British study on organics ignores impact of pesticides

A recently published study by the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) showing no nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods has sparked a firestorm of controversy. The study states, “No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.”

The media has publicized the findings to bash the organic food movement. Organic supporters say the study is flawed.

Downplayed results showing more nutrients in organic
The US-based Organic Center and the UK-based Soil Association both pointed out that the study downplayed the fact that organic foods were found to be higher in protein by 12.7%, beta-carotene (53.6% more), flavonoids (38.4%), magnesium (7.1%), phosphorous (6%), zinc (11.3%), and other nutrients. The Soil Association also said that the study failed to include the results of a major European Union-funded study showing that levels of antioxidants and vitamins are higher in organic crops and that levels of fatty acids, such as CLA and omega-3 were 10 - 60% higher in organic milk and dairy products, and levels of Vitamin C were up to 90% higher in leafy vegetables and fruits.

The Organic Center’s research comparing nutrients in organic and conventional foods focused on using “matched pairs,” crops grown on nearby farms, in similar soil, with the same irrigation systems and harvest timing, and grown from the same plant variety. The Center found that “across all the valid matched pairs and the 11 nutrients included in study, nutrient levels in organic food averaged 25% higher than in conventional food.”

Ignored impact of pesticides
But the 800-pound gorilla in the room that the FSA study ignored is the impact of pesticides. Organic farming prohibits the use of pesticides so organic foods have far fewer pesticide residues than conventional foods. A 2002 study conducted by the Organic Materials Review Institute and Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, found that 73 percent of conventionally grown produce had at least one pesticide residue, while only 23 percent of organically grown samples contained residues.

A published study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine found that pre-school children eating a diet of organic foods had six to nine times lower pesticide levels in their bodies than children eating conventional foods.

Pesticide exposure leads farmers to switch to organic
In justifying the omission of pesticides, FSA chief executive Tim J. Smith wrote, “the use of pesticides in either organic or conventional food production does not pose an unacceptable risk to human health and helps to ensure a plentiful supply of food all year round.”

Really? Two US organic farmers, Blaine Schmaltz and Klaus Martens, would probably disagree. Both converted from conventional to organic production because exposure to pesticides was ruining their health.

Schmaltz, a wheat farmer from Rugby, North Dakota, farmed conventionally until exposure to pesticides landed him in a hospital. One day in September 1993, Schmaltz was spraying an herbicide on his field. At one point he looked inside the sprayer tank to check the level and passed out. Neighbors revived him, and Schmaltz made his way home, but he developed asthma, suffered muscle aches and pains, and couldn’t sleep. Later that winter he was hospitalized, and diagnosed with “occupational asthma.”

“The doctor told me to leave agriculture,” Schmaltz says. “He said, ‘if you don’t you probably won’t live 10 years.’”

He wanted to continue farming so he researched organic methods and made the transition. His health improved and today he is a successful—and healthy—organic farmer. “I did this in respect to my health,” he says.

Klaus Martens has a similar story. One day after spraying his fields with pesticides, Martens tried folding the sprayer to put it away, but discovered that he couldn’t move his right arm. It was paralyzed by exposure to the pesticides he sprayed on his 1300-acre farm in Penn Yan, New York.

The paralysis was the latest in a series of health problems caused by pesticide exposure. There were also headaches and nausea.

In 1991, Klaus and his wife Mary-Howell decided to transition their farm to organic and never looked back. Without the pesticides, Mary-Howell says, “The farm is a safe place.”

Based on examples such as these, I’m convinced that food produced without pesticides would definitely be safer to eat—and more nutritious—than foods produced with them.
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report September 2009