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Organic Food, Conventional Food - Input Junkie
June 15th, 2012
09:31 am

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Organic Food, Conventional Food
Over at Less Wrong, I raised the question of whether there's evidence that organic food is better for health than conventional food, and asked for anything from anecdotes to studies.

Less Wrong being Less Wrong, someone raised the question of whether conventional food might be healthier.

In any case, they turned up nothing in the way of evidence, as distinct from heuristics or very vaguely related experiments. (Strange but true: food from plants which have to fight off insects for themselves is more mutagenic than food from plants which are protected with pesticides. Or at least sort of true-- I don't know how many mutations or species of bacteria this was tested on.)

So I'm asking a (mostly?) different bunch of people here. Have you heard or tried anything comparing the health effects of organic vs. conventional on people? Mammals? Multi-cellular organisms of any sort?

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/544333.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

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[User Picture]
From:whswhs
Date:June 15th, 2012 03:09 pm (UTC)
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Some of the key work on this was done by Bruce Ames, whom you can look up on Wikipedia. I read his journal article reviewing toxic and carcinogenic qualities of natural plants back around 1980, I think. I don't know if his work inspired the more recent idea that a lot of plants are toxic and that herbivores shift between eating different plants to avoid too high a dose of any one toxin, which I read about somewhere in the past few years, but it seems compatible with it.
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From:ritaxis
Date:June 15th, 2012 03:16 pm (UTC)
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I think this is missing the point. The point isn't whether th8is bite or that bite of broccoli is delivering more nutrients or less toxins to you at this very minute.

The point is that the methods used to produce conventional food are bad for everybody and everything. Soil is also a living thing, and when you kill everything in it, you kill the soil, and what you have left is not a growing environment for plants but a neutral medium with nothing much to hold it together when you run unregulated irritaing sprinklers on it: so it washes away, taking with it a load of toxic chemicals and isolated nutrients, when then proceed to befoul everything downstream of the original place. Methyl bromide and other toxins sprayed on the fields don't stay there, they are wafted over the landscape, collecting wherever the wind patterns take them (in one dramatic case, right on top of the middle school I used to teach at, down by the strawberry fields). Pollinators die. The predators of creatures who like to eat what we eat, and creatures that can impart disease to plants and to us, die. The children of communities in agricultural areas die of cancer and respiratory diseases. Agricultural workers die young.

And, as I said, the soil dies, a lingering death, in which its prouctivity drops year by year and more and more expensive additives are thrown at it to try to overcome the destruction. Remember the blooming California desert? It's fading, and nobody wants to talk about it.

That's why we push for organic farming practices. Not so you can feel good about your diet.
[User Picture]
From:nancylebov
Date:June 15th, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
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That's why we push for organic farming practices. Not so you can feel good about your diet.

I'm not sure who your "we" is.

I think a lot of people who prefer organic/sustainable food do share your larger concerns, though I don't see the health of farm workers mentioned much.

However, I also see claims that organic food is healthier for the people who consume it, and I'm interested in whether there's evidence for that part.
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From:st_rev
Date:June 15th, 2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
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I'd expect organic vs. non-organic to be about as significant a difference as kosher vs. non-kosher, since both systems are grounded in religious imperatives and intuitions about purity.
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From:whswhs
Date:June 15th, 2012 06:59 pm (UTC)
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I've had this suspicion myself. Jonathan Haidt writes about purity as one of the five basic moral categories (the others are harm, fairness, loyalty, and respect for authority), and suggests that it's purely a conservative concern. But that turns on identifying "purity" as relating solely to sexual conduct. Kosher law, as you say, relates purity to diet, and I think environmentalist concerns are driven by similar motives as well as by scientific and prudential concerns—there is an undercurrent of feeling that the Earth is sacred and must not be defiled.

(In the 19th century, people who wrote about "pollution" were often referring to masturbation.)
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From:agrumer
Date:June 15th, 2012 04:59 pm (UTC)
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Back when Jim Henley was food-blogging, he wrote about the virtues of farm-raised, free-range food, which isn't the same thing as organic, but has similar connotations (and similar difficulties in determining, as a customer, whether the thing you're buying in the supermarket was actually produced in accordance with the values you desire).

Apparently eggs from pastured chickens taste better, and Jim's mom had an easier time digesting pastured beef than grain-fed.
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From:nancylebov
Date:June 15th, 2012 05:24 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the links.

I'd say that grass-fed beef from the farmer's market is definitely superior, but the difference isn't nearly as large (maybe not there at all) in the low-end Whole Foods beef, and I won't pay their higher prices.

I can get raw milk from around the corner, and it's definitely easier for me to digest (lactose intolerance) than pasteurized milk, and it's much tastier. Unfortunately, it isn't easy enough to digest-- I'm unlikely to have pain or diarrhea, but it produces so much farting I don't think it's worth it.

Edited at 2012-06-15 05:26 pm (UTC)
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From:lilairen
Date:June 15th, 2012 05:43 pm (UTC)
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My brother's celiac disorder basically cleared up when he went on a strict all-organic diet. He commented that his epidemiology classes explained this: that the immune system requires multiple triggers to flip out, and wheat gluten is a common trigger. Pesticides are also common triggers. When he stopped combining the two, he started to be able to have a beer again.

When his celiac was full-bore he basically looked like a somewhat animated skin-coated skeleton. Now he doesn't even reliably test out as having the gluten sensitivity blood test marker.

For your anecdotal level.
[User Picture]
From:nancylebov
Date:June 16th, 2012 12:51 pm (UTC)
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Thank you. That's literally the only specific answer I've gotten so far.
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From:st_rev
Date:June 15th, 2012 08:55 pm (UTC)
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Strange but true: food from plants which have to fight off insects for themselves is more mutagenic than food from plants which are protected with pesticides.

Plants can't defend themselves against predators by running away. Their main options for self-protection are armor (bark, shells, thorns, etc.) or poison. Many plants secrete poisons in response to attack, sort of like an immune response. For example, blackened/wounded sections of potatoes are much richer in alkaloids than unbruised sections. This is also why chopping onions can irritate the eyes: the onions are literally creating a cloud of poison gas in response to trauma.
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From:ritaxis
Date:June 16th, 2012 12:12 am (UTC)
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The second paragraph doesn't follow from the first. The first is bullshit, the second is irrelevant to the discussion.

Food grown in IPM or organic farms doesn't mean potatoes with black spots.

[User Picture]
From:ashnistrike
Date:June 16th, 2012 03:21 am (UTC)
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I can't find such research in the journal databases to which I have access. This could mean A) it's not out there, B) I'm using the wrong search terms (it's not my field), or C) it's all on Medline, which I *don't* have access to.

Now I'm curious. I know some people at USDA--I'll try and remember to ask them next time I see them.

I do know that pesticides have nasty effects on surrounding ecosystems, but they may end up more concentrated there than in the actual end consumers.
[User Picture]
From:nancylebov
Date:June 16th, 2012 04:19 am (UTC)
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Thank you very much, and I look forward to whatever results or lack of results you turn up.
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From:st_rev
Date:June 16th, 2012 04:05 am (UTC)
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To get back to your original question: there are some studies that have shown weak nutritional advantages in specific crops, but they seem to be relatively few and far between, so it may be the green jellybean effect at work.

On the other hand, it's clear that a lot of industrial crop varieties that have been bred for size and resilience (e.g. "delicious" apples, d'anjou pears) are just terrible and have the flavor of cardboard when compared to heirloom varieties. It wouldn't be surprising if a lot of those varieties lost nutrient value along with flavor components. On the third hand, that's not directly related to whether they're organically farmed or not. I'd rather eat a GMO comice pear than an organic D'anjou..
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From:ritaxis
Date:June 16th, 2012 07:23 am (UTC)
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The red delicious and the yellow delicious apples have been unfairly maligned. for one thing, they are rather early modern apples. Most importantly, thoguh, if you can find them grown and distributed in the same conditions as your favorite local apple, they are good out of hand eating apples. Especially the yellow, which when you can find it tre-ripe and not overfed and overwatered, tastes like flowers and beauty.

I had a yellow delicious tree in my yard for a few years, but no more.
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From:green_knight
Date:June 16th, 2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
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Two personal observations:

- I can eat organic soy products without hassle. Processed soy products, particularly of American origin, play hell with my digestive tract, which is otherwise very robust.

- the same goes for processed corn products.

For many years I used to think I had an allergy against straw - pick up even a handful, and I'd break out in hives. When you have a horse and are around a barn where there's straw everywhere, that's highly inconvenient. It started when I moved to Britain.
It sopped entire when I moved to a farm where the only types of straw were organic. Hey presto, no problems at all.

I don't think these things are coincidental. And as lj-user=ritaxis> says, there's a whole trail of things associated with organic farming practices - including the issue of patents - that make organic food healthier _as a system_. And
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