Stanford organic farming study sparks giant squabble

21 Sep Stanford organic farming study sparks giant squabble

This article appeared in Western Farm Press on Sep. 19, 2012

Richard Cornett, Director of Communications, Western Plant Health Association

No doubt the furor over a recent Stanford study — that undercuts health claims for organic food and finds no nutritional advantage in choosing it over its conventional counterparts — is torrential in degree and has alarmingly sparked a movement to have its findings rescinded.

Yes, you heard me right. Seems in today’s world when a group of people disagree with the outcome of an academic study that doesn’t suit them, then the perfectly logical thing to do is to start a petition calling for the paper to be withdrawn; never mind the strength of the researched results.

And this is exactly what is occurring following weeks of heated reaction to Stanford University’s report that appeared in a recent issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. Indeed, the petitioners, numbering more than 3,000 and growing, have signed the petition at making their grievances known.

Some of the petitioners have gone so far as accusing the university researchers of being biased liars and taking payoffs from nefarious Big Ag. “It is essential that we make enough waves within the media to force Stanford and the mainstream media to issue a retraction,” was one comment found on the petition.

Other statements on the website include: “The fatally flawed Stanford study claiming that organic food is the same as conventional … failed to examine food issues such as the use of GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, mercury in the food supply, and countless other factors.  Stanford University has also been found to have deep financial ties to Cargill, a powerful proponent of genetically engineered foods and an enemy of GMO labeling Proposition 37.”

Before I get into the specifics of the complaints, you have to ask yourself if this isn’t political correctness run amok. Silly me; I thought we were living in America — where academic independence and freedom reigns supreme, even when it doesn’t agree with popular culture or conventional thought?  The notion that a loud and disgruntled segment of society should attempt to suppress the scientific findings of academia should send chills down our spines. We are no longer living in the Dark Ages and our Earth indeed orbits around the sun!

It is in this spirit that a response to the petitioners goes something like this: the Stanford scientists weren’t studying genetically modified foods (though if GMO foods were in the conventional data, one might think that GMO-caused health factors would have revealed themselves in the results). And they weren’t studying high-fructose corn syrup — they were only reviewing fruits, vegetables, eggs, grains, dairy, poultry and meat. Not processed foods.

Stanford backbone

The article, in other words, wasn’t about the entirety of everything that people think is wrong about the way our food is grown and produced today.  It simply pointed out that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than traditionally grown crops, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were organic foods any less likely to be tainted by dangerous bacteria such as E. coli.

Although the authors of the study, headed by Dr. Dena Bravata of Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, are not commenting on the controversy, university officials had this to say: “This paper was published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal, and the researchers received no funding for the study from any outside company. We stand by the work and the study authors.” Bravo for Stanford for having the backbone to go to bat for its team!  And, the university added, “Stanford Center for Health Policy (where the study was conducted) has never received research money from Cargill.” So there.

Out of the many news stories I’ve read on the Stanford study, I was entertained by one written by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who appeared quite giddy about the findings of the report in his article headlined “The Organic Fable.” I share with you some of his thoughts.

“Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.

Cohen did have some nice things to say about the organic phenomenon. First, he says that it reflects a growing awareness about diet that has spurred a quality, small-scale local farming boost that was disappearing; secondly, organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals (although of course, without fertilizers, you have to use more land to grow the same amount of produce or feed the same amount of livestock); thirdly, in the U.S., organic food must meet standards ensuring the genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers, sewage and irradiation were not used in the food’s production.

Elitist ideology

It must also be produced using methods that, according to the Department of Agriculture, “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.”

Still, the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype, Cohen believes. “There is a niche for it, if you can afford to shop at Whole Foods, but the future is nonorganic.

To expand on this, it is reasonable to calculate that to feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need GMO crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of conventional food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than any time in history.

I’ll sum up with one of Cohen’s quotes: “Organic is a fable of the pampered parts of the planet – romantic and comforting. Now, thanks to Stanford researchers, we know just how replete with myth the “O” fable is.”  Or, if you prefer, a quote from great screen legend Jack Nicholson: “You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”