Monday, April 13, 2015

Organic vs. Conventional - Which is better?

I was recently interviewed for an article recently published in Today's Dietitian about organic foods. Each person interviewed was asked the same questions with selected responses included. The full article is viewable here.

All the questions were good ones. Each of my responses was as short as I could make it and keep my thoughts coherent. I knew that most of the content would hit the cutting room floor so that their resulting article was also coherent when combining the responses from each person. So I add my full responses here in case my readers would appreciate reading the wider view of my thoughts about each question. 

Of course each of these questions could merit a full blog post, a full essay, and I could easily have a conversation around each one. However, it will be of interest to see how others also answered the same question. 

I apologize in advance for the formatting and font, which always seems to be odd when I cut and paste into this blog. There seems to be nothing between small and LARGE - arghhh. So I change the font to make it a bit easier on the eyes, but again, I deeply apologize if you need to put on your reading glasses, or worse, actually get out a magnifying glass! 

(1) How would you summarize the nutritional differences between conventionally grown versus organically grown foods, and what complicates this comparison?

Most individual research studies evaluating nutritional differences as a primary outcome when comparing foods grown conventionally (i.e., with synthetic chemical inputs - fertilizer and/or herbicides and pesticides) versus organic farming practices (i.e., biological inputs - agroecological methods) will typically show variation from year to year, crop to crop, field to field and thus are very difficult to interpret. 

The most recent meta-analysis (see reference below) does show significantly increased anti-oxidant content in organically grown produce. What is as important for public health, if not more so, is that this meta-analysis also showed that overall the organically-raised produce had reduced pesticide levels plus reduced levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium. 

However, by focusing attention only on possible nutrient differences between organically-grown and conventionally-grown foods, Registered Dietitians miss the opportunity to learn about our profession’s much larger and critically important role as advocates for the development of healthy sustainable agriculture and food systems that promote healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people, and healthy communities. Focusing only on nutrient differences is a distraction away from issues of deeper concern that are even more important for the protection of our public and environmental health. 

Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Baranski, M., D. Srednicka-Tober, N. Volakakis, C. Seal, R. Sanderson, G. B. Stewart, C. Benbrook, B. Biavati, E. Markellou, C. Giotis, J. Gromadzka-Ostrowska, E. Rembiałkowska, K. Skwarło-Son, R. Tahvonen, D. Janovska, U. Niggli, P. Nicot and C. Leifert.

(2) Are there significant health risks of the pesticides, technologies (such as genetic engineering) and/or additives used in conventional food production?

I focus my attention and advocacy on our farm’s soil health and ecosystem’s vast and interconnected biodiversity and the community that it creates (both above and below ground). Conventional (i.e. industrial agriculture) consists of practices (including the use of GMO seeds) that are intentionally depleting our planet’s vast biodiversity, which includes the incredibly diverse, complex, and extensive microbial life in our soil that is only beginning to be discovered and is only barely understood for its role in overall health (from the soil to the planet, including human health). 

The population of the monarch butterfly has dropped precipitously in recent years, related to the use of pesticides directly and indirectly to the herbicides that are killing its main source of food, the milkweed plant, growing in among the vast acres of mono-crops planted in soy and corn. In fact, the monarch population in North America has decreased to the point of it potentially adding it to the list of endangered species.

What is a significant health risk from the use of these synthetic chemicals, and to whom? We know SO little about this community of life, this diverse ecosystem to which we belong and are connected. Think of the monarch butterfly (along with the recent increase in honey bee colony collapse) as “canaries in the corn field”. 

It’s time that RDNs learn about and incorporate The Precautionary Principle into their thinking and professional food recommendations in order to protect both the public’s health and the environmental health of our communities and planet.

(3) There’s been debate about the healthfulness of organic pesticides. Some people use this as an argument against organics. Are organic pesticides healthier than conventional pesticides? If so, how so? If not, why not?

This “debate” is another distraction for a variety of reasons. 

The organic farming community has been saying for years that it needs (and wants to participate in) more research into best practices so that organic farmers can continue to reduce the need to use any herbicide or pesticide, even if it has been approved for use in USDA certified organic products (OMRI).  Research dollars have consistently been disproportionally awarded to study conventional (industrial, synthetic) agriculture. The 2014 Farm Bill has increased the dollar amount, and fully funded this section, for research dedicated to “specialty crops” (not necessarily organically-grown, but this is a start), the term given to fruits and vegetables.  

Several studies have shown in both adults and children that eating only organic foods for a relatively short period of time significantly reduces the body levels of potentially harmful pesticides:          (a) Cynthia L. Curl, CL , RA Fenske and K Elgethun. 2003. Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban pre-school children with organic and conventional diets. Environmental Health Perspectives doi:10.1289/ehp.5754                                                             (b)  Reduction in urinary organophosphate pesticide metabolites in adults after a week-long organic diet, Liza Oates, et al. 

The President’s 2008-2009 Cancer Panel Report - Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What we can do now (published April 2010) recommends “choosing, to the extent possible, foods grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones…….” (page 112) to reduce the effects from environmental exposure on cancer risk.

(4) How might age or genetic differences of people impact the body’s response to pesticide contamination or technologies used in conventionally-grown foods?

Our children are the future of our country and society at large. The American Association of Pediatrics has developed a policy statement calling for reduction of prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides, being associated with pediatric cancers, cognitive function, and behavioral problems.'s-Exposure-to-Pesticides.aspx

(5) Many consumers are familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” as shopping guides for produce. What is your opinion about the “Dirty Dozen” and how much of an impact has this guide made on consumer shopping decisions?  

I was thrilled when this list first came out in the mid-90’s. I personally used it and have included it as a resource in each edition of my book A Dietitian’s Cancer Story. However, now I personally don’t use it all, and only recommend it as the proverbial great first step. Why not?  It limits one’s thinking to only “me”, i.e., what’s in it for me? 

Buying organically-grown food is about so much more than just nutritional benefits, i.e., just “me”. People are becoming aware and choosing to purchase food grown organically, particularly grown by farmers within their own foodshed (i.e. a regional food system), because doing so promotes: 

- healthy soil, 
- biodiversity, 
- clean water, 
- reduced soil erosion plus regeneration of productive topsoil, 
- clean air, 
- reduced production of atmospheric gases causing global climate change along with being an effective sink for capturing (reducing) atmospheric CO2, 
- increases and stabilizes a local economy, 
- helps to define and maintain a local food culture and community, 
- reducing the personal intake of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, 
- prevention of the development of antibiotic resistance, 
- choosing animal protein foods from farms focused on animal welfare which includes appropriate food for an animals specific anatomy and physiology, 
- reducing risk of pesticide/herbicide exposure to farm workers, 
- increased nutrients (polyphenols, other antioxidants, healthy fatty acids), 
- increased flavor (and what is food without delicious flavor?), 
- reduced risk of an increasing variety of illnesses (including autism, Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancer, heart disease) and lastly, 
- recognizing and celebrating the culture in agriculture. 

RDNs need more education about their important role in the development of sustainable regional agriculture and food systems that truly can deliver “good food and good health for all” (my email sign-off). 

(6) What about food categories not included in the Dirty Dozen, such as organic animal products and grains—how should consumers approach these?

Buy organically every place possible. However, buying organic animal products is not that easy because some organic animals are still fed organic food (i.e., organic corn in CAFO feedlots) that is not appropriate for their anatomy and physiology or welfare.

(7) Some experts contend that people may skip certain foods altogether (such as fruits and vegetables) if they can’t afford organic, thus lowering nutritional quality of the diet. Is that a real concern?

“Experts” are often journalists or headline writers who love to (and need to) stir up controversy without offering meaningful suggestions for change to their readers. As an RD, I would help a client look at their time and total food dollar spending for a week (including all food eaten away from home, processed convenience foods plus expensive JUNK, which I do not give the dignity of being called “food”) and help them make goals and a plan to negotiate choices in order to have the money for healthy organic foods and time for food prep. And I would add that grabbing organic energy bars, organic cookies, organic JUNK would not make it into my professional recommendations or my own grocery cart. 

(8) What are the pros and cons of organic farming practices versus conventional farming practices on the environment?

See Question 5 above. 
In addition, I subscribe to the tenents and practices of the field of Agro-ecology:

The application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.
A whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences.
Linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities.

(9) If organic farming were the norm, would organic food cost the consumer less? And, if so, how would we support a move in this direction?

Organic foods from small local farmers will not and should not cost less. The real question is not “Why is organic food so expensive and when is the cost going to come down? Instead, the real question is “Why is cheap food cheap and what are the hidden costs to our communities of the cheap, processed food that is the norm?” It is critical that we as society start to address the multiple costs of cheap food to each of us personally and to society at large. 

I know several small organic farmers who qualify for SNAP (food assistance program). I don’t know any single small organic farmers who are making so much money that they need an off-shore banking account. 

Communites and individual organic farmers together need to continue to increase awareness and appreciation (value) of the three pillars of sustainable regional food systems, which are economic, environmental, and social benefits, all of which together create vital, thriving, and desirable places to live.  (these pillars are also often described as the 3-P's = Profit, Place, and People) 

(10) For a consumer who wants to eat more organic foods, what are strategies dietitians should recommend to make them more affordable? 

See my response above (#7) about working with the client for planning the total time/food bought. In addition, it is important to help the client (an individual or institution) make change in small steps with achievable and measurable goals - I use “A Good Food Checklist for Eaters”, developed by Angie Tagtow, MS, RD at

I also suggest that RDNs use Angie Tagtow’s Good Food Checklist for Dietitians first in order to see what they need to learn and put into practice themselves (i.e., walk the talk) before they can be effective community leaders and teachers for their clients.

(11) What trends do you foresee in production and consumer interest in organically-grown foods over the next 15 years, and how would you recommend supporting or reversing these trends?

The consistent recent and projected growth of the organic food production and purchases compared to the rest of the food industry is important.  As a relatively new farmer who has chosen to pursue both organic production and marketing via the USDA Organic certification program, I obviously support this growth.  The most important point for RDNs to understand is that this growth is resulting from many larger societal concerns than just individual nutrient differences, as important as that is. 

I suggest that all RDNs (in addition to the dietetic students and interns who come to my farm or Mary Jo Forbord’s farm when participating in the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group’s School to Farm Program) read the following resources provided by the HEN DPG and AND:

Healthy Land, Healthy Food, Healthy Eaters, Sustainable Food Systems: Opportunities for Dietitians, A. Tagtow and A. Harmon,                                                                                         
ADA Position Statement: Food and Nutrition Professionals Can Implement Practices to Conserve Natural Resources and Support Ecological Sustainability (June 2007). (compare and contrast to 2013 practice paper)
AND Practice Paper: Promoting Ecological Sustainability within the Food System  (March 2013).
Standards of Professional Performance for Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems – JAND 2014;114:475-488

Some additional resources:

Beyond Eating Right: The Emergence of Civic Dietetics to Foster Health and Sustainability Through Food System Change, J Wilkins et al, JHEN 5(1) 2010 -                                     
The Food-Climate Relationship: The Registered Dietitians’ Balanced Approach to Positive Change -

2010 State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment -

The President’s Cancer Panel Report 2010 Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now – has a section on agriculture, food, and water - 

A Generation in Jeopardy: How pesticides are undermining our children’s health and intelligence – Pesticide Action Network of North America, October 2012  

Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, Oran B. Hesterman, PhD, Public Affairs, 2011.

Eat Local: Simple Steps to Enjoy Real, Healthy, and Affordable Food, Jasia Steinmetz, PhD, RD, New World Publishing, 2011. 

I know this post is another long one, so I will not continue except to say that as an RD, I have clearly attached our collective future to developing healthy, sustainable regional food systems (with the occasional luxury of buying food not grown in the Upper Midwest like orange juice, avocados, olive oil, salt, black pepper, turmeric, etc etc etc - you get the idea). In fact, the visions statement for our farm is "Shaping our future from the ground up" where the word "our" is intentionally very wide and inclusive starting with building a healthy soil-food web for optimal nutrient content of the food we grow all the way to a healthy planet, and everyone and everything in-between.

Lastly, I will also just add that our organic certification is our public promise and gift to our local community demonstrating our farm's commitment to both nourishing and nurturing our community's health. As I mentioned above, "Good food and good health for all" is my email sign-off.  Working for and advocating for anything less is a compromise I am not willing to make as a true front-line health care provider proudly practicing both as a Registered Dietitian and an organic farmer feeding my own community. :)

Please feel free to read the full article, then decide for yourself "Which is better?". There are many valuable responses. Hopefully you will find one bit of information that helps you see and commit to a better, healthier, organic, sustainable future for all of us, our common good. 

Cultivate your life, you are what you grow – inch by inch, row by row,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD – your Radical Dietitian blogger :)