Fears of Food
Scared? Fears of food are spreading like wind-borne seeds. On September 19th Eric-Gilles Seralini of the University of Caen reported that rats fed genetically modified (GM) corn devised to survive commonly used Roundup pesticide — or given small amounts of the pesticide — demonstrated markedly more tumors over a two year period. Two years of observation is much longer than previous studies — about the length of a rat’s life. The French government immediately announced it would review the findings with the possibility of suspending all GM corn imports.
Americans are, as Michael Pollan has written, the “corn people.” It’s not just high fructose corn syrup we imbibe. We eat more corn — and corn based products — than anyone else (ask hard pressed pig farmers, too). There’s lot of that GM corn inside most American bodies.
Yet other scientists denounced the study as biased, riddled with far too many too small study groups, and inconsistent with previous data.
On September 5th another study by Dena Brevata and Crystal Smith-Spangler and cohorts from Stanford found “little” difference between organic and regular foods in nutritional content. Industry heralded the results as a major reason to avoid the higher costs of organic foods.
With trillions of dollars at stake, not to mention populational health and the fate of much terrestrial ecology, facts and counter-facts will continue to fly by in the international food fight. We should expect to experience all the synthetic “truthiness” of a national political campaign.
So what can be said about the Stanford study and the “equivalence” of organic and non-organic food?
Organic Vs Regular — Finding the Differences
The Stanford was one of a common form these days — a pooled analysis of thousands of study of which 237 were considered “relevant”. The data from these was extracted through attempts to separate “good” from “bad” data.
Problem One: Difficulties in distinguishing variables generally means that less, or no statistical differences will be seen.
Problem Two: Not all studies are equal in completeness, comprehensiveness, and adherence to protocol. Yet when placed together in large numbers those quality differences tend to go away.
What Did The Organic Researchers Find Regarding Nutrition?
That levels of commonly studied nutrients did not differ much or at all between organic and regular products. There was not much difference in vitamin levels or omega 3 fatty acid levels in organic versus regular products.
Problem: Foods contain thousands of different substances — including genetic material than can immediately change gene expression. There’s much more to food than vitamin and protein levels. For example, there are numerous microRNAs that go directly from food into the bloodstream, where they presumably interact with the at least 4 million genetic switches recently “discovered” in or “junk” DNA.
In other words, as in most studies, the information content of food was very, very narrowly defined.
What Was Found Regarding Pesticides?
Organic foods clearly had a lot less. They were, however, not pesticide free; pesticides spread over very large areas, wider than where they are applied. Most pesticide levels were found for all kinds of food to be within government “allowable” limits.
Problem: There’s really little evidence on just what other biological information — fungi, bacteria, viruses for example — come along with organic versus non-organic foods.
The Health Effects of Organic Versus Regular Foods Were…?
Pretty much not studied. The longest health outcomes for human populations went out was two years. Most epidemiologists would argue that health effects of different kinds of food — difficult to study in any case — would need decades of time to determine major effects on chronic diseases like cancer.
So ignorance remains great.
Was All Organic Food Similar?
Mainly in that the term “organic” was used. There are genetically modified foods that may be classed as “organic” because they are grown without conventional pesticides. The many different “levels” of organic farming were not really assessed by this study — and in most cases that would prove very difficult to do. Of course, nothing was done to look at their overall environmental effects.
One farmer’s organic produce is another’s genetically modified, pesticide-ridden produce and meat.
Food is complicated. It has immense effects on health – both of the human population and the entire biosphere. How you genetically manage, grow, distribute and chemically process food has large impacts on health of people and the planet.
But in the human case we really don’t know what most of those effects are – or will become. Long term health studies of organic versus regular food are difficult and expensive. They have not yet been done. They should be done.
Because on this issue we’re still ants in the kitchen. We don’t know the ultimate effects of organic versus non-organic foods for most health outcomes.
The Stanford study does argue that common nutrients don’t vary much between organic and regular foods. But organic foods have less pesticides and in, meat products, far less hormones.
So we remain in the dark about the health effects of organic versus regular foods. And those effects are far wider than cancer and heart disease rates in human populations. Environmentally sustainable agriculture is a must.
The planet is changing — often because of our efforts. We need to better understand better what we’re doing to it — and rapidly adjust to it. And what you don't know can hurt you.