More organic meta-analysis

Never rains but it pours. Hardly had I finished writing about the dismantling of the “conservation agriculture” narrative, that news is out of a serious going over for (part of) the organic agriculture one as well.

An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food. The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Only about a third of the 162 studies from the past 50 years considered in the meta-analysis saw “a small number of differences in nutrition between organic and conventionally produced food but not large enough to be of any public health relevance.” Studies such as this one, presumably.

This follows a meta-analysis by the American Council on Science and Health which came to a similarly skeptical conclusion. That report was criticized in some quarters. And apparently the Soil Association has expressed some reservations about this latest study and called for better research. We can all go along with that, I think..

LATER. Reaction to the report from Civil Eats, US Food Policy and The Organic Centre. Bottom line is perhaps put best by Parke Wilde:

It is wisest to make your decisions about organic and conventional food primarily based on your assessment of the environmental considerations. The nutrient differences are not as decisive.

9 Replies to “More organic meta-analysis”

  1. Some random thoughts on this…

    The organic label is effectively just marketing – but I have seen many organic proponents claim that the foods are more nutritious. Why not instead make claims that have some facts behind them, such as decreased pesticide residues on some types of organic produce?

    What varieties are planted often make more of a difference than what methods are used. Few people are looking at inter-variety variation. To get my subject of interest into the conversation – the tests of a GM plant vs its isoline are sort of a waste of time. It’s good to know if there are changes in the metabolome or proteome, but what is that really telling you? If you’re expressing a novel protein (or even just overexpressing a native one), of course there will be resource re-allocation within the plant. What I want to know is: does the altered metabolome still fit within the variation of all the edible varieties of the plant? Put this info together with allgernicity and toxicity information of the protein of interest, and now you have some useful information! I really need to write a post on this idea.

  2. I think the problem is in part putting your finger on what exactly organic means. Yes, in the last few years we have come up with a legal definition, which includes a number of permitted pesticides and fertilizers, and states these rules have to have been followed the last three years. Vandana Shiva in a recent talk in Portland, Oregon put a clear emphasis on the need for biodiversity in organic agriculture. I recently came across this organic, family run, grain farm in Australia and their claim to quality is that except for one application of super phosphate in the 1950s, their land has never been treated with chemicals.

    I think if anything this latest report by the FSA shows more effort needs to be put into higher quality organic foods, so their nutritional content can be improved.

  3. What about the anti-nutritional chemical differences? The bottom line is which system produces the healthiest food?

    Natural toxins that can be expected to increase in organic produce [it has to fend for itself against all the pests, diseases and stressors].

    In contrast, the conventional food has a better chance of getting contaminated by pesticide residues. Heavy metals could be also be interesting to look at.

    Then there is flavour… biodiversity plays its part in concert with growth conditions.

    My bet: it’s not as simple as the difference between black and white

  4. This is news, but Carl Winter at UC Davis did the same analysis several years ago and found the same result – with the additional caveat that along with some nutrients increasing in organic produce, some anti-nutrients and toxins also increase.

    Marion Nestle has said that the marketing of organic depends upon being able to say that it is more nutritious than conventional, and many of them make that claim, sometimes less subtly than others.

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