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Higher antioxidant, lower cadmium, and lower pesticide residues in organic crops [pdf] (wsu.edu)
306 points by mikevm on July 12, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 203 comments

I am generally pleased with the good availability of locally grown organic food where we live in the mountains of Central Arizona.

If people don't want organic food, I could generally care less except for one thing: efforts to put legal roadblocks in the way of locally grown food. For example:

A few years ago our Senator Jon Kyle, after taking large campaign contributions from Monsanto, submitted the American Food Safety bill that was prepared by Monsanto. This Bill would make home gardeners, local community gardens and small local growers jump through the same hoops as the multi billion dollar food corporations. I believe that it was generally accepted that this was an attempt to force people to buy from the large food conglomerates - at least that is my belief.

You might choose not to eat the non-organic food but you can't avoid the Atrazine [1] in the rain, which is enough to turn the male northern leopard frog tadpoles to turn into hermaphrodites.

The families of the people who work in the factory farm system are also affected.

You can see talks [2] on both these subjects in the Edible Education course from Berkeley [3], hosted by Michael Pollan and Raj Patel. I can recommend the whole series, and the ones from previous years.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrazine

[2] http://vimeo.com/album/2192316/video/87586462

[3] http://vimeo.com/album/2192316

> The families of the people who work in the factory farm system are also affected.

That is the exact reason I've often chosen organic for years. People used to say "Its no better for you" and I'd reply "Maybe, but its better for them, the workers"

As someone who comes from a family of small farmers, this is not really true. Organic pesticides are on-average more harmful to the people who use them than modern pesticides. Simply put, organic pesticides attack animal/fungal life indiscriminately. Including human life. Most organic pesticides will kill you at fairly low quantities. Most man-made ones won't, they are tailored to a task. And organic farmers need to use a lot more pesticides than non-organic farmers to achieve the same results, making human toxicity even more likely.

I've never heard of this. Do you have an actual source?

Only primary sources. Pick a few chemicals, find their LD50 from a MSDS, find their application rate. Run the numbers.

An organic fungicide: copper sulfate pentahydrate (aka CuSO4)

A non-organic fungicide: iprodione (aka Rovral)

LD50 of CuSO4: 472 mg/kg (rat) [1]

LD50 of Rovral: 2g/kg (rat) [2]

So straight up, the organic is four times more lethal to mammals. But that is just the beginning, because you have to use a lot more of the organics! How much would Farmer Joe have to use on his small, 10 acre plot? Assuming the worst, lets look at the maximum seasonal application.

rate of CuSO4: 16 pounds/acre per season [3]

rate of Rovral: 12 pints/acre per season [4]

Skipping the basic algebra, in one year Joe could apply enough organic fungicide (72.5kg) to kill 1700 people. One year of non-organic (1.3kg) would be enough to kill 7 people. (Assuming a spherical man of 90 kg.)

[1] http://extoxnet.orst.edu/pips/coppersu.htm

[2] http://www.cdms.net/ldat/mpAKR005.pdf

[3] http://growabundant.com/copper/

[4] http://www.cdms.net/ldat/ldAKR006.pdf

edit: ambago, you are full of bunk. The USDA has very strict guidelines for labeling. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_certification

LD50 is one measure. For the consumer, half life and non-acute toxicity is probably a better measure to use.

The organophosphate (e.g., methyl chlorpyrifos, dimethoate, methidathion and methyl parathion) pesticides used in conventional agriculture have half lives of a little less than a week to two weeks on the surface (and a half life of years in water and soil), while pyrethrins have a half life of hours in sunlight and 2 weeks in soil.

Both organophosphates and pyrethrins have toxic effects on mammals, but one is less likely to be present on purchased produce since, at least, four half lives (97% degraded) will have passed for pyrethrins, in a single day.

In the extreme, organochlorines (e.g., aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin and dicofol [OK, DDT and such are in this class too]) were spayed on conventional crops. These have half lives measured in years (on the surface), and their residues are found, in the environment, decades after specific compound bans.

Finally, US grown rice/citrus contains arsenic (there is no safe limit established for inorganic arsenic) because of conventional pesticides containing arsenic being sprayed on cotton fields (California rice/citrus is generally safer than that grown in Southern states).

All this said, I believe (opinion) that USDA organic allowing the use of so many pesticides was a give away to big ag, so they could participate in the "organic craze" without substantially changing their production practices. Personally, I buy pesticide free vs. organic when available.

LD50 (acute toxicity) does not necessarily correlate with harmful health effects from chronic exposure. Can you cite studies that demonstrate harms from exposure at the levels used in organic farming?

We are talking about risks to people working in the fields. Every time a farmer applies anything to a field, he will have to put on safety gear, measure out an amount, mix it with water, load it into the sprayer, drive the tractor around, and then clean up afterwards. When you are working with enough of a chemical to kill a hundred people, every single one of these steps carries the risk of an acute exposure. Dead is dead, regardless of how it happens. Don't dismiss it.

edit: From source [1]:

> Chronic toxicity: Vineyard sprayers experienced liver disease after 3 to 15 years of exposure to copper sulfate solution in Bordeaux mixture [8]. Long term effects are more likely in individuals with Wilson's disease, a condition which causes excessive absorption and storage of copper [25]. Chronic exposure to low levels of copper can lead to anemia [8]

So yeah, its still bad for you.

Perhaps I generalized a bit too much (I suppose I should not have commented when I was dead tired...) However, the USDA does in fact allow non-prohibited chemicals to be used on USDA certified organic produce.

USDA National Organic Program: http://goo.gl/OUCAXM USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances: http://goo.gl/YXLUJ5

I'm interested in a source as well.

I have heard the argument that organic pesticides must be used in higher quantities, but never that they are more toxic than synthetics.

The latter statement seems nonsensical on its face. It's very difficult to believe that, given years of testing and research into both synthetic and organic pesticides, so many people are getting it so wrong as to conclude that organics are safer when they are exactly they opposite.

In fact, non-organic farming proponents aren't even making this claim to my knowledge. At most, they seem to advocate that non-organics aren't less healthy than organics.

I think they are referring to the loophole that allows farms to use organic chemicals on produce that is labeled "Organic".

In chemistry, an organic chemical is a compound that contains lots of carbon, or carbon chains. The loophole allows the use of these organic compounds as pesticides. The downside is that these are typically much more of a broad spectrum than the cutting edge pesticides. This means that unlike the new narrow-spectrum pesticides (which are often designed so they only affect the physiology of a specific order of invertebrate) the old-school organic chemical pesticides are harmful to pretty much everything it comes in contact with.

Here is some more info on the issue: http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html


And one last one that explains a bit more on organic chemicals: http://www.chemheritage.org/percy-julian/activities/2b.html

>You might choose not to eat the non-organic food but you can't avoid the Atrazine [1] in the rain

That's a very US-centric point of view. It was banned in the EU for a reason.

The principle of least harm.

But I was replying to someone who said they live in Central Arizona. Ironic that Atrazine is produced by a Swiss company and can't even use it in their own country.

When was the last time Agent Orange was dropped on an American everglade? (Trick question..)

While I see what you're driving at, AO wasn't dropped on Everglades and then banned.

The point is this: America cares less about the harmful effects of big-corp-produced substances than Europe does.

No, we just don't have the privilege of enjoying luxury goods like organic food for every person.

The common line is that this bill is to stymie small farmers and promote Monsanto. I don't think it was the intent of the bill at all, nor does it need to be the outcome.

Food born illness is a serious problem (~48 million people will have some form of it in the US this year). Just look at the articles on people who are fatally poisoned by things like greens and cantaloupe.

The act attempts to address this by making sure food is properly traceable back to source and cleanliness measures are taken along the way. This is most certainly in the public interest, and the intent is not to promote big agriculture but to insure process and accountability. It doesn't actually prevent you from growing and consuming food from your own garden, but when you distribute that food, the government should be able to make sure you aren't doing things like watering it with raw sewage. This is overdue in my opinion. It's just like restaurant inspection. Necessary. Small growers shouldn't be exempted from putting people at risk. They can and should grow and process food cleanly, they should keep records, and if they are unable to, they shouldn't do it.


TLDR; not a conspiracy but a reasonable and overdue precaution.

I think it's neither a conspiracy nor a reasonable precaution.

Food borne illnesses are, in fact, a serious problem but regulations that crush the small farmer aren't the answer. Large scale farming may be incredibly efficient at producing food but they are equally efficient at propagating food borne illnesses.

Promoting small farms when possible is beneficial to society and the planet for a host of reasons, including the reduction of food borne illnesses. Nature abhors monoculture and always fights to restore ecological diversity.

>What you said is nonsensical. How would eliminating the enforcement of cleanliness standards reduce illness?

I didn't say that eliminating the enforcement of cleanliness standards would reduce illness, rather I said crushing the small farmer isn't the answer and suggested that more small farms would reduce illness.

Example (from Michael Pollan's excellent book "The Omnivore's Dilemna"): FDA regulations that require slaughterhouses to have a private restroom reserved for the FDA inspector.

For a large multinational corporation processing tons of meat per day, that is a drop in the bucket. For a small slaughterhouse processing maybe a handful of cattle/week during peak slaughtering season, that's a much more substantial cost.

And when you think about it, you realize that this bizarre rules is a statement that FDA inspectors believe farm operations are so unsanitary across the board that they refuse to use a standard farm restroom. That tells me all I need to know about the quality of USA factory farms.

I'm not sure that is the reason they won't use the restrooms nor that we are actually hearing the specifics of the rule nor the reason for it or if it is anything more than internet rumor (wouldn't be surprised).

People like Michael Pollan are ideologues (a good writer...I have read "Botany of Desire") but you have to take some of their views, particularly on science, with a grain of salt. Something like Micheal Moore. Not that he isn't often right but...... then there is reality.

And (to reply to a parent) I don't understand how insisting on and legislating sanitary food production, record keeping and food tracking has anything to do with mono culture and isn't a reasonable precaution.

I could not find language supporting a "private restroom" requirement after about 30 minutes of Googling, but it appears that FDA meat processing regs may require full-time on-site inspectors.

Considering that slaughterhouses process the entire animal, and thus have to deal with whatever happens to be on the hooves or skin, or inside the viscera, it may be that a separate restroom is actually a method of reducing the risk of cross-contamination.




Ha! I just made the same search and my comment was the top google result.

At any rate, this blog post provides the quote in question, from page 229 of "Omnivore's Dilemma" though it turns out it's the USDA, not the FDA that is mentioned.


Here's the quote: "The problem with current food-safety regulations, in [small farmer Joel Salatin’s view], is that they are one-size-fits-all rules designed to regulate giant slaughterhouses that are mindlessly applied to small farmers in such a way that “before I can sell my neighbor a T-bone steak I’ve got to wrap it up in a million dollars’ worth of quintuple-permitted processing plant.” For example, federal rules stipulate that every processing facility have a bathroom for the exclusive use of the USDA inspector. Such regulations favor the biggest industrial meatpackers, who can spread the costs of compliance over the millions of animals they process every year, at the expense of artisanal enterprises like Polyface [Salatin’s farm]."

> People like Michael Pollan are ideologues

Perhaps highly opinionated, but ideologue? How much science is he getting wrong, and how much of that is because he actively denies it?

What you said is nonsensical. How would eliminating the enforcement of cleanliness standards reduce illness?

It's like advocating that food trucks shouldn't be subject to health inspections and then saying we would all be healthier eating from this food trucks instead of restaurants.

>What you said is nonsensical. How would eliminating the enforcement of cleanliness standards reduce illness?

The idea is that industrial agriculture is far more likely to produce illness. So industrial agriculture + regulations can have a higher likelihood of producing illness than small agriculture without regulation.

And since regulations stifle small farms, lower regulations on small farms can decrease the incidence of food borne illness by decreasing the percentage of food that comes from industrial agriculture.

I don't view the Bill as a "conspiracy," just a large corporation trying to increase profits.

You make good points on food safety, definitely important, but I personally feel more secure buying food from the same local farmers every week or so at our local farmers markets than food that is grown on huge farms and shipped from long distances.

I have the same opinion about meat. I would rather buy locally grown free range chicken from small local farms than chicken grown in small cages living in their own poop.

All that said, we are supposed to be a free country, so I feel like it is important to maintain the rights of both people like you who prefer food from large grocery stores, and also people like me who like my food raised by very nearby local small farmers. Really, why shouldn't we both get what we want?

> If people don't want organic food, I could generally care less except for one thing: efforts to put legal roadblocks in the way of locally grown food.

How do you know that locally grown food is organic unless someone checks? Local grown and sold food doesn't necessarily mean "organic" it just means locally grown. Pesticides and chemicals are available for local growers too.

Unless you grow it or personally know where, who and how they grow the food you will not know what are you getting.

A lot of "farmers" I know (not in this country but in a country with a non-functioning FDA or USDA) have 2 lots. One lot to grow the food to sell and one to grow for themselves. The pesticide the shit out of one they sell. Nobody checks. Still looks good and pretty and people buy it and sellers make money.

> The pesticide the shit out of one they sell.

As a farmer myself, I find something intriguing in your comment. I take away visions of someone using way more chemical than necessary when reading this, but that stuff is expensive. There is no reason to use more. It's always considered a blessing when you don't have to use any, even if we assume the environmental/health impact is zero. Judicious use of pesticides can improve plant health and increase yields, but that happens in every country.

I guess I'm curious about what you are trying to say? A those "farmers" you referred to really that reckless with their incomes (never mind anything else that goes along with it) in a business that has incredibly slim margins?

He means "They use pesticides responsibly but I am passionate about hating pesticides"

My gramps had a vinyard and an orchard. Pesticides are a bitch to use. Windy the next day? A bit of rain? Dew too strong? Well screw you buddy, you get to re-do everything because it's as if you didn't spray at all. Ha ha.

And those stupid grapes wouldn't even grow without pesticides. They're so bloody fragile and finnicky. Sometimes the whole thing would go belly-up because gramps would miss the spraying window by a few days (due to weather).

Seriously, anyone who is passionately against pesticides has never tried to make money off of food production. And anyone who's worried about pesticides having residual effects on them (and doesn't get in direct contact with the stuff) has never tried to make pesticides stay on those god damned plants long enough to work.

> anyone who's worried about pesticides having residual effects on them (and doesn't get in direct contact with the stuff) has never tried to make pesticides stay on those god damned plants long enough to work.

Well, if we're going to be fair about it, the fact that it washes off the surface of plants so easily doesn't mean it's just gone and not causing residual effects elsewhere.

> doesn't mean it's just gone and not causing residual effects elsewhere

True, but I have better things to worry about than this health food craze americans seem to be going through. I've been living here for several months and I honestly think most people here are insane. So much worrying about everything! Live a little, sheesh.[1]

Maybe SF is especially bad.

In my country we have a saying: "You keep the nice apples for yourself, you sell the rotten ones to city slickers as organic."

[1] my main gripe with the organic anti-chemical food craze is that we simply don't have enough arable land to feed everyone if we stop using GMO's and pesticides and all that stuff. We were actually supposed to all have been starving by some 20 years ago, but then we invented cool things. But I guess we can always get rid of all the rainforests to compensate and we're all gonna be so super healthy and chemical free. Hoofuckingray.

> my main gripe with the organic anti-chemical food craze is that we simply don't have enough arable land to feed everyone

I think the same people who prefer organic food might also be wise enough not to eat three large servings of beef every day, which is what is killing the rain forests right now. And how many % of good food are being thrown away nowadays? Something like 30%? Simply because supermarkets want to have everything on the shelves all the time, and people buy without planning. There is still a lot of room for experimentation before we starve.

At least here in the UK - and I believe the US is the same - our major supermarkets won't buy fruit that isn't visually flawless, even when it doesn't affect the flavor. They charge the farmers for disposing of it too. So a lot of effort - and spraying - goes into keeping as much of the fruit flawless-looking as possible.

> I take away visions of someone using way more chemical than necessary when reading this

The vision is spraying with the deadliest and sometimes illegal pesticides (DDT and other things).

The "shit of out" is comparing to "0 pesticides". That means plucking bugs by hand in the evening from potatoes, weeding by hand, watering by hand.

> Judicious use of pesticides can improve plant health and increase yields, but that happens in every country.

Nobody is arguing with that, but given that these particular people I know (friend of relatives and so on) don't have time or language skills to read scientific literature what "judicious" amounts are.

> A those "farmers" you referred to really that reckless with their incomes

That is usually seasonal they have other business. They are not reckless they are just capitalists. They are maximizing the profit. The vegetables that look bigger, shiner and of which they can have a greater yield will maximize their profit.

Have you hand plucked bugs by hand from potatoes?

My mom has a small garden (and I helped her around when I was little), it takes a LOT of time to pluck all insects from just potatoes. That is time just for that can easily be 4-6 hours. Also plucking in the evenings is like reading a book on dark side of Mars, in a barrel. You can't spot the fuckers in low light, you need best light available so only morning and in the afternoon will do.

What this comes to is this, if you use 0 pesticide that means you have to pay workers to do so which means lower efficiency and higher prices. Price for organics should (under given circumstances) be between 4-10 times more expensive.

Also, before chemical fertilizer there were several wars fought over bird extrement. Unfortunately the anti-synthetics fads are putting pressure on this resource again

What do you use that is so expensive?

People in this thread seem to be under the misapprehension that organic farming doesn't use pesticides or 'chemicals'. Everything is a chemical, and organic farming in particular uses some nasty ones (rotenone, copper sulfate, pyrethrins). Pesticides are not automatically bad - in fact some of them are almost unbelievably benign to humans and/or to the environment.

>Pesticides are not automatically bad - in fact some of them are almost unbelievably benign to humans and/or to the environment.

I'm curious to know which pesticides fit this description.

In WA some apple orchards are sprayed with kaolin (a fine white clay). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaolin_spray. Diatomaceous earth is also used on some crops. Both of these are like... mechanical insecticides.

This page lists many "less toxic" insecticides - http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/pests/pesticide/hgic27....

The replies in this thread from people claiming to be farmers are odd -- what crop? It seems pretty important. It sounds like it's hard to grow certain wine grapes some places, ok, but why do we have lists of the 'best' and 'worst' fruits/veggies to buy organic? They have less pest problems to begin with is my assumption, but I'm not really a farmer [beyond 10'x10' of herbs and veggies in the backyard].

herbicides: pelargonic acid (Scythe) and acetic acid are famous examples, but glyphosate (Roundup) and imazaquin (Image) have higher LD50s than table salt.

insecticides: Bacillus thuringiensis Cry proteins (used both in organic agriculture and in Monsanto's Bt lines), RNAi

Having a higher LD50 than table salt does not establish that a substance does not have serious long-term effects even at low doses.

no, I didn't say it did. But there's also no convincing evidence that either of the synthetics I mentioned does cause negative long-term effects (let alone serious ones).

Vinegar is a herbicide.

Concentrated urine as well.

Thanks. That's an interesting response.

However, the statement in question was explicitly regarding pesticides, not herbicides. And, implicitly, the context is those pesticides which are in use at scale on non-organic crops.

Nicotine would classify as insecticide that, while perhaps not completely benign, is considered to have minimal impact on human health (smoking it notwithstanding). A synthetically derived form of nicotine is the primary insecticide in use these days, although it's incredible success with the insect population is starting to give us second thoughts about using it.

IIRC, nicotine is a seriously powerful poison that can be absorbed through your skin, and mLs are all that's needed to kill a person?

Keep in mind that even if a compound is suitable for use at scale it might cost slightly more than current methods and therefore see almost no use.

Yes. But going back to my original question, it was in response to the statement that there are "almost unbelievably benign" pesticides with regard to human and environmental impact.

So, while there was also an implication that we're talking about pesticides that might see practical use, I'm really not even holding out that requirement. I'm just inquiring into the names of those pesticides that are benign to both humans and the environment.

I replied a few levels up mentioning kaolin spray (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaolin_spray).

For more information about 'particle films' (like kaolin spray) see this document. There are numerous compounds mentioned and very interesting references too. These techniques also can be mixed with conventional pesticides and achieve the same efficacy as pure pesticide.

Particle Films: A New Technology for Agriculture - http://blog.meyvelitepe.org/images/Book_Chapter_Particle_Fil...

"At the present time, a commercial particle film material, Surround crop protectant, is being used in about 90% of the Pacific Northwest pear market for the early season control of pear psylla and approximately 20% of the Washington State apple market to reduce sunburn damage."

Herbicides are a sub-class of pesticides, so benign herbicides definitely count.

used coffee grinds, for one, make excellent pesticides for certain pests and are completely harmless for humans to handle.

> Everything is a chemical

It is as though words in human language can have multiple meanings.


> 1. any substance used in or resulting from a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules, especially one derived artificially for practical use

Especially, not exclusively.

Um no. It is taking about this one specific usage which is exclusive. Other usages are inclusive, but some usages refer only to artificial concoctions. (Like when people use the word "animal" to refer to non-human animals).

Is routine use of pesticides on 'organic' farms an american thing? I'm not familiar with the US organic standards / regulations.

In the UK, the Soil Association (organic standards body) claims [1] that pesticides are used "Very rarely" on organic farms. So it strikes me as quite odd that there's all this discussion about organic pesticides as if their use is on par (or even greater than) non-organic pesticide use.

[1] http://www.soilassociation.org/frequentlyaskedquestions/your...

Everything is a chemical, and organic farming in particular

Everything is a chemical? [0] How about outer space, warmth, love, freedom, sunshine, and rainbows?

[0] http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3324

Could you explain what you mean by home gardeners and how you think this proposed bill would have affected them? I don't think the average Senator is foolish enough to try to ban (or substantially regulate) backyard gardening.

Similar legislation was enacted btw:


But it had some provisions excluding smaller operations from federal oversight.

The second bill was better than the first.

My senator, Jon Kyle, has a history of supported nutty bills, BTW.

When George W. Bush was president, he proposed a bill that would create a small national committee that would have the power to have any university professor fired because of their political views. Being a senator does not guarantee rational behavior :-) when I wrote to my Senator about this Bill, his response was very unsatisfactory in my opinion, but now that a democrat is president, I doubt he would like an Obama appointed committee to have the same powers!

I was more interested in your answer to the first question than the aside about how we each expect senators to behave.

It'd also like more information about the university professors, I either didn't notice at the time or completely forgot about it.

Not the op but I think I can explain. In rural areas a home gardner may have more an acre garden and a high tunnel (green house) and produce more then they can use or eat so lots of people will donate/share/sell for extra money a few things.

Where I live in Montana they can sell at the farmers market or roadside stands without jumping through too many hoops but for whatever reason they need to package things to sell it in stores (a store owner explained that otherwise too much liability falls on the store but i'm not sure that is it).

So I can go to a small locally owned store and buy a one pound bag of spinach grown just down the road and put in the bag by the farmer but I can't say, pick out a few local apples (or squash or bulk salad mix) unless I actually drive up the road to the orchard/farm or go to the once a week farmers market.

Yes, I'm aware that small growers often want to sell produce. But "small local growers" were explicitly mentioned, hence the question.

"Some home gardeners end up being small local growers" is sort of an answer, but why mention them both if you are only talking about the situation where "home gardener" is (at least becoming) a stretch?

I think we're having a rural/city dweller divide. I wouldn't consider anyone even a small grower unless they make their main living doing it but lots of people sell a few things to make ends meet.

No, I don't think so.

I was mostly curious if mark_l_watson meant to include people growing for their own table or not. The expected impact on people growing to sell small amounts is also interesting. Figuring out what we each would have called the various possible delineations prior to the discussion is not very interesting.

(I would think the big impacts would be things like requiring people to disclose that they were reselling something, which I see as a positive for the buyer, without being particularly onerous)

> American Food Safety bill that was prepared by Monsanto

Was it just Monsanto? They are a relatively small business of the businesses that deal in agriculture. I'd be surprised if the bigger companies would let them have free reign over the decision making process like that (though I'm sure they're happy to have Monsanto as the fall guy, so to speak). The only reference to the bill, with respect to who wrote it, that I could find said it was prepared by multiple corporations.

Is there really bigger companies than Monsanto doing the same thing? If so, and the power/bullying that Monsanto has proven it holds, we need to be really scared. Because the financial needs to defeat Monsanto can bleed even a State dry, so if they are just a front of whats to come, how could we win? I would love to hear more on these other companies and organizations.

Monsanto is now a relatively focused company that mostly sells seeds: Many GMOs, some bred traditionally. They also now sell some services related to optimizing seed selection for a particular field. If you read their PR(which you might believe or not), there is much focus on minimizing pesticide application, and instead make the plants themselves more resistant to pests. So instead of spraying your field with a liquid full of Bacillus Thuringiensis, they'd rather have the farmer grow plants with leaves that produce the same toxins than BT does.

The market cap is just 63B. In comparison, a Walmart is 240+. The main reason they are smaller than their competitors is that they separated their biotech arm from their chemical company roots, while most of their competitors are still mainly chemical companies: BASF and DuPont. If we just compared their seed-producing operations though, Monsanto is probably larger, but it's not as if I've checked the numbers.

The thing about political influence is that it's not really about size, but about being in a position so that you do not have clear opponents. Farmers as a whole do not dislike Monsanto, or they'd not buy their seeds. They tend to lower crop prices, so it's not as if the next level in the food production chain has a problem with them either. So, as far as getting laws that are helpful to them, their one opponent is certain kinds of environmentalists. It's how lobbying works: It's easier to get a few people to spend a lot of an effort than to get a whole lot of people to do very little.

What do you mean by same thing? Monsanto has hands in many things, including software development. If you mean GMOs, which they have have become infamous for, then absolutely. Bayer, for instance, is significantly larger.

> Is there really bigger companies than Monsanto doing the same thing?

I concur, who are these hidden giants?

I'm not sure they are exactly hidden. I'd consider them household names. BASF and Bayer are larger, Dow and DuPont are roughly the same same size as Monsanto, and Sysgenta is slightly smaller. In hindsight, it would have probably been better to say that Monsanto is a medium sized business, relatively speaking, in that agriculture space.

Thanks for clarification - I had overblown sense of Monsanto's size, guess the other players are just better at playing quietly!

Off topic but just in case you didn't know, the expression is "I could NOT care less."

You might not be aware that the idom "I could care less" is in common usage, espechally in American english, and has the same meaning as "I could not care less".

Interesting. Certainly not in my country at least (and possibly most places English is spoken outside the US), it's a mistake that you will be pulled up for and possibly will harm your argument by making you look uneducated, since it's such a simple statement to parse.

"For all intensive purposes" is in common usage. It's still incorrect.

Yes, either phrase is usually understood by American readers. However, "I could care less" has a literal meaning opposite from its idiomatic meaning and is likely more troublesome for non-native or non-American readers.

Also, when many people read "I could care less", they assume the writer has a deficiency in their education and/or attention to detail. Seldom is it advantageous to write "I could care less" instead of "I couldn't care less".

Isn't this directly at odds with the Stanford study from 2012? - http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/09/little-evidenc...

"No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids."

No. It sounds to me like the Stanford study failed to find a significant difference. That's different from demonstrating equivalence. There are some quotes in the article about how this disagrees with another study (not the Stanford one, but nonetheless). The paper itself quotes the paper you reference and draws many comparisons. This sounds like another look, with more data, and the Stanford study was by no means final. All of these are meta-analyses of hundreds of papers, so it's a pretty new area of statistical analysis and a very difficult one.

I haven't read the papers yet. For me, organic food means I'm not paying someone to add XYZ to the environment, and I like that. The risk assessment has not been done, and (see other comments) environmental affects are widespread and very troubling.

- full paper, source article: Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically-grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. http://csanr.wsu.edu/m2m/papers/organic_meta_analysis/bjn_20...

- full paper, Stanford article: Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? http://media.dssimon.com/taperequest/acp75_study.pdf

The Stanford study also found significant differences between organic and non-organic in pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (in chicken & pork). I don't understand why these are considered to be unrelated to health in press releases like the one you linked. As they say, "the clinical significance of this is unclear", but I think that's because we haven't studied it.

If you buy only the tastiest plants and animals I will guarantee you a healthy diet.

Sugar is a very tasty plant.

Ever try eating a sugar beet? Naaaaaaasty. Sugar cane, on the other hand, I'll agree with you about. But you can only really chew it, not eat it.

Did you fall for the anti-sugar campaign? There's nothing wrong with sugar in reasonable quantity.

That is correct, if by "reasonable quantity" you mean, "not adding any to your diet that already has plenty of fruit and vegetables."

The problem with the term "organic" is it's broad and not well defined. It's like "agile" in our space.

There are some standards varying by country some government enforced some not, and those standards have changed over time. This data seems to encompass data from many countries over a long period of time. This means how something is classified in the organic bin or not in highly inconsistent in the data set.

The paper seems thin on how they classified the data as organic or not, looks like they took that source data's word for it.

I am very skeptical anytime someone uses such vague terminology such as organic. Most compounds considered "synthetic" are technically organic in a chemical sense. When does something become synthetic? After all many forms chemical synthesis involves basic forms of human preparation (mechanical separation and cooking). How much human modification of a raw material crosses the line into syntheses? Manure vs compost vs fertilizer. The distinction varies by country/law/standard/organization/person.

For instance the paper says they included "biodynamic" techniques as organic. Never heard of this before, looking into it it seems akin alchemy, mixing spirituality with farming protocols.

The "natural" vs standard medicine debate overlaps in many way with this issue and is full of pseudoscience that pervades and pollutes the information available.

In the EU it's not a vague concept. There's a strict legislation for any product sold as organic, along with a logo.

Main rules, taken from the EC site:

- Crops are rotated so that on-site resources are used efficiently

- Chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, antibiotics and other substances are severely restricted

- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are banned

- On-site resources are put to good use, such as manure for fertiliser or feed produced on the farm

- Disease-resistant plant and animal species adapted to the local environment are used

- Livestock are raised in a free-range, open-air environment and are fed on organic fodder

- Animal husbandry practices are tailored to the various livestock species


Of course my point is this this paper is vague since it doesn't specify which country/entities formal definition of organic they followed in order to classify the data.

My point of varying and changing regulation stands as well, the EU original regulation went into effect in 1993, however I am not clear on what enforcement in which countries actually occurred when. It seems it had major revisions in 2007 and took some time overall for standards to be enforced fully.

I also find it interesting that the formal regulation for "organic" restricts but still allows "synthetic" fertilizers and antibiotics. It shows the reality that the line is draw arbitrarily.

GMO is a similar issue. If genetic modification is done in a lab it's labeled GMO and bad, if it's done through breeding it's not and ok. Corn, wheat, cows, pigs, chickens and all domesticated crops and livestock exist due to genetic modification by humans, they are genetically modified organisms, now we are simply arguing over how their genes are being modified not if.

> GMO is a similar issue. If genetic modification is done in a lab it's labeled GMO and bad, if it's done through breeding it's not and ok.

This is actually worse than you present it, because the "GMO" label is not applied to variously laboratory techniques like repeated exposure to mutagens followed by detailed analysis to determine which subjects have mutations of interest, followed by selective breeding, more exposure to mutagens, etc.

The actual distinction usually made with the misleading "GMO" name is between genetic modification by inclusion of specific genes from another species ("GMO") vs. all other methods of modifying a genome (not-"GMO").

This actually ties into a problem with the degree to which "organic" labelling is meaningful, since usually organic is defined as including non-GMO using the misleading definition of "GMO".

I very much agree. The black / white, organic / not organic and GMO / not GMO is a non-useful abstraction IMO and instead misleads and confuses.

The following paper describes the problem in detail regarding GMO classification: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC510...

Some relevant quotes:

"Examination of the exact language of the excluded methods definition at 7 CFR 205.2 will bring out the key issues.

1. A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. The phrase “not possible under natural conditions or processes” has become problematic in the context of “traditional” breeding methods that involve disruption of normal plant cell growth. For example, mutagenesis can be a process in which chemical or radiation stress is applied on a cell to force mutation to happen, but it also commonly occurs in nature and at least some of the mutagenesis chemicals are derived from nature. (More on mutagenesis under 5. traditional breeding). The concept of "natural" is not defined in any regulations and is very blurred after centuries of humans manipulating the environment and plants, animals and microbes."


"5. traditional breeding,

This term is assumed to include breeding methods that have been used prior to the emergence of transgenic technologies. It is not clear at which point traditional breeding techniques are divided from modern or non-traditional breeding techniques. Is there a time point at which all techniques before that time are considered traditional and all new techniques developed after that time are not considered traditional? The use of transposons (see below Part B) since the 1930's or chemical, physical, and biological mutagens since the 1940's are blurring the distinction between traditional breeding and biotechnology."

Arbitrary is a big word. Just because the line regarding fertilisers isn't drawn the way you imagine it would be doesn't make it arbitrary. I'm sure a lot of rational thought went into, balancing the various trade-offs involved in making a regulation that's meant to serve as a minimum standard applicable in a market with 300 million residents.

The same goes for GMO stuff, it's your prerogative to redefine words in any way you see fit, but lab-GMO and breeding-GMO are a conceptually real categories and there's nothing arbitrary about differentiating them.

No I'm using the specific definition of arbitrary: "based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something"

My point point being there is not intrinsic nature of something that can make it "organic" in the organic food definition. If one pesticide is allowed in the US and not int the EU definition of organic that is arbitrary.

So when someone says GMO it assumed to be what exactly? Targeted gene inertion? Mutagenesis? What about marker assisted breeding? Each one of these is a continuum of progression from "conventional" breeding. All of them are human induced genetic modification, drawing the line at targeted gene insertion is arbitrary.

Arbitrary choice in the face of uncertainty isn't wrong though; it is an aprroxumation technique.

"Room temperature" is arbitrary, but 75F is better than 100F or 0F

Any taxonomy is arbitrary. Nature / The Universe does not seem to organize things into neat categories. These taxonomies can be useful but imperfect abstractions. However IMO the organic / non-organic classification is a non-useful and misleading abstraction unlike the term "room temperature".

It's not an individual preference, it's the result of a political process. There may be a continuum of genetic modifications, that doesn't mean it's unreasonable -- or even arbitrary, per the quoted definition -- to pick a point in that continuum and make rules and regulations based on that point.

I think rather than talking about GMOs we need to point out the crops that are seriously and obviously bad for us: the transgenically modified crops, or apparently I just found it can be called TGM. [0]

This saves us from the debate every time where somebody talks about how all our food and animals are GMO. The real destroyers of the American food supply are the 7 major crops that have been transgenically modified with bacteria that produces insecticide and herbicide resistant bacteria so they can spray the crops with herbs: Corn, soy, cottonseed, alfalfa, papaya, canola, sugar beets.

[0] http://books.google.com/books?id=IX5mo9ylOF0C&pg=PA38&lpg=PA...

Edit: Here's some good info about terminology I guess: http://iddl.vt.edu/courses/HORT4764/lessons/seeds/seeds_page...

Transgenics are absolutely not "seriously and obviously bad for us". Almost the entire debate around GMOs is about transgenically modified crops, and to date nobody has clearly demonstrated harm from transgenics in even a single case. It's a technology, it has myriad uses and there is nothing intrinsic to it that is harmful.

Furthermore in the US an entire generation of people have grown up on GMO soy, without anybody demonstrating any credible evidence of harm.

This is not really true. Here's the National Organic Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop. Anything sold as organic in the US has to abide by these guidelines. Here's the equivalent EU program http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EU-Eco-regulation. There are some small differences in requirements between the two in terms of prohibited inputs, but for the most part they are pretty similar. Other countries tend to follow one or the other programs as the US and Europe is where the organic consumers are. Obviously, determining where to draw the line between synthetic and natural is a judgement call, which some may disagree upon. But in a lot of cases it's pretty clear, and the authorities make distinctions accordingly. Another big question determining an input's permissibility: how does this input affect the biodiversity of the system?

You're right about "biodynamic" being ridiculous. All biodynamic farming, however, adheres to organic input regulations.

If you had some critique of the actual National Organic Program, that would be a more interesting avenue of inquiry.

In the US there is an official organic certification program.

You can't just call something "organic" and get away with it. It actually has legal specifications.

Unfortunately this paper isn't limited to the US or to data after the NPO was established as far as I can tell.

"Organic" in the sense of agriculture is very well-defined; it means using only mechanical processes and biological processes found in nature (e.g., artificial selection). No chemicals or genetic tampering are allowed: no pesticides, no fertilizers, no GMOs. Where the vagueness creeps in is when governments attempt to gerrymander the definition of organic so that e.g., Monsanto GMO crops can be classified as "organic" when they're not.

See, when you say stuff like "no chemicals or genetic tampering are allowed" you exclude literally everything man has eaten EVER.

I don't really care if people want to consume so-called "organic" food but the pseudo-scientific conversation surrounding it makes me cringe.

You do realize water is a chemical? And sunlight is probably the largest 'genetic tamperer' around? There is so much grey space between what you think you mean, and what you are actually saying that the terms you use are entirely meaningless at a practical level.

> The problem with the term "organic" is it's broad and not well defined. It's like "agile" in our space.

...and this if further complicated by the fact that this paper is based on combining data from almost 150 other studies.

I thought it was defined as "no use of pesticides". Other stuff is often included like fertilizers or genetic modification, but I don't see how that is relevant.

It looks like it is not a new study but rather a meta-analysis of existing studies:

"Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious. However, scientific opinion is divided on whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods, and two recent reviews have concluded that there are no differences. In the present study, we carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peer-reviewed publications that indicate statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods."

Their top claim seems to be that organic food is higher in anti-oxidants.

Unfortunately, the idea that anti-oxidants are good for you has always been scientifically shaky, and as more studies have been done, it's increasingly looking like anti-oxidants may be unhealthy.

So, the message of this study is, avoid organic food?

Studies re: antioxidants show that large doses of isolated compounds are not so good for you. The famous vitamin E study is an example of this. Scientists decided to study vitamin E, though, because people whose diets were high in naturally-occurring vitamin E had improved mortality -- in particular, these diets were cardioprotective. A similar paradox is being seen, to a lesser degree, in comparing diets high in fish and diets that include fish oil supplements or omega-3 supplements.

The combination of studies shows not that "antioxidants are bad" but that we don't understand how to isolate their benefits. Diets high in antioxidants from whole foods (dead plants and animals), rather than nutraceuticals or supplements, are consistently linked with health. Apparently it's not so simple as isolating one compound -- we need a balance of chemical compounds coming in, working in concert.

(It's like we evolved to thrive on real food instead of pills! Weird!)

You're going a little bit strawman by the end there. There are many types of diets that qualify as 'balanced real food', and the questions are in why they have different health benefits and trying to find the bottleneck compounds so that you can have more benefits at once. So you would still eat real food, but for chemicals whose ideal quantities require extremely biased diets you would put some in a pill and focus your diet on filling in the rest of the concert evenly.

I don't think there are many chemicals that work that way, though. Is there any one chemical that is so great for us that only a very biased diet would give it?

Different soil conditions could lead to deficiencies -- if you only "eat local" you might have to pay attention to selenium or magnesium (http://tin.er.usgs.gov/geochem/doc/averages/se/usa.html) due to geography or geology. But setting aside deficiency, what chemical would we want to load up on in isolation?

(ok, caffeine comes to mind. but that's not really for health, and I get it pretty well from ground plant products.)

You'd conclude everything is unhealthy if you lived your life the way studies told you to. Problem is most studies you see these days are backed/funded by an agenda to be basically their marketing.

I'd like to see a study that dismisses labels like "organic"/not and look for the nutritional content AND poisonous content.

That way, we'd find the best current/future farming methods available instead of this inane religious branding war between marketing giants.

That leads to the obvious conclusion that we should skip the foods and eat the pesticides directly!

The studies that have shown antioxidants are unhealthy use mega doses. Getting enoug vitamin E is healthy; getting 100 times the needed amount isn't.

I haven't read the specific paper, but the press release skips over the finer nuances in the debate.

First, how is the European standard of "organic" defined exactly? Both the UK's and US' seem to cover the basics (no growth hormones, limited herbicides and pesticides use, must feed the animal organic foods, etc.), but fertility and biological standards in the soil might vary. It is possible that that UK might have naturally less-polluted soil than the US (fewer heavy metals?), contributing to the difference. Also, organic doesn't mean hormones or pesticides-free; rather, it just defines which pesticides can be used and are not as detrimental to the environment. There might be different standards here too.

UK's standard: https://www.gov.uk/converting-to-organic-farming

US' standard: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPOrganicStandards

Secondly, most organic studies in the states dive into which fruits/vegetables are subject to the most pesticide use. Apples, strawberries, and grapes seem to have the most in the US, but avocados, corn, and pineapple have the least. Studies that make blanket statements like "organic foods are better for you" without acknowledging the differences in the cultivation and biology of different species are lacking in my book.

Extensive List: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/list.php

I'd buy organic, mostly for the more humane way farmers treat livestock and lower environmental pollution, but I'm still not convinced that organic is nutritionally superior or has levels of pesticides that prove harmful to humans.

Why is the difference between US and UK regulations important for the results? As far as I understood from the press release the study was conducted in the UK with UK products.

Because "organic" is a meaningless label in USA, so USA "organic" is like the rest of USA produce.

As you allude, the US standard (USDA Organic) is next to useless. When I buy produce I don't differentiate between USDA Organic and conventionally grown. The California standard (CCOF) is a lot more sensible and was developed with less input from conventional large-scale growers.

> I'm still not convinced that organic is nutritionally superior or has levels of pesticides that prove harmful to humans.

I'm curious what convinced you that they are equally healthy in the first place?

I'm not convinced that they are equally healthy. Its just that up to now, the vast majority of studies found no major nutritional difference.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090729103728.ht...

Stanford study (others referenced this): http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/09/little-evidenc...

Those aren't conclusive and I'm open to being wrong, but this recent UK study seems to be the among the first to find significant differences. I bring up the organic definition in the US vs UK as a possible explanation for the results.

Surely that's the null hypothesis? It's up to proponents of organic food to prove a benefit.

Weird thinking. While I agree that it's a sensible null hypothesis, I'm not sure I agree that the burden of evidence automatically should be on proponents of organic food.

"Organic" food is what we've eaten since the beginning of time. It'd make sense that you'd have to show that the alteration you're introducing to the natural state of affairs isn't detrimental to health of the consumer. I.e., I'm making the same argument as you, I just consider unaltered food to be the baseline.

Also, "organic" is a weird name. Organic as opposed to what? Bananas made out of mineral oil?

Selective breeding is a comparatively slow and safe process. You're altering a species within its own parameters. It has little resemblance to the frankensteining we're doing right now. I'm not against it, I'm just not sure we've a developed a proper test suite to secure the process.

Selective breeding has allowed humans to transform wolves into Chihuahuas, an inedible wild grass called Teosinte into Corn (Maize), and many other drastic modifications. But those aren't "frankensteining", apparently. To paraphrase Stewart Brand, inserting the DNA to express a protein that a mammal cell normally does into a plant cell does not mean it will be furry.

I took 'frankensteining' to mean a rapid progression and skip over many states which would have been encountered via selective breeding.

To take your example, the wolf -> chihuahua would have been frankensteining had it been over the course of a singular or very small amount of generations.

It's still comparatively slow and safe, however. Even though we make some really weird alterations that way to suit our needs (which is well and good in and of itself, why shouldn't we?), the time spans are usually waaay longer than what i refer to as "frankensteining". It's not like you have a wolf, then a chihuahua, and in step 3, all wolves are suddenly chihuahuas. But that is effectively what we can do when we use more artificial methods.

I take it you haven't listened to anyone pro-organic speak? Just a few short sentences with them and you would have been aware that they make outrageous claims regarding the health benefits of organic food. And it's precisely because of that that the onus is on them to prove it. And you can't just say "we don't have to prove it because we've always eaten organic and that's natural", err or whatever argument they use. That's a prime example fallacious logic.

> "Organic" food is what we've eaten since the beginning of time.

Actually, we have not been eating organic food since the beginning of time. Most of the crops we consume today have been developed fairly recently in evolutionary terms (farming began only 12,000 years ago). Humans did not evolve exposed to fruits and vegetables we see today. Any farmed crop is not natural.

I agree - the whole 'natural food' thing is a confused mess. Nothing natural about the foods we eat - and a good thing too! Nature doesn't care about our health. Organisms have been competing for millennia for advantages. If a tree's seed sprouted better from your warm dead body, then that tree would happily poison you.

In fact foods we eat in nature can be regarded as those that kill us too slowly to notice - we avoid the others.

And cultivated crops are those we've bred to have less and less of the undesirable parts. We've inserted ourselves into the plants' genetic path for mutual benefit - we plant millions of them, and they feed us.

To eat truly 'natural' you'd have to eat things like crab-apples (grainy and bad ph - eat more than one and get a stomach ache) or tiny barely-sweet melons etc. Melons a thousand years ago were barely larger than an orange, with a couple of tablespoons' worth of edible parts. Thank the Arabs for breeding the mutant freaks we enjoy today!

It is false to claim 'organic' food resembles what humans have been eating since the beginning of time. It bears little resemblence. That's kind of like saying maize and teosinte are the same plant.

It seems like the null hypothesis should be working in the opposite direction. Heavy use of pesticides and herbicides in "modern" farming are a few decades old, and some aspects of this trend, like "Roundup Ready(tm)" crops are very recent.

I'd rather be in the control group for this loosely organized experiment.

(responding to @dgesang here, because of max comment depth)

The conventionally-grown food looks similar, tastes similar, and people have been eating it for decades with no major, obvious consequences. So at first glance they are equivalent. So it seems reasonable that the burden would be on proving a difference, rather than an equivalence.

The dietary effects on health are poorly understood. Nutrition studies are fraught with difficulties and have spawned a resurgence in methodology concerning "measurement error" in the field of statistics. You don't really know how much pizza you ate last year, but the survey will ask you to estimate it somehow... and this kind of measurement is 'noisy'.

Conventionally-grown food looks like organically grown food on steroids, to me. I suppose from the outside a human on steroid may look healthy -- Mr Universe, even -- but we know all is not well inside.

I'm not saying that's really related, but there is substantial evidence for real differences in the makeup of food grown conventionally vs organically.

Citations 10-15 in the paper the original article pertain to this - protein expression differences across fertilization types.

Quantitative proteomics to study the response of wheat to contrasting fertilisation regimes - http://vwordpress.stmarys-ca.edu/bdf2/files/2013/05/wheat-an...

"... The abundance of 111 protein spots varied significantly between fertilisation regimes. Flag leaf N and P composition were significant drivers of differences in protein spot abundance, including major proteins involved in nitrogen remobilisation, photosynthesis, metabolism and stress response."

And organically-grown food have been eating it for EONS with no major, obvious consequences. 'Conventionally-grown food' have just been thrown on the market a few decades ago without knowing any long-term effects to humans eating them or to the environment they are grown in. I don't care about proof for equivalence or difference, I only care about safety. And any food should be proven to be safe BEFORE being released, not decades later.

Ha, yeah sure, we need to proof that natures goods are fine the way they are supposed to be, but highly manipulated goods don't. That kind of thinking is one of the reasons why so many people fear TTIP. Please stay on your side of the Atlantic.

I'll just go ahead and leave this here for you:


Well, I didn't say that anything nature-related is ought to be good and desirable. What I meant is that 'conventional food' yet has to be proven to be equally safe as food that was not genetically tampered with, grown without using pesticides, etc. pp.

And quite honestly, I doubt that Moore had genetic engineering and todays massive (ab)use of pesticides in mind when he first stated that law. He might even have added an exception ...

Ha ha

Like the article says, the authors didn't claim the differences they found actually have any impact on health. They just claim they measured a difference, and the difference was significant (unlikely to be explained by chance).

That's fine, but this really doesn't inform consumer decision making in a valuable way. Many consumers would hear this and immediately assume that consuming organic food is safer, which isn't well-supported.

Note that low levels of toxic chemicals can often be completely harmless (if you want a better explanation than that, buy http://www.amazon.com/dp/0815340761 and read the section on the Ames test, dose response relationships, and why tests aren't useful predictors of risk at low concentrations.

Science: clearly doesn't matter unless it informs consumer decision-making in a valuable way.

Data without context is low information content. Your snark is misplaced.

Then go read the context. You're not required to make life-altering decisions when comprehending data. That's for people who cite single studies as justification for their latest hare-brained scheme to do.

More information on the study (including the paper) here: http://csanr.wsu.edu/program-areas/m2m/research-areas/nutrit...


>"Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious. However, scientific opinion is divided on whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods, and two recent reviews have concluded that there are no differences. In the present study, we carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peer-reviewed publications that indicate statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods. Most importantly, the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods, with those of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins being an estimated 19 (95 % CI 5, 33) %, 69 (95 % CI 13, 125) %, 28 (95 % CI 12, 44) %, 26 (95 % CI 3, 48) %, 50 (95 % CI 28, 72) % and 51 (95 % CI 17, 86) % higher, respectively.

>"Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies. Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd. Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g. minerals and vitamins) compounds. There is evidence that higher antioxidant concentrations and lower Cd concentrations are linked to specific agronomic practices (e.g. non-use of mineral N and P fertilisers, respectively) prescribed in organic farming systems. In conclusion, organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons." //

How did you find that? When I looked up the title I got a link to journals.cambridge.org that redirects to a login page. Your link is much better.


The link I gave above is the 2nd Google search result when I search for the name of the paper.

On a general note, how do meta analyses handle publication biases? For example, this study used 343 studies to derive their conclusions. But what if there were 5000 studies which showed that organic and non-organic food have no differences, but were not published or peer reviewed because they were deemed "not interesting"?

Generally: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publication_bias#Effect_on_met...

From the paper:

> Funnel plots, Egger tests of funnel plot asymmetry and fail-safe number tests were used to assess publication bias (37) (see online supplementary Table S13 for further information).

(Some fail-safe tests are completely worthless and misleading, but I haven't looked to see which they used.)

> Strong or moderate funnel plot asymmetry consistent with a publication bias was detected for approximately half of the parameters. However, it is not possible to definitively attribute discrepancies between large precise studies and small imprecise studies to publication bias, which remains strongly suspected rather than detected where asymmetry is severe (see Table 1 and online supplementary Table S13).

There's a table of all the endpoints they looked at, like the various antioxidants, with a column grading none to high:

> Publication bias was assessed using visual inspection of funnel plots, Egger tests, two fail-safe number tests, and trim and fill (see online supplementary Table S13). Overall publication bias was considered high when indicated by two or more methods, moderate when indicated by one method, and low when indicated by none of the methods. The overall quality of evidence was then assessed across domains as in standard GRADE appraisal.

A copy-paste of the publication bias column and then a `xclip -o | sort | uniq -c` says that there were 16 parameters where publication bias was estimated to be low or 'none', 17 'medium', and 3 'strong'. That said, publication bias tests are considered to be fairly weak in that you need a lot of studies to be confident bias isn't there, and looking at figure 3, the # of studies for the parameters may vary from what looks like a low of 4 to a high of 332; so the publication bias estimate for the latter will probably be good, but the former means next to nothing.

They usually have a definition for the kinds of studies they'll use. For example, they might say "only studies of this size betwee these years that measure this thing". I'll bet if you read the full analysis, you'll find something like that in it.

You're correct. The full study has a cool flow chart of how they selected their papers, how they removed certain studies, mixed in other studies, etc. But it doesn't handle the case of papers that were never published in the first place. I'm not even sure it's possible to handle, which is what I'm asking.

In addition to publication bias, it's also very easy to pick a selection criteria that produces the result you're trying to get, and justify that criteria after the fact.

There is publication bias with respect to publishing something that shows a difference between organic and non-organic food. I think a meta-analysis will only amplify this tendency.

I'd be happy if they actually put hypotheses out there why organic food would be better, come up with a possible mechanism, and test that.

Cadmium (which they state as the one metal that comes with lower concentrations for organic food), for example, can be part of certain fertilizers. Cadmium also depletes anti-oxidants. So, it might just be the case that getting rid of these fertilizers, would get rid of the differences between organic and non-organic food...

Without studying the underlying mechanisms of uptake and use, we will never know.

The antioxidants are maybe a red herring, but surely a key and blindingly obvious hypothesis is: food that's not been sprayed with nasty chemicals will be lower in levels of nasty chemicals. That (plus this similar hypothesis: environments that haven't been sprayed with nasty chemicals will be lower in levels of nasty chemicals) is the whole reason I buy organic stuff, and appears unsurprisingly vindicated here.

Composting manure might concentrate metals, and other issues, which are difficult to think about when the processes are not known to the buyer: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/green_room/...

My grandpa who had an orchard was not into organic farming at all, but also he already used wasps to get rid of certain insects. I think it's important to know what happens down there on the field and to me "organic" comes across at times as a marketing trick, but's that maybe me. :-)

>Cadmium, which is one of only three metal contaminants along with lead and mercury for which the European Commission has set maximum permitted contamination levels in food, was found to be almost 50% lower in organic crops than conventionally-grown ones.

More info? Did it go from .0000000002mg/kg to .0000000001mg/kg?

I'm not very satisfied by this summary.

This is great. Now if only I could use an app to make sure that a piece of produce labeled as organic was truly organic.

The higher prices associated with organic produce seem like they could be a big temptation for bait-and-switchers. I know there are stringent certifications, but the incentive is there.

Heartening that everyone can read this research largely if not entirely funded by tax payers from the authors' respective countries.

Url changed from http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/item/new-stu..., because several commenters were complaining about there being no link to the paper.

We had to compress the title to fit.

I actually did that on purpose, and then immediately commented on the submission with a link to a page that contains the paper and supplemental data.

The reason I preferred to post the press release was simply because it explains the significance of the study and gives a little history, something that might not be obvious if I simply linked to the paper directly.

Unfortunately, my comment wasn't seen by many :-(. It would've been nice if one could post some supplementary text when submitting a link.

You did the right thing. We generally prefer the best popular article on a paper, with a link to the paper in comments.

This case was unusual because the subject was controversial, the thread ballooned quickly, and the link to the paper got lost.

And a 2012 survey of 200+ studies showed no significant difference in nutrition or contaminants.



Well, it found no significant difference in nutrients measured except for phosphorus (the difference in phosphorus was significant but not clinically significant), and it did find that organic foods were lower in pesticides and organic chicken and pork were much less likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

I thought the reporting on this survey was so weird. Headlines trumpeting "NO DIFFERENCE!" Antibiotic-resistant bacteria freak me the heck out. Pesticides don't seem so tasty. And that CAFO chicken tastes like styrofoam -- being a vegetarian is no loss if you only know that *&^!. But a piece of pork that really tastes like pork..... mmmmmmm....... Doesn't anyone buy food for the taste anymore?

2012 was a long time ago. Seriously. Would you use un-patched software from 2.5 years ago? I wouldn't. Science can move fast too. Relying on old data is foolish when there's a lot more newer data that can be analyzed.

Most of the papers used in this study were published between 1990 and 2010. The data is likely older than that.

The newer data shows the same feeble trend as before. A little plus, a little minus. Press releases notwishstanding the signal has been weak and remains weak. Best to avoid confirmation bias here.

I'm glad to see some kind of serious, fact-based conversation finally taking place. I'm getting tired of reading nonsense such as "it's not organic, it's bad for your body" or "it's organic, it's very healthy".

There's also an important array of distinctions between ingredients that are "not organic" (whatever that means): genetically modified food needs to be in a separate bucket from food that came from non pesticided crops, etc...

Overall, people will be stunned to find out how beneficial OGM foods are over their natural counterpart, and how much of it they're already eating on a daily basis without realizing it, and being more healthy for it.

When the situation is reversed: (e.g. 'Non-Organic foods are just as healthy as Organic foods') there's often ad hom's directed at the researchers and an alleged 'whoring oneself out' to Big-Agri.

I wonder if people think it's reasonable to consider the hidden incentives in study that come up positively for Organics? After all, organic is usually:

- much more expensive (ability to charge a premium / higher margin)

- suppliers can maintain a semi-monopoly by limiting who gets to use the label "organic"

These characteristics, are afterall, a business's dream, not the ability to sell a commodity in an int'ly competitive market.

There are "hidden incentives" in virtually every study, and one should always remain highly skeptical. One of the biggest perversions of science is the probability of wide publication (essentially the virality of a finding), vastly increasing the likelihood of finding the desired outcome.

However to your "business's dream", organic products are more expensive to buy because they're much more expensive to produce. If we actually look at businesses in operation, the vast majority seek to minimize selling price by doing everything possible to minimize production costs, which is the opposite of your claim.

Businesses don't do everything possible to minimize absolute production costs, they try to minimize relative production costs. All else being equal, if my business and all my competitors are forced to pay twice as much for components, we will all raise prices, we will probably keep similar margins, and we will all make more profit. "All else being equal" is the hard part but it's not too far from reality in some situations.

> if my business and all my competitors are forced to pay twice as much for components, we will all raise prices, we will probably keep similar margins

No, the organic food fight has always been about should we reap the (positive) economies of scale that are so abundant in agriculture? That's the cost structure of concern here and it only applies to one side - those currently taking advantage of those efficiencies. We were able to feed society with family farms, it just took 90% of the population to be farmers.

Nah, 'organic' food is still easily mass-produced with big machines, you just avoid certain untrendy things.

Especially since large farms can easily be more environmentally-friendly, mostly through fuel savings, and market the hell out of that.

> We were able to feed society with family farms

98% of farms in the US are still considered family farms by the USDA.

This is sort of surprising to me, since I thought organic has only been marketed as more nutritious when in fact it isn't necessarily.

The rise of organic food was more about sustainability than nutrition from what I've read (quite a few books). Reducing the use of pesticides, crop rotation, careful ways to not strip the soil of nutrition, etc...

I've always worked under the presumption that the "it's healthier" argument wasn't the case (despite the clever wording of marketing when big food got their hands on Organic).

i wish we could see a balanced analysis of this...

there are many, many advantages to 'modern' food production - this is why we did it to begin with. the economic advantages may cause the problem where the quality of the food drops in some ways but other advantages potentially balance it out.

it also seems to be a bit arbitrary as well... the 'artificial processes' used to improve food quality are often used on 'organic' foods as well. especially when they 'just' make the product better.

> lower in organic crops than conventionally-grown ones

Organic is the convention, intensive factory crops are the new kids on the block. This whole frame of reference is the wrong way round.

This isn't surprising. If you tune your Genetic Rearranger 3000 to spit out blueberries that are really friggin' blue, and don't develop rough surfaces, and are resistant to certain molds, and don't track other metrics like nutrition content, then there is a greater than zero chance that whatever you're not tracking will be diminished.

First reactions of "experts" on this study range from cautious to skeptical: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-study-c...

> [...] organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 69% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops.

This immediately made me wonder if organic crops are also "up to 69%" more expensive? If so, it kinda balances out (you eat less organic food to compensate for its price).

Say its 200% more expensive. Is it still worth it? I mean, you can't just eat twice as much of the other food to balance ..

How well paid are the people who jump in to these threads to astroturf on behalf on a lobby? Are they on-call to deal with weekend work?

Is it the same players that have been doing this since the 80s, or is there someone disrupting the industry?

I highly doubt the "lobby" cares enough about what a few thousand hackers think about organic food to plant astroturfers.

Sometimes there simply isn't a conspiracy...sorry.

(Now if it were Microsoft on the other hand:)

> Are they on-call to deal with weekend work?

Reading some of the answers here, I am having a first hand experience on how strong the lobby is.

My guess is that, they are full time employee. There should be hierarchical overseeing managers and performance review, for it to be this much effective.

Now if they could better prove the value of antioxidants.....

I wish this was a smaller article and not a 18 page paper

Again quite a poor press release for a university.

* Antioxidants have lost a lot in recent studies in terms of supposed health benefits. Mentioning antioxidants without reference to today's antioxidants and health research is implying a not-proven health benefit of organic food for antioxidants, while the health benefit can only soundly be expressed for the lower levels of pollutants.

* There is no link to the paper or a preprint of the article.

Apart from this, it is great to know that organic food is less polluted than conventional food (and it would be great if we got those numbers down for conventional food as well).

Would love to see the paper as well. Everything you said about antioxidants is true and I have equity in a company that has spent millions on researching antioxidants at multiple universities, on two continents. Most benefits that companies make claims on are only seen after ingesting impossible to eat"natural" quantities of the antioxidants.

Even more interesting, the heavy metal claims. Heavy metals are generally leeched from the soil and to conduct a test such as this you need two very different plots of land. If the heavy metals were in the solutions applied to the conventionally grown crops, then it would be pretty easy to know where they came from and alert the governing agencies. Therefore, they came from the soil.

Although there are no real enforced standards for organic in US, most private companies that set the standards have some specifications for the soil. If you were to convert a field from conventional to organic, the general rules state that the field needs to become farrow and tested for at least 7 years. In theory this does gets rid of chemical pesticides, but there are no major studies to prove it and there is no impact on residual heavy metals.

And as someone that grew up in the produce, food and beverage business I will say that just because something is labeled organic, it does not mean it is organic. It certainly does not mean that the private company they chose to "inspect" there farms followed through with all of their privately chosen standards. My family's company has caught more than a few competitors and business partners cheating the system, selling organic product in quantities that the industry knows the company cannot meet in terms of production.

General rule of thumb for buying organic: is it smaller and more "meh" looking than the conventional fruit or vegetable... it's probably organic. If it's processed and packaged... it's anyone's guess. There certainly is no governing body trying to enforce standards. After all, regulations would only cut the profit margins for the already established major organic players.

Probably during the time you grew up in the food business there were no enforceable organic standards in the US. I know when I was involved (in the 90's) standards were set by private companies as you describe.

There are now (as of early 2000's I believe). They are defined and there is an actual federal organic certification with clear rules about what comprises organic. I don't believe one can legally call a product organic in the marketplace without this certification.


"(OFPA) states that no person may affix a label to, or provide other marketing information concerning, an agricultural product if that label or information implies, directly or indirectly, that such product is produced and handled using organic methods, except in accordance with the OFPA" (exceptions provided for producers selling less than $5,000 a year).

What you say about metal levels in soils is insightful.

Not only it is a poor press release, but it has FALSE information.

"The study, published today in the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition..."

The study, entitled “Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically-grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses,” is nowhere to be found, either on the BJN website, or elsewhere on the web.

Until the peer-reviewed results are out, consider it as hype, not science. I wish I could mod down the submission.

Another comment has already pointed out that until we see the underlying study we can't be sure that this press release is really important. I note that the claim "In the largest study of its kind, an international team of experts led by Newcastle University, UK, has shown that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 69% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops" doesn't tell us anything important unless it can be shown that those "key antioxidants" are genuinely important for human health, and despite some hand-waving in the press release, there is no epidemiological evidence at all that the presence or absence of particular antioxidants in foodstuffs is associated with better health in human beings.

The evidence for molecular intervention (almost always with positive outcome) of antioxidants in the form of phytochemicals (the ones that have been around us for millions of years) in the biochemistry that occurs in animal bodies is overwhelming as a search in the literature will tell you. I've read hundreds of papers reporting such results. No one talks about proof in science but this is at least indicative though we have far to go.

To ignore the chemistry while waiting for epidemiologists to come to questionable conclusions seems odd to me. Thanks to the countless variables present when people are involved, epidemiological studies are always subject to debate.

Knowing as a raw fact that carbon monoxide irreversibly combines with haemoglobin told me a long time ago that smoking is a mug's game I was likely to lose. I didn't need later 'reassurance' from epidemiology to persuade me give up.

What's a good review article on the topic? What kind of underlying studies contribute to metaanalysis on this issue, in vitro studies of direct application of the antioxidants, or carefully controlled in vivo studies of consumption of different kinds of foodstuffs? (I did the expected Google Scholar search back when this thread was more active, and I'm not seeing many citations to reliable secondary sources even now in this thread.)

Scary! "is based on data from 343 peer-reviewed publications"

Have we not learned that "peer-reviewed publications" are of questionable value due to the on going debate on peer-reviews.



Would you prefer they used non-peer-reviewed publications?

Also, it was a metastudy, which can address non-systematic variation in poor studies (it wouldn't necessarily protect you against systematic variation, for example if "all peer reviewed studies were flawed in the same way".

No I would prefer data that was validated by a secondary source. The idea that one can do science by writing a paper and just have it signing off by someone seems flawed and damaging to science and medicine.

Reason I haven't dropped this after being down voted over 5 times. Having had a son who went through the whole cancer deal and then realize that so much of the cancer research is flawed due to bad peer-reviewed papers that caused loss of years of research makes me always question "peer-reviewed." It needs to be replicated and the data needs to be open. Science and especially medical research is seriously damaged by the lack of either one of these.

Your complaint about peer review might be valid but it's irrelevant to this particular study (using the term peer review when describing a study isjust something PR people do to make them seem more valid). Peer review isn't a panacea, but that's not really its role, either. We expect too much of peer review, but it's not directly related to the issues of replication or open data (it certainly doesn't prevent either of those things from happening).

Studies like this actually build on previous studies, and if carried out properly, address many issues about individual publications.

That is why there needs to be more backing then what was published in the letter. The whole backing of data was that it was peer-reviewed.

Likely a shit study like all the others that try to do this. The reality is that there no real difference. This has been proved over and over again; but these idiots have an agenda and will never quit.

I know you're probably a troll, but this is science: nothing is ever "proven", nothing is ever 100% certain, and they mentioned in the press release why this study is better than the previous ones that show no difference between organics and non-organics (basically, it used way more data and it's newer).

What is "organic food"?

Downvoting instead of defining the term that is not explained in the article nor could I find a satisfactory definition online for?

I take it as an evidence that this is one of those "taboo" subjects that everyone expects everyone else to know definition of, even though not sure themselves.

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