Will children benefit if fed organic foods? Up until today, any honest person would have had to say that we have no idea. After all, there has been no research done to compare outcomes when children are fed diets of organic food and comparable children are fed conventionally grown foods.
Then, all the sudden, a release came out. It explained that something new had happened: American Academy of Pediatrics Weighs In For the First Time on Organic Foods for Children. Since this is an organization of pediatricians and its slogan is “Dedicated to the Health of all Children,” we were thrilled at the idea that such an eminent organization would clear the air.
When we started reading the headlines generated from the report, though, it seemed as if the report generated more smoke than light. Look at how a sampling of media outlets headlined their stories on the report:
National Public Radio:Docs Say Choose Organic Food To Reduce Kids’ Exposure To Pesticides
The Wall Street Journal: Report Supports Organic Produce, but Not Milk
The Wall Street Journal’s “The Juggle” Blog: Crossing Organic Off the Grocery List
The complete study has many weaknesses. Right in the abstract, it starts out aping the claims of the Organic Trade Association as to the size of the organic market. The authors seem to lack any awareness that OTA might have an interest in hyping the size of the market. It would have taken only minor research to note that we thoroughly debunked those market-size claims in a piece we titled, Marion Nestle, Organic Facts, And Why The Organic Trade Association’s Numbers Don’t Make Any Sense.
More broadly, the study doesn’t show much awareness of what the issues actually are when considering organics vs. conventional.
For example, there seems to be no awareness that organic produce is not grown in some purified environment. Although many synthetic items are banned from use in organic agriculture, other items are used in the place of synthetics. So the issue is not merely whether synthetics are bad; the issue is whether they are worse than the substances used by organic growers.
Another issue, important for research attempting to alter public policy, is whether current information about organics is scalable or not. Because so little land is certified organic, the industry has been free to elect the optimal places to make acreage organic. So if Florida is bad for organics and Washington state is good — that is the land that got switched. Whether we are talking yield, nutrient density or any other variable — we can’t assume that if organic production had to expand — say because the American Academy of Pediatrics was to recommend organics — that the widely expanded acreage would produce comparable product to what the highly selected acreage produces.
The key produce-related claims:
No clear nutritional difference between organic and conventional:
At this time … there does not appear to be convincing evidence of a substantial difference in nutritional quality of organic versus conventional produce.
Impact on workers may be more pronounced:
A large prospective birth cohort study that measured pesticide exposure in pregnant farm workers in California and followed their offspring found lower mental development index scores at 24 months of age and attentional problems at 3.5 and 5 years of age.
There has been no real research done that can enable scientists to speak to this question:
Although chronic pesticide exposure and measurable pesticide metabolite concentrations seem undesirable and potentially unhealthy, no studies to date have experimentally examined the causal relationship between exposure to pesticides directly from conventionally grown foods and adverse neurodevelopmental health outcomes.
One of the key points the authors identify from the study:
Organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce, and consuming a diet of organic produce reduces human exposure to pesticides. It remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant.
Alas, we do not know much more than we did before the report came out. We know what we knew then: More research is required if we are to even begin to understand these issues.