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Stanford Organic Food Study: Amidst Pushback, Co-Author Acknowledges Limitations

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Last week, a controversial study concluding that organic food has no real health benefit over conventionally grown food received a great deal of media attention. But there was also a wave of backlash.

On the Huffington Post alone, bloggers sounded the alarm, with headlines like, "Stanford Scientists Shockingly Reckless on Health Risk And Organics," "Media Coverage of Stanford's Organic Foods Study is Half Baked," and "Organic Food vs. Conventional: What the Stanford Study Missed."

So what exactly was the problem? Some argued that the study's conclusions were being oversimplified and some pointed out that even if its media-grabbing assessment was true, that hosts of other reasons why organic farming and produce might be preferable were being overlooked.

  • NYU professor Marion Nestle pointed out that the study did in fact confirm that organic food reduces exposure to pesticides and antibiotics. Nestle writes that the authors found organic food was "doing exactly what it is supposed to." Nestle also explains how focusing on nutrient content alone misses the point, since "additional nutrients do not make healthy people healthier."
  • Michael Pollan agreed, saying that this is not new research and he's seen "exact same data analyzed in a very different direction." He said, "we're kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it's more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it's more environmentally sustainable. That's the stronger and easier case to make."
  • Bloomberg restaurant critic Ryan Sutton argued that headlines about organic food not being healthier misses the point of the study altogether. "We pay more for organic or free range products because we believe it’s the right thing to do," he wrote. "We want to support the farmers and growers who treat their animals, their crops and mother nature’s land with respect and dignity."
  • Tom Philpott of Mother Jones writes that "the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use." He names five reasons the study sells organics short, including an oversimplification of pesticide exposure. He writes, " the study seriously underplays the benefit of going organic to avoid pesticide traces, especially for vulnerable populations like pregnant women and kids."

Now it turns out that one of the lead authors of the study acknowledges some of these shortcomings of their "meta-analysis" (the study was a comprehensive review of previous organic food studies). In an interview with public policy website Remapping Debate, Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler said, “It was beyond the scope of our article to review and be able to really answer" any questions having to do with:

  • The environmental effects of non-organic farming.
  • The human health effects of agricultural chemicals leeching into groundwater
  • The effects of pesticides on farm workers
  • The risks of non-organic farms serving as fertile breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Smith-Spangler added, “A study that would examine the question, ‘Is the amount of pesticides in our food safe?’ would include a lot more data on dose response and maybe some animal data. And there are lots of experts out there who can weigh in on that issue.”

Read the full conversation with Smith-Spangler here.

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