,’ said first author Smith-Spangler, who jumped on board to conduct the meta-analysis with Bravata and other Stanford colleagues.

“For their study, the researchers sifted through thousands of papers and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. Those included 17 studies (six of which were randomized clinical trials) of populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days to two years.

“After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient—phosphorus—was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

“The researchers were also unable to identify specific fruits and vegetables for which organic appeared the consistently healthier choice, despite running what Bravata called ‘tons of analyses.’

“‘Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Smith-Spangler, who is also an instructor of medicine at the School of Medicine. ‘We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.’

“The review yielded scant evidence that conventional foods posed greater health risks than organic products. While researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides. What’s more, as the researchers noted, the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits. Two studies of children consuming organic and conventional diets did find lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets, though the significance of these findings on child health is unclear. Additionally, organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the clinical significance of this is also unclear.

“As for what the findings mean for consumers, the researchers said their aim is to educate people, not to discourage them from making organic purchases. “If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,’ noted Bravata. She listed taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare as some of the reasons people choose organic products.

“‘Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,’” said Smith-Spangler. ‘This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.'

“She also said that people should aim for healthier diets overall. She emphasized the importance of eating of fruits and vegetables, ‘however they are grown,’ noting that most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount.

“In discussing limitations of their work, the researchers noted the heterogeneity of the studies they reviewed due to differences in testing methods; physical factors affecting the food, such as weather and soil type; and great variation among organic farming methods. With regard to the latter, there may be specific organic practices (for example, the way that manure fertilizer, a risk for bacterial contamination, is used and handled) that could yield a safer product of higher nutritional quality.

“‘What I learned is there’s a lot of variation between farming practices,’ said Smith-Spangler. ‘It appears there are a lot of different factors that are important in predicting nutritional quality and harms.’

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