Many of you may have heard that a recent study from Stanford researchers indicates that the health benefits of eating organic food are not as readily apparent as once thought, at least over a course of a few years (http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685). Utilizing over 200 peer-reviewed studies that examined both the differences between organic and non-organic food and the health of people who eat organic and non-organic food, researchers concluded that: "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."
Reaction was widespread, but to make a gross generalization, many consumers were upset and felt duped or misled by companies advocating the benefits of organic food, which is often more expensive than comparable non-organic products. After all, it only makes logical sense that putting more chemicals and artificial pesticides into your body would be worse for your health; this study seemed to refute that.
There are a number of things to keep in mind, however, as people immediately pointed out after the study was published (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/07/160766896/organic-food-study-may-not-change-consumer-habits, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/07/opinion/why-organic-is-better-never-mind-the-study.html, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/sep/05/opinion/la-ed-organics-20120905, etc):
-First, the studies are short-term, looking into the health of individuals over a small period of time. What the long-term effects of eating organic food are is perhaps even more important than understanding the short-term effects, and while such studies are currently under investigation the jury is still out and will be for a while longer. Even though the health benefits alone were inconclusive for organic food, the study does say there is a much greater amount of pesticide residue on non-organic food.
-Second, having a specific organic label for certain types of foods adds to the transparency of the food industry, which has been anything but transparent in the past. Having a clear understanding of where and how food is grown and processed is important to consumers. The organic label, which is regulated by the FDA and the USDA, is just one relatively small way in which individuals can clearly recognize how a specific product came to be.
-Third, organic food is proven to be better for the environment. Industrial, non-organic farms use chemicals and pesticides that are devastating for the local environment, polluting watersheds and negatively affecting animals and plants downstream. Organic farms, on the other hand, contribute less to climate change, and do not put harmful chemicals in the soil, making them more sustainable. Furthermore, organic meats are free of antibiotics and hormones that similar non-organic foods contain, thereby decreasing the presence of drug-resistant bacteria and hormone-related side effects such as early puberty in girls.
-Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, organic food promotes a healthy lifestyle, where people celebrate the spirit of eating things that are maybe not necessarily better for you and your health but are grown sustainably and often locally, with the environment and the future in mind. Organic food, as NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, can promote the health and happiness of farm animals: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/kristof-where-cows-are-happy-and-food-is-healthy.html?src=me&ref=general. Organic food, in this way, becomes a moral choice, not just a personal health choice.
In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see how consumers react to the Stanford study; there may well be a decrease in the number of organic products sold. But it looks as if, at least in the interest of public health for cows and humans alike, organic may still the way to go. The bioethics aspect, in a way, is the organic, locally grown cherry on top.