COLUMBIA — The results of a study by researchers at Stanford University have caused a stir in the health and organic community.
The study concluded that, although organic foods provide less exposure to pesticides, there is not a big difference in health benefits. Registered dietitian and writer of the blog Food Sleuth, Melinda Hemmelgarn, who also has a show on community radio station KOPN/89.5 FM, talked to the Missourian this week about what consumers should know about the study.
Q: What is your reaction to the Standford study and how it was covered by the media?
A: These reports bring about headlines that are misleading. I serve on two boards, the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board. I've met with a lot of organic farmers. It's not rocket science when you think about healthy soil making healthy food. When you have healthy soil, you have better water retention and a better environment, which protects us. The story is bigger than health. With all else being the same, as soil quality improves, the nutritional value of food improves.
We have to think about how our choices affect farmers. It's not all about you. Think about farmers and future generations. You have to look at the bigger picture. How you define nutrition is an important point as well. I define nutrition as beyond vitamins and minerals. Is it safe? The study is clear. Organic foods provide higher amounts of Omega-3 and less exposure to pesticides.
A problem with studies such as this is the pesticides are tested individually. When a family sits down to dinner, they are consuming more than an individual pesticide; they are consuming a pesticide cocktail that hasn't been tested before. At the end of the day, choose organic. It's better for everyone.
Q: Why are you concerned about this, and what effect do you think the results will have on shoppers?
A: I believe in the precautionary principle: We have to think of ourselves as a part of nature as opposed to above it. For people who don't want to believe or have "see, I told you" attitudes, headlines and studies like this feed their position. We seek out information that supports our philosophies. I like to tell people's stories. Many farmers have the same story of, "I just got tired of being covered in chemicals labeled with skull and crossbones." They wanted to be able to hug their children after they came in from working on the farm.
I tell the story of the once-conventional farmer who became paralyzed on one side after exposure to 2,4-D. He is now an organic farmer. For researchers to look so narrowly at food — what could be more important? We have such an intimate relationship with what we eat. Anything that protects the ecosystem protects us. These studies mislead consumers into thinking it doesn't matter whether you buy organic or not when, in fact, it does.
Q: What do you believe the advantages are to buying organic?
A: Collectively, our purchases matter. When we go to the grocery store and make our purchases, our dollars are the biggest votes. We get the agriculture that we demand. We have a great amount of power with our dollars. It is important to be active citizens and use our food votes to demand the food we want.
Q: If a family has a limited budget and can hardly afford conventional fruits and vegetables, let alone organic fruits and vegetables, is conventional better than nothing?
A: Often the choice you are given is not the choice you have to make. Can a person grow something? Can someone get involved in a community garden? Don't allow yourself to be forced into a choice. There is a third choice; I have options. Growing your own food or going to the farmers market later and making deals with farmers. Learning to cook is a big part of it. When you buy processed food, you are paying for the processing. Think about food as a basic preventative medicine. I'd give up a lot to buy good food. Food is the most important purchase you are making.
Q: What are your personal eating and buying practices?
A: I buy organic from the market or directly from farmers. I buy food in bulk and freeze or can it. I buy very basic food that is as close to the earth as possible. Chocolate and coffee are the two things I don't buy at the market. My diet is very plant-based. I do eat meat, but I buy it directly from the farmer. I have a freezer that I can store food in, which is a luxury. It's a different way of eating. I rarely eat fast food. I would eat fast organic food if I could find it, but I prefer to eat slow organic food.
Q: What other reasons do you believe people buy organic?
A: People don't want to consume pesticides and chemicals. People also want to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms). We don't have GMO labeling in the U.S., but until we do, the best way for consumers to avoid eating genetically engineered food is to choose organic food.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.