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Read between the rows

In September, I read an article that questioned the value of adding organic foods to your diet. It was based on a Stanford University study, and over the following days, it became fodder for talk radio, television news and newspaper columns around the world.

There certainly are reasons to question the "organic" designation, but two of its biggest advantages are that it keeps municipal sewage sludge from being used to cultivate crops, and it does not allow use of genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Yet many small farmers and others claim the organic distinction has been coopted by mega companies. Some organic brands are owned by firms that use GMO in their other product lines, as well as animal products from factory farms where animals live in squalor. At the same time they grow organic food for one division, they fight state GMO-labeling initiatives and animal-care standards that would affect another part of their operation.

An additional, important distinction of organic is that the rules prohibit antibiotic use in farm animals that are rendering the drugs ineffective for fighting bacterial infections in humans.

What is most bizarre to many people is that organic foods should require labeling at all. Perhaps foods raised conventionally should indicate they were grown with synthetic chemicals and GMOs. The labeling scheme itself sustains a mystique of superiority and an implicit "us" (the rich) versus "them" (the poor others) who can't afford $2 "smiling" organic apples at Whole Foods Market.

And still the organic movement has brought tens of thousands of farmers into small-scale production and has helped farmers markets boom nationwide.

Organic practices enable farmers to sell food widely viewed as tastier, for a decent profit. Research suggests tastier, riper and sweeter produce generally is more nutritious — whether conventional or organic. Fresher food from local farms generally is more ripe, nutritious and higher in vitamins and other nutrients.

Widespread in the criticism of organic standards is the assertion that the government already sets safe levels of synthetic pesticides for growing conventional food. Yet studies show that when kids switch from conventional to organic foods exclusively for a short period, pesticide residues in their urine drop precipitously.

In light of the fact that we're exposed to thousands of environmental chemicals that may have synergistic, harmful effects — and that many accumulate in young bodies and pregnant women's placentas — we may find our standards aren't strict enough. Kids from pregnant moms with the highest levels of pesticide residue have been found to have lower IQ scores.

One of the best arguments for GMO, advocates say, is that we need to feed a growing world population. But the jury is still out on whether GMO will come close to saving us from world hunger. Multiple factors are at play in our hungry world, from food waste and flawed distribution to water scarcity, income inequality and our growing human appetite for animal foods higher up the food chain, many of which, like fish, are rapidly diminishing.

The recent organic-food fight shed light on vitamins, particularly vitamin C. What many overlooked are phenols, a class of the ubiquitous compounds found in plant-based foods that protect us from chronic disease. They generally are found to be far fewer in conventionally raised crops.

A University of California Davis study showed that organic tomatoes were far superior in terms of phenol and protective, natural-chemical content. Two phenolic compounds known to exhibit diverse health benefits are kaempferol and quercetin. Organic tomatoes had 79 percent more quercetin and 97 more kaempferol than their conventionally grown cousins.

Farmers who adhere to organic growing techniques know that maintaining, coaxing and cultivating the soil's diverse microenvironment —— growing soil —— is key to raising the tastiest, most nutritious crops. The value of being loyal to the soil is what farmers have long known, many local growers have learned and researchers will continue to investigate. Stay tuned.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.