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The Other Side of Organic Argument: Sustainability

Recent research from Stanford University and the subsequent headlines from Reuters, NBC News, the New York Times and other mass media outlets have it all wrong: Choosing to grow and eat organic foods has little to do with nutritional content. Humanity must increasingly turn to organic foods. If we don’t, we will damage our future food supply along with our health and the environment.

The mass media-focused meta-analysis of a numerous studies attempted to calculate consistencies among studies that compared nutrient content of organic versus conventional foods. The assumption of the researchers – and the mass media – is that nutrient content is the primary reason for consumers to purchase organic foods and a central reason to grow organic foods. They are mistaken.

Simply put, we can easily boost our vitamin A or C or protein levels with inexpensive supplements. Spending more for organic foods – as evidenced by a market that has exploded in the U.S. from $1 billion in sales to over $30 billion in just over two decades – relates to an entirely different set of principles. The research focus and the headlines missed those principles.

Before getting to those, let’s examine how flawed the headlines are in of themselves in suggesting that organic foods are “no more nutritious” or “no better” than conventional foods.

The research being drawn from is not new research. It is simply a compilation – a meta-analysis – of other studies. This means the researchers created a process for analysis that tried to compile a large number of studies into a neat and tidy conclusion. The problem was, the broad swath of research all but allowed for a neat and tidy conclusion.

The meta-analysis was broad. It reviewed 17 human studies and 223 laboratory studies – a huge number that in itself increases the chance of error as an analysis method is configured and applied. A cohesive result from any meta-analysis requires that confounding factors be eliminated – which can skew the results and even eliminate solid research data.

While some meta-analyses can be quite easy to compile and very accurate, the Stanford four-year long review required limitations to data scope and the elimination of confounding variables in order to develop computable formulae.

Furthermore, the researchers’ conclusion was not that there was not any difference between nutrient levels of conventional and organic foods. Their conclusion was that: “All estimates of differences in nutrient and contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous.”

“Heterogeneous” means the various study data were not uniform enough to make an accurate conclusion. Because a meta-analysis requires uniform results so that a composite may be calculated, heterogeneity means a true meta-analysis could not be made.

This is the traditional “apples to oranges” issue: It is hard to perform a calculation on sets of data that are dramatically different.

The researchers did not conclude that “organic foods do not contain more nutrients than conventional foods.” Rather, they concluded: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” This is a guarded statement with several caveats rather than conclusive evidence…

Read more: Case Adams, Naturopath, Green Med Info


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