From Mark Keating
June 29, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California
“If I were asked to sum up the results of the work of the pioneers of the last 12 years or so on the relation of agriculture to public health, I should reply that a fertile soil means healthy crops, healthy livestock, and last, but not least, healthy human beings.” So wrote Sir Albert Howard in 1945.
Sir Albert’s concise assessment of the human health benefits of eco-agriculture may be the first recorded response to the enduring question, Are organic foods better for you? For Howard, the nutritional superiority of organic foods was a direct consequence of the comaptibilit between eco-acriculture and the Earth’s first and most efficient farmer, Mother Nature. He perceived good health as the birthright of all living creatures and concluded that disease was inevitably connected to disruptions of the natural order, most frequently in the form of improper nutrition. Howard stated clearly and repeatedly that consuming an organic diet would impart human health and fitness in the same manner that crops raised on properly fertilized soils repel pests of all kinds.
Howard’s perspective was indeed shared by many of his pioneering peers, including Lady Eve Balfour, Sir Robert McCarrison, J.I. Rodale and Weston Price. Catalyzed by these visionaries, the emerging grassroots organic movement reflected an explicit rejection of the industrialized food production and processing system then transforming the American diet and landscape. Concern that an industrialized food supply would be nutritionally inadequate to promote human health drove the organic movement from its inception. For example, Lady Balfour wrote after her coast-to-coast trip across the United States in 1953, “The overall health picture of America is bad… Food is even more over-processed and sterilized than in England; much of the soil on which it is grown is more depleted; and there is an even wider use of poison sprays.” Imagine her reaction to the factory farms and rest stop food courts along a similar expedition today!
Howard attributed the nutritional superiority of organic food to the abundance of mycorrhizal fungi found in biologically active soils sustained by compost, crop rotations and cover crops. These fungi penetrate the fine root hairs of neighboring plants in a mutually beneficial relationship that facilitates nutrient uptake in both. Howard surmised that soluble, protein-rich compounds in the fungi were also absorbed by the plant and then incorporated directly into growing tissue. He saw these compounds as the building blocks for optimal amino acids and more sophisticated proteins that imbued organically raised plants with exceptional physical characteristics including resistance to disease. Howard also thought that these characteristics were transmitted through subsequent relationships in the food web, such as livestock grazing on healthy pasture and humans consuming food from organically raised crops and animals. Conversely, Howard postulated that a microbiologically weak soil would yield deficient amino acids and proteins that would invite disease in the plants and animals that consumed and incorporated them.
With the publication of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring in 1962, much of the public’s favorable impression of organic food shifted to its perceived absence of pesticide residues. However, the premise that organically produced food possessed more of a single nutrient or a broader range of nutrients remained a popular and powerful incentive for consumers. Believing that organic food offered positive nutritional advantages (more of something good rather than less/none of something bad) was usually grounded in some combination of personal experience, common sense and faith, since verification through laboratory analysis was and still is problematic. Ironically, Howard himself cautioned against too great a dependence upon laboratory analysis since he felt that it fostered the narrow, departmentalized mindset that made science so near-sighted.
The limitations of such analysis stem in part from the difficulty of controlling for the many variables in the production process, including variety or breed selection, soil type, growing conditions, even post-harvest handling. Additionally, we have a far from complete understanding of nutritional science and do not always know which factors are significant and therefore desirable to examine. One might summarize these general constraints by saying that not everything that can be counted matters and not everything that matters can be counted. It’s also worth noting that sophisticated research is expensive. Organic advocates have rarely enjoyed access to deep pocketed funding and the conventional interests that do have generally not been inclined to pay for head-to-head comparisons with their marketplace competitors.
The subject of nutritional benefits from organic systems received a thorough review at a recent symposium held by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. The session, entitled “Living Soil, Food Quality, and the Future of Food” featured the work of Dr. Alyson Mitchell of the University of California-Davis, Dr. Preston Andrews of Wasington State University and Dr. Jerry Glover of the Land Institute. They issued a statement of six conclusions strongly supporting the understanding that organic management practices promote soil health and that crops raised in such soil contain higher concentrations of advantageous nutrients. It’s really something when accomplished researchers from two of the nation’s high-power land grants and an expert from the Land Institute — sustainable agriculture’s un-land grant — are in agreement!
Highlighting the excellent work that Washington State researchers have long conducted on ecologically managed orchard soils, the panelists confirmed that organic management practices lead to more microbiologically active soils that, in turn, yield measurable improvements in fruit nutritional quality, taste and storability. The researchers also documented significantly higher levels of soluble solids and natural secondary plant metabolites, including antioxidants in organically raised tomatoes. They further stated that organic produce appears to resist the “dilution effect” through which nutrient concentrations decline in conventionally raised produce in response to the rapid growth stimulated by synthetic fertilizers. This finding begins to scientifically validate Howard’s theory that a fertilizer’s physical characteristics are directly correlated to the crop’s nutritional content. In the panelist’s words, “compared to typical conventional farms, the nitrogen cycle on organic farms is rooted in substantially more complex biological processes and soil-plant interactions, and for this reason, organic farming offers greater promise in consistently producing nutrient-enriched foods.”
This growing scientific consensus essentially validates what organic advocates have long understood: if people are what they eat, so is what we eat! After all, we have long recognized and more recently been able to quantify very significant differences between the nutritional properties of meat and milk from animals raised on pasture and sunshine and those from confinement systems. However, despite the accumulating empirical and scientific evidence supporting the positive nutritional benefits of organically raised foods, the USDA remains agnostic on the question. Secretaries of Agriculture in both Democratic and Republican administrations have consistently and admantly maintained that organic certification has nothing to do with food quality or safety.
When I’m asked if organic foods are better for a person, I reply that I cannot say because the simple process of certification by itself does not provide enough information. We know some things about a certified organic product, definitely about which production inputs weren’t used, but not much other than that with certainty. We know that the generic practices of organic farming result in high-quality food, but how good in the case of a specific item? By contrast, we know virtually nothing about the generic conventionally raised food we find. Honestly, that food could be from a production system comparable to organic but un-certified, an inferior system, or one that is actually superior. It is fruitless to compare a relatively unknown item to one that is completely unknown.
We should avoid the temptation to rely on organic certification as one-stop shopping for any characteristic we are looking for in our food, be it nutritional content, fair trade practices or animal welfare. In this regard, I can accept USDA’s non-committal position on certification. However, this is not to say that all production systems are equal. The truth is that the practices and inputs in organic crop and livestock production systems contribute to superior nutritional properties in the resulting food. So, when looking for superior nutrition, narrow your search to foods that come from an organically managed system… and then start asking questions!
As we go to press, Washington, D.C., is preparing to take up publicly its next attempt at “health care reform.” By and large, the proposed solutions will entail new techniques, either creative or coercive, to extract an ever-increasing fortune and throw it at the treatment of debilitating chronic illnesses that can be prevented through diet and lifestyle. Sir Albert Howard stated unequivocally almost 70 years ago that a people who were properly nourished would not require a public welfare system, much less one for health care. Until we heed his fundamental and inviolable precept that introduces this essay, we subject ourselves and future generations to a degraded and declining quality of life.
See also Do we need a new definition of organic?→