January 24, 2009

Organic foods are better for you than Conventional?


Via the Organic Center:

Not a Shred of Government Data?

By: Chuck Benbrook
       Chief Scientist
       The Organic Center

In a January 7, 2009 interview with Forbes Magazine, Mike Mack, the CEO of Syngenta said that –

“People who say organic is better do so without any shred of government data.”

Really?  Anyone who studies pesticide residues in food, and pesticide dietary risk uses government data on the frequency and levels of pesticides found in different foods, as well as toxicological data from the U.S. EPA.  Any number of analytical methods can be used to estimate the average pesticide risks associated with consumption of an organic apple compared to a conventional one, and all of them show that the risks are substantially greater when choosing conventional fruit. 

It is true that the government itself has never carried out or reported such a comparative pesticide risk analysis.  Likewise, the government has never carried out research or tried to determine whether, and to what extent organic foods are more nutrient dense than conventional food.  One reason the government has shied away from taking on such research is the official USDA policy that asserts there are no food safety or nutritional quality differences between organic and conventional food.  The adoption of this policy back in the Clinton era was driven by political expediency and had nothing to do with “government data” or credible scientific research.

One of the great benefits of Presidential transitions, especially ones as dramatic as today’s, is that the window of opportunity to revisit stale, unfounded government policies opens wider than at any other time. 

Given the fiscal mess the country is mired in, building support for major new spending in support of organic food and farming will be a tough sell.  If our community can preserve the hard-fought funding gains in the 2008 farm bill for key organic programs, that will be a major accomplishment.   

While a tough time to successful lobby for increases in funding for organic research and programs, other policy changes can play a valuable role in moving the market, and can often do so at little or no expense to the government. 

For example, the USDA can and should take a fresh look at published research that shows unequivocally that organic food does offer both food safety and nutritional advantages.  Assuming the USDA sticks by its pledge to base all policies on sound science, the outcome of such a review will inevitably be a significant change in the message coming out of USDA about the benefits associated with consumption of organic food.

Given all the other problems and challenges facing the new Administration, and the newly appointed leaders in USDA, we should not expect rapid action in revisiting USDA policies on the benefits of organic food and farming.  In the interim, we need to keep pushing the science along and make better use of the new knowledge already generated.

If a benefactor of the organic food industry came to me and said “I’ll fund $1 million in new Organic Center research if you can convince that something meaningful can be accomplished with the investment within five years,”  I would make the case for the funding by explaining the enormous benefits that would come to the organic community as a result of a well-funded, science-driven effort to develop a petition to the FDA, or better yet a few petitions, calling for acceptance of new qualified health claims grounded in organic food production and processing. 

There is a well defined, science-driven process for convincing the FDA to allow a new qualified health claim to be stated on food product labels.  I can think of a half-dozen that could be pursued right now, without any substantial new science.  The process takes time and is very data intensive.  Information on the levels of a nutrient, or pesticides, in an organic product, versus conventional products has to be compiled, analyzed, and integrated into a compelling package supporting the validity of the underlying claim. 

Imagine if we were successful in gaining approval, and by this I mean official FDA, i.e. the U.S. government, approval of a qualified health claim founded on organic production practices and/or food processing technology.     The ability of organic food companies to place such new health claims on their labels would provide a distinct advantage in the marketplace.  In addition, the fact that a nutrition-based or food safety health claim grounded in organic production has been officially embraced by the government will change a lot of attitudes about the benefits or organic food and farming.

The good news is that some companies in the organic food industry are beginning to think about pursuing a qualified health claim.  The Organic Center is eager to help companies who want to break trail in this most noble and consequential quest.


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