Initial Comment on the Reporting of the Organic Farming Meta-Analysis

A meta-analysis about the health benefits of organic farming was reported through various media news sites (such as The New York Times) and commented on by a skeptical websites and social media outlets.  For example, Steve Novella wrote about it in Science Based Medicine and concluded:

The recent review of organic vs conventional produce agrees with previous systematic reviews that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce. Despite the scientific evidence, the alleged health benefits of organic produce is the number one reason given by consumers for buying organic. This likely represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.

As many of you know, we had a meet-up back in February to discuss organic farming.  We had UM Professor, Dr. Catherine Badgley, help foster a conversation that consisted of a Q & A about the science behind organic farming practices.  You can listen to our conversation here.

I emailed Dr. Badgley about the study and the reporting and asked her to provide a comment.  She mentioned that she had not read the full paper, but she wanted to give some initial impressions from the media reports.

There are a number of important points about the recent report in the news.  First, it has a narrow view of why organic agriculture is important to human and environmental health. Second, it minimizes its own conclusion that pesticide residues occur more often or in higher concentrations on conventionally grown food.  Third, the report is summarizing across studies of many different kinds of foods; the answer may differ substantially for different kinds of foods.

The media commentaries that I have seen thus far are emphasizing the view that most people who go out of their way to purchase organic foods are doing so because organics will provide a healthier diet.  There are many other reasons that consumers purchase organic foods (supports smaller farms, often locally grown, less corporate control for some organics, less damage to the environments near and far from where the food is grown).  Also, there are many other factors contributing to health from nutrition–e.g., how much fresh produce people eat, how much fat, etc. 
I have not had a chance to see the original paper yet, so my comments are based on the media reports of it, although from some fairly reputable sources (New York Times, National Public Radio).  Overall, my sense is that the conclusions being aired go well beyond what the study can actually demonstrate.


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