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Produce study provides some much-needed context

September 04, 2012|By Russ Parsons
  • Alyssa Arceo, a third-grader at Julien School in Turlock, Calif., enjoys an apple.
Alyssa Arceo, a third-grader at Julien School in Turlock, Calif., enjoys… (John Holland/Associated…)

A Stanford University study, published Tuesday in Annals of Internal Medicine, that analyzed organic and conventional produce is already generating quite a bit of comment from all sides. Though no single study can ever be regarded as conclusive, this one raises some very interesting points (you need a subscription to read beyond the summary).

The main points, as related in our sister blog Booster Shots, are:

1) Organic produce does not seem to be significantly higher in nutrients than conventionally grown.

2) Conventional produce does not seem to generate allergic reactions at a higher rate than organic.

3) Organic meat does not seem to have lower levels of bacterial contamination than conventional -- but when there is contamination, conventional meat does seem to have a higher occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

4)  The most surprising to me was how close organic and conventional produce were in terms of detectable pesticide residues: Organic had only 30% lower levels than conventional. That’s “detectable” -- as in they could find any residue at all -- both organic and conventional samples fell well within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s safety ranges.

This will probably strike some as heresy, but after 25 years of covering food and agriculture, of walking fields and talking with farmers both conventional and organic, it’s about what I expected.

Although there is no doubt that pesticides improperly used can be harmful not only to consumers, but also most especially to the workers involved, I think there’s also little doubt that farming techniques, many of them pioneered by organic growers, have changed substantially over the last decade, reducing the overall amount of pesticides used, particularly on fruits and vegetables.

Pesticide use in California between 2000 and 2010 (the most recent year available) declined by 8%, according to statistics from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. And that’s a little misleading because 2010 was an abnormally humid year that required a higher-than-normal use of pesticides (an increase of 9.5% over the previous year). Cherry-picking the results and using 1999 to 2009 statistics would have resulted in a 23% decline, which might reflect the trend-line more accurately.

Furthermore, more than a quarter of all pesticides used in 2010 were sulfur, a natural fungicide that is used by both organic and conventional farmers.

None of this should suggest that there isn’t still progress to be made and that there aren’t some especially nasty players out there that we need to be wary of. But it does provide a little context for the next time someone starts talking about the evils of farming and poison produce.

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