Some Thoughts on the Stanford Organic Food Study

Local, sustainable, ripe and tasty = good.

Just couldn’t let this one go….

A few days ago a group of scientists at Stanford released a study that suggests organic foods have few “nutritional benefits” over traditionally grown foods. The study did show that organic produce and meat has less (but still some) pesticide and/or antibiotic residue than non-organic produce and meat. But the study noted that most produce, regardless of growing method, has pesticide levels well-below federal standards (the data on organic meat and antibiotics is hazier).  And from there, many publications went on to question the overall validity, or at least the marketability, of organic produce. And somewhat unsurprisingly, advocates for organic food and those citing pesticide-related risks passionately rebuked that conclusion. But from the point of view of a family of (mostly) organic gardeners, we think the study and most of its critics miss the point.

Because if you read a bit more of the study, you see a powerful argument for local, sustainable, responsible (and preferably organic) produce. And, you also see a pretty thorough misunderstanding of why many people buy and/or grow organic produce. Because, as it turns out, the study makes clear that ripeness is the most determining factor in the nutrition of produce, and that flavor was not part of the study. Well we can tell you with great certainty; it doesn’t take a study to know consumers prefer ripe, flavorful produce. And that usually means, local, sustainable and often organically grown produce. Good produce is good for you. Good farms and gardens grow good crops and bring them to market or table when the crops are at their best. The best sometimes costs more.

And we define “good” farming as sustainable, responsible farming. The fact is, not all crops can be grown organically in all places and at all times, but the produce can still be “good” if farmed in a responsible manner. Organic produce can be harvested too early, or shipped thousands of miles and that’s not “good”. Responsible, sustainable farming brings safe, natural, ripe and flavorful produce to consumers with the least risk and waste. If organic farming makes “good” produce more available, so much the better.  But we suggest consumers focus on finding and buying local, ripe and tasty produce. We all know we eat more veggies if they taste good. And that is the biggest health benefit of all.

Now back to family, friends, gardens, kitchens and the occasional cocktail….

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31 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Stanford Organic Food Study

  1. Many good points here guys. I would add that organic farms (and many small, local farms who may not be certified organic but do not use pesticides, etc.) are keeping chemicals out of their produce and livestock AND the surrounding ground, air and water.:)

    • Agreed. What the study (and many consumers) often forget is that the basis of the organic movement was conservation and stewardship of the soil (and water). Keeping it clean for future use.

      Marketers may have grabbed onto “organic” to sell stuff, but the overall benefits of organic / sustainable farming are much larger.

  2. Stunning photos as normal … and very interesting reading – not an organic buyer, the thing is that the organic products I see in my supermarket never look fresh, because the turnover is not that good. Also I can understand a family of 4 can’t afford to buy organic it cost nearly the double price over here .. to “normal”. If like me – don’t drive .. is’t nearly impossible to get to farm shops – live in a farmer county and there is plenty of them around. There is no farmers market in our little town neither. I wish local farmer products where more accessible.

    • You bring up realities all consumers have to face when deciding what to eat and buy. Organic is more expensive, but as we not- local and.or seasonal produce usually required less “interference” from nature..

      So even a focus on “seasonal” produce will be beneficial..

      • Yes, seasonal is okay – in the winter it’s spuds and more spuds for me … love potatoes. I think that maybe 30% try to eat organic, but not more and we are looked as a healthy eating nation. Look at France and Italy with their bursting markets in every little village. Maybe one day.

  3. Thanks for taking time to write about the study and add the links. I have been thinking I should do the same with our blog. 🙂

    In response to the last comment. There are often farmers in small towns that are not obvious at first glance. We live in a town of 2000 surrounded by big Ag farmers. Once we started looking we found at least a few farmers growing produce in more sustainable ways. We also recommend growing a few yourself. There is nothing like “local” from your own garden. Ripeness does matter!

    • Thanks- and we hope you do post on the subject…

      We agree there is more “local” farming out there than many expect. Since we stared blogging we’ve met dozen of local farmers with great produce- we had no idea they were out there.

      We also stared trading and sharing fruits and veggies with friends and other gardeners…a worthwhile pursuit on its own..

  4. I cannot always afford to buy organic (we’re on a budget) but I ALWAYS (read: whenever I can) buy produce grown in the state, and visit farmer’s markets to support my local agricultural community. Fortunately Texas loves its farmers and its Texas-grown produce, so it’s easy to find and buy. There’s a big ‘ol Texas sticker on most of the produce in the grocery stores.

    The closer the food is grown to you, the fresher it is in the stores.

  5. Thanks for taking this on. Absolutely, taste is a factor when discussing local/thoughtful vs. corporate/high-yield and, as another reader pointed out, this doesn’t necessarily rule out non-certified but “no-spray” produce. But I really think that much of the coverage missed the point–most people buy organic to avoid chemical residue and the study supports their reasoning. How many people buy organic for perceived higher vitamin content? Not me. Just avoiding pesticides is, in my opinion, more than enough reason to spend extra on organic.

    • We agree that avoiding pesticides is, by itself, a good reason to buy organic. But organic only decreases exposure- too many chemicals out there to eliminate the pesticides altogether…

      But we know that not everyone can afford or have access to organic produce. But we do believe that local produce, grown in season will usually require less pesticides… so “local” and “seasonal” add value along with “organic”..

  6. Thank you for this response to the study; I wholeheartedly agree with you! I posted Michael Pollan’s response on my (blog’s) facebook page yesterday, but he didn’t mention anything about the study making it clear that the ripeness of fruit, etc. is the main factor in its nutrition (or that flavor wasn’t part of the study!) so I appreciate you pointing that out.

  7. I always go for local and if it’s organic, then that’s a benefit! But I wouldn’t want to dissuade people who have no access to local fresh food from eating fruits and veggies.

  8. I agree that the study had such narrow focus as to make its conclusions basically meaningless.

    And it’s a crime how expensive organic food is. When you buy non-organic ‘big business’ you’read paying three times. Once at the counter.Once with your taxes going to agricultural subsidies and once,later, with your taxes going to clean up environmental damages.

    • Big business is always good at hiding its “externalities” from their market price….

      Organic is expensive , but it would be interesting to see where the main markup occurs…

  9. Seems that one of the things they failed to take into account with conventional vs. organic was health of the soil. Organically farmed/gardened soil is better able to withstand climate extremes such as drought and it also requires much less fertilizer due to increase microbe activity (they break down the debris into usable compounds by plants). http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/fst30years/yields

    I’ll continue to buy organic and grow organic. It’s just better for everyone and everything.

    • The heath of the soil was the original focus on organic…I think the “nutrition” focus, while clearly important, was too narrow of a definition on why people buy…

  10. Excellent post! I hadn’t heard about the report (I think there is always a large dollop of lazy journalism when it comes to reporting) and thank you for dealing with “sustainable”. I realise what we put into the ground to produce food and it’s affects hasn’t come into this, but my primary concern is that food is produced ethically, now I realise that is my own priority, and it totally ties in with sustainable” – if we are not paying the right wages, nor looking after the food producers properly then it’s an unstsutainable practice.
    But ultimately fresh is best!!

  11. Thanks for the info. I totally agree. We are also organic-ish – ie we avoid pesticides etc as much as possible, and accept that this might sometimes mean a bit lower yields or less ‘perfect’ fruit/veg (and a few more weeds!). But if we’re really struggling to contain a problem, then we will use non-organic methods as a very last resort. For me, the main aim is a productive garden supplying as much of our own, fresh, tasty food with zero food-miles, as we can. If I occasionally have to use non-organic methods to achieve this, then I will. As long as it’s a thoughtful choice, I feel OK about it. I’ve read that some small producers in the UK are pulling out of the official organic registration schemes for this reason ie it’s got to be 100% or nothing – which may not always be realistic for all crops in all places. I guess an analogy might be use of antibiotics in medicine – used wisely and sparingly, they are incredibly valuable; the problems start when they are used for every last little thing.

    • Thanks for the comment- we run our garden/orchard pretty much the same way.

      A lot of growers we know in california are also pulling out of the “organic” certification because of the 100% hurdle (they focus on sustainable and local). They simply want to give us tasty and healthy food. But if they can’t stay in business it doesn’t help anyone…

  12. When I read the study, I found the difference in the IQ points of the children who had certain pesticides as opposed to those who didn’t pretty interesting. Made me wonder:

    a) Were the parents who gave their kids organic produce smarter than average, and the higher IQ’s passed on to the kids genetically? or

    b) Were the pesticides entirely responsible for the difference?

    The study didn’t give enough information to judge – but maybe it’s a combination of both.

    I dread fall here in Minnesota because because I miss the availability of good, locally grown fresh produce during the long winter.

    • You make an interesting point about causation. Most of these studies report data but leave the cause up to interpretation. Often we get “attribution errors” after that. Like you said, there may be other forces at work than just the pesticides. It takes a lot of time and money to ferret out real causes- that’s why true longitudinal studies are so rare.

      This study also makes some assumptions that nutrition, rather than pesticides, flavor or soil conservation was the main reason consumers buy organic…

      Enjoy summer while you can and I hope you have been pickling and preserving!

  13. I have a cousin who just put up 80 quarts of tomatoes – and while I admire her fortitude, I only put up a few preserves, specialty items like my berry chutneys and pickled beets. I always think “next year…” I do like to freeze quantities of berries, though…we can’t get good ones through the winter!

    Interesting, too, about the study – it was really just a “study” based on other studies, and when I read it, I thought that overall, it was fairly positive on organics, but the press mainly siezed one point – difference in nutritional value. That’s a very iffy thing and depends so much on so many factors – time being one of them.

    I’ll choose, always, fresh local produce whenever I can get it, and organic whenever possible – there is no comparison on taste, and there is an intrinsic value on knowing I’m serving my family something I believe in, feel good about, and support.

  14. When you buy grocery store meat you are buying more water than when you buy dry- aged, grass fed beef. This also affects the tenderness and taste of the meat, which is why high end steakhouses prefer dry-aged grass fed steaks.obeorganic.com do visit for sure..

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