Organic: It’s Worth It

Diversity of Benefits Documented in Major Organic Strawberry Study

The long-awaited Washington State University (WSU) organic versus conventional strawberry fruit quality study has been published in the prestigious journal PLoS ONE (September 2010, Vol. 5, Issue 9: e12346).

The study compared 13 pairs of organic and conventional strawberry fields matched to include the same three varieties, harvest schedule, irrigation methods, soil types, and weather.  The team found that the organic strawberries were more nutrient dense, stored longer, and were produced in soils characterized by greater microbial diversity and capacity to overcome stress.

The organic fruit was, on average, smaller, which some commentators noted as a disadvantage, but in reality, it is an important advantage if the goal is to produce tasty, nutrient dense fruit that stores longer.

NPR The paper in PLoS ONE triggered heavy media coverage, beginning September 1st. Later that week onFriday, September 3rd, a near 40-minute segment on the National Public Radio show Science Friday was aired.  The host of Science Friday, Ira Flatow, interviewed the study leader Dr. John Reganold of WSU, Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant, and TOC’s Chuck Benbrook.

The Science Friday segment covered the major findings of the WSU study and drove home the point that organic farming systems enhance food quality by building soil quality.

Excellent print stories appeared on the study in the Seattle Times (“Organic strawberries given a thumbs up in WSU study”), the Washington Post (“More proof: organic matters”), and the L.A. Times (“Organic strawberries are better—in some ways—researchers say”).

The study was partially funded by The Organic Center, along with the USDA, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy.

Sources: Reganold, J.P., Andrews, P.K., Reeves, J.R., Carpenter-Boggs, L., Schadt, C.W., Alldredge, J.R., Ross, C.F., Davies, N.M., and J. Zhou, 2010. “Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems,” PLoS ONE, Vol. 5, Issue 9: e12346.

Editor’s Note: The Center thanks the talented team of scientists that carried out this important study, as well as the farmers that cooperated with the research team during the two years it took to collect the field samples.

By design and from start to finish, this study is the most sophisticated and rigorous comparison of organic fruit quality ever carried out. The benefits of the organic system were unambiguous, despite the fact that many core organic practices were utilized on most, if not all of the conventional strawberry fields in the 13 matched pairs. For example, the conventional fields were treated with, on average, one-half the rate of compost, compared to the organic fields.  Most of the efficacious, organically approved pest management practices and products were also used on both the organic and conventional fields in most of the matched pairs.

The power of this study is its scope and internal consistency.  The team applied state-of-the-art research techniques, beginning with pre-study soil surveys through the collection and testing of samples, and throughout the storage life and sensory comparisons.  The findings at one stage of the analytical process, using one set of tools, make sense relative to the findings in other aspects of the study.

While highly technical and complex in many of its component parts, this study is elegant and simple in its overriding conclusion – healthy soils with diverse microbial communities produce healthier plants and more nutritionally dense, higher quality fruit.

OP Pesticides Linked to Leukaemia in Children

In yet another important study involving mothers, children and organophosphate (OP) insecticides in Washington State, researchers have reported elevated risk of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALA) in children between three and seven years of age among mothers and children that are more heavily exposed to OPs.

The study documented a connection between OP metabolites in the urine of children and their mothers and ALA risk, but did not find any linkages between household insecticide use and ALA risk, suggesting that the study’s findings were likely driven by dietary exposures to OP insecticides.

Source: Karen Millet, “Common Household Pesticides Linked to Childhood Cancer Cases,” Georgetown Medical Center Press Release, July 28, 2009.

OCs and Fungicides Increase Risk of Thyroid Disease

Exposures to organochlorine (OC) insecticides and the fungicides benomyl and mancozeb/maneb increase the risk of hypothyroidism among spouses of pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study.  This mammoth study assessed disease risk in 16,529 women in Iowa and North Caroline.  Nearly 13% suffered from some form of thyroid disease.

Source: Goldner, W.S., et al., “Pesticide Use and Thyroid Disease Among Women in the Agricultural Health Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 2010.

In The News

Major Egg Recall Brightens Spotlight on Food Safety Challenges

More than 1,600 confirmed cases of Salmonella enterica-triggered illness and the recall of over one-half billion eggs have refocused attention on the down-side of industrial egg production.  This sad and costly episode will no doubt accelerate needed changes in hen housing and related systems.  It has also put the USDA and FDA back in the food safety hot-seat, since the farms triggering this debacle are long-time, habitual offenders.

Indeed, these farms would not have existed under their current ownership and management if the “three strikes and you’re out” law applied to serious food safety violations.

Commentary on the episode has been all over the map.  Those defending current systems and technology rightly point out that –

“Eggs from all kinds of operations – big or small, cage or cage free, natural, organic, etc. – can become infected with salmonella…” (Rod Smith, Feedstuffs, August 30, 2010)

Those promoting CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) extol their virtues when properly run – birds are kept off the floor and out of contact with manure; strict control of diet and water and medications; eggs quickly move out and away from birds; birds are subject to observation and sick ones can be removed; tight biosecurity can be enforced, etc. 

What CAFO defenders usually do not point out is that animal CAFOs are not always managed and run optimally, and when things go badly, the collateral damage can be significant.  In the case of Wright County Eggs and Hillandale Farms, FDA investigators reported finding barns infested with flies, maggots and rodents, dead and decaying birds, and overflowing manure pits.

Nor do CAFO defenders acknowledge that the stress and unsanitary conditions in CAFOs undermine the effectiveness of animal immune systems and makes them much more susceptible when a pathogen takes hold in a flock, as it did in this case, reportedly from contaminated feed.

A French study published in 2009 (Huneau-Salaun et al.) found that birds managed in caged systems, like those in use at the Iowa farms, were more susceptible to Salmonella enterica than flocks allowed free access to open areas.  In the 227 caged flocks studied, Salmonella enteric risk rose with flock size and when dust could enter barns from passing vehicles.

A similar study in the U.K. concluded that larger flocks had dramatically more serious Salmonella enteric problems, as well as farms where mice and rats were more commonly observed (Snow, et al., 2010).  Non-caged systems, vaccination, the use of non-company feed sources (i.e., commercial feed), and the presence of cats and dogs were associated with reduced risk.

Editor’s Note: Study after study in plants and animals state that as long as we grow food outdoors, food will be produced with constant contact with millions of generally beneficial bacteria, and sometimes with less benign microorganisms.  While preventing the build up of pathogens in feed, water, and animal housing is an essential best management practice, so too is keeping plants and animals healthy so that their immune systems will not allow an opportunistic pathogen to take off.

Herein lays the most significant, but largely unrecognized advantage of organic farming from the perspective of food safety.  The plants and animals on organic farms are better able to fend for themselves, because organic farming systems are designed to first and foremost promote strong immune systems and healthy animals.

The dominant goal on most large-scale conventional animal farms is to reduce costs per pound of gain or dozen eggs laid.  Animal health and food safety are secondary goals routinely compromised in the pursuit of maximum production at minimum cost.

But getting political leaders and food safety experts in the government to focus on the fact that healthy plants and animals produce healthier food is proving difficult, despite the flood of new science supporting this simple yet profound conclusion.  One of the reasons is the deepening anti-science movement fuelled by conservative talk radio, the anti-global warming campaign, and other interests that apparently prefer living in the dark.  An editorial entitled “Science Scorned” in Nature Magazine, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, argues that:

“US citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country’s future crucially depends on education, science and technology…  Last month’s recall of hundreds of millions of US eggs because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are timely reminders of why the US government needs to serve the people better by developing and enforcing improved science-based regulations.” (Nature, Vol. 463, online September 8, 2010).

Sources: William Neuman, “Egg Farms Violated Safety Rules,” New York Times, August 30, 2010

Huneau-Salaun, A. Et al., “Risk factors for Salmonella enteric subsp. Enteric contamination in 519 French laying hen flocks at the end of the laying period,” Preventive Veterinary Medicine, Vol. 89, pages 51-58 (May, 2009)

Snow, L.C., et al., “Investigation of risk factors for Salmonella on commercial egg laying farms in Great Britain, 2004-2005,” Veterinary Record, Vol. 166 (19): 579-586  (May 2010).

First-ever Beef Recall Likely to Change the E. coli Rules of the Road

Nearly 9,000 pounds of Cargill hamburger has been recalled because of contamination with E. coli O26, one of six relatively new strains of highly dangerous E. coli.  Federal rules make it illegal to sell beef with the well-known pathogen E. coli O157:H7, and serve as the basis for FDA’s authority to direct food companies to issue E. coli O157 recalls.  But no such authority extends to other, equally dangerous strains of E. coli.

The meat industry has successfully opposed changing the rules to cover the six new strains of dangerous E. coli, arguing that no human illness outbreak has been definitively traced to the new strains (e.g., the American Meat Institute sent an August 18, 2010 letter to the USDA making this case).

Source: William Neuman, “Beef Recall Heats Up Fight to Tighten Rules,” New York Times, September 2, 2010

MRSA Common in U.S. and E.U. Hogs

The dreaded bacterium – MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) – is raising new concerns now that scientists in Europe have definitively proven that MRSA in pigs can infect people.  S. aureus causes 20% of bloodstream infections in the U.S., and 65% of these are infections with MRSA.  MRSA infections killed 18,650 Americans in 2005, more than HIV/AIDS.

Nearly one-half the hogs and 45% of the workers on a Midwestern hog farm were colonized with MRSA strain ST398, according to a recent study.  The current MRSA strain that is common on hog farms in the U.S. and E.U. does not readily move from person to person, but may acquire genes that allow more efficient spread or cause more hard-to-control infections.

Source: Dan Ferber, “From Pigs to People: The Emergence of a New Superbug,” Science, Vol. 329: 1010-1011 (August 27, 2010).

Debate over GE Food Heating Up in Africa

David King, an academic at Oxford University in the U.K., stated at a Cape Town, South Africa conference that

“Food insecurity in developing regions such as Africa is partially a result of the anti-GM campaign.”

This and related comments at the Cape Town conference triggered a strong response from a variety of organizations and individuals who believe that hunger is caused by poverty, rather than a lack of production.  Moreover, they point out that the crops that the GM industry is working to introduce in Africa are mostly grown to feed animals in Europe and Asia, and that GM technology “will lock Africa into neo-seed slavery.”

Source: Miriam Mannak, “Outrage Over Claim that Anti-GM Campaign ‘Causes Hunger’,” Inter Press Service News Agency,

Editor’s Note: A director of an international agricultural research center has echoed the comments of David King by saying –

“Without GM wheat, people will die.”

The implication is that if GM wheat were approved and planted, people would not die of starvation.

The debate over the optimal future direction for agricultural development in food insecure regions like Africa is indeed heated and important.  In much of the world, the core question is being framed as a choice between high-tech development paths reliant on chemicals and biotechnology, as opposed to systems grounded in agroecological principles that depend mostly on local resources and knowledge and the creation and management of complex, multi-species farming systems.

One thing is certain – not all the experts and advocates can be right, one of these paths is likely to perform far better than the other.  Policy changes can, at most, tip the playing field toward one path or the other.  But one wonders whether there will ever be a truly fair comparison of what these two paths have to offer.

GE Salmon a Step Closer to Approval

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled in early September that genetically engineered (GE) salmon are safe for human consumption. The decision opens the door for fish farmers to manage salmon as if they are hogs, fattening them with grains and accelerating growth with various medications.

Two key issues are addressed in the FDA’s review – elevated levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a suspected carcinogen, and the impact of gene flow to wild species of Atlantic salmon.

On both counts, the FDA has determined that the risks are very small and essentially not worth worrying about.

Others disagree.  IGF-1 occurs naturally in salmon, milk, and other animal products.  It is a risk factor for colon, prostate and breast cancer, and triggers puberty prematurely.  According to the FDA, GE salmon contains just a small amount more, as does milk from cows administered bovine growth hormone.  According to Dan Kennedy,

“by considering such matters [elevated IGF-1 levels in food] one at a time, the FDA may well be introducing us to many tiny risks that start adding up to a very real risk” (The Guardian, September 7, 2010).

Kennedy goes on to pose the question —

“If salmon and milk and a whole range of edible food-like substances yet to come contain elevated levels of IGF-1, when, exactly, are we supposed to start worrying?”

The FDA has scheduled a series of public hearings on GE salmon, and many consumer and environmental groups are raising new and old questions.  Litigation is likely, regardless of FDA’s ultimate decision.

Source: Dan Kennedy, “Genetically modified salmon is deemed safe for human consumption – despite higher levels of a suspected carcinogen,” The Guardian, London, U.K., September 7, 2010

Do You Know?
Interesting factoids about food, farming and the environment

It is possible to drive from Kentucky to eastern Oregon through the heart of Wisconsin and Minnesota without seeing a single dairy cow herd grazing on pasture.

Source: Trip by Chuck and Karen Benbrook from the Cincinnati airport to Troy, Oregon, August 19-24, 2010


The number of hours flown by crop dusters increased 29% between 2003 and 2007, in an attempt to keep up with worsening diseases in GE and no-till corn and soybeans.

Source: Michael Crumb, “Demand for crop dusting soars with new pesticides,” AP News, September 21, 2009


Black rice contains more antioxidants and fiber per spoonful than blueberries and blackberries.

Source: Dill Hendrick, “Black Rice is Cheap Way to Get Antioxidants,” WebMd, August 26, 2010


The U.S. government has charged 15 people, including 10 German nationals, with smuggling $40 million worth of antibiotic-laced honey from China into the United States.  The ring smuggled the honey into the U.S. to avoid $80 million in import duties.  This is the biggest food smuggling case ever prosecuted in the U.S.

Source: “U.S. Cracks Down on Chinese Honey Smuggling Ring, IFT News, September 8, 2010


The number of hog farms in the U.S. has declined 89% in the past 30 years.

Only 4% of hogs produced in 2009 were sold in an open, cash market, down from almost two-thirds in 1994.

Source: “Reforming Meat,” New York Times editorial, September 7, 2010


One in ten meals in China is cooked with oil dredged from sewers.

Reselling used cooking oil collected from sewers is legal in China.

Source: Malcolm Moore, “China goes organic after scandal of cooking oil from sewers,” The Telegraph, August 30, 2010,


There are 2,500 types (or serovars) of Salmonella enteric, the bacterium that triggered the recent outbreak of illness traced to eggs from Iowa.


Events and Presentations

Highlights of the Intelligence Squared Debate

Three seven to eight minute segments of exchanges during the April , 2010 “Intelligence Squared” debate in New York City on the motion “Organic food is marketing hype” have been posted on the Center’s YouTube site. The three segments include –

  • “Organic Farming and the Environment”
  • “Culture Hype and the Promises of Organic”
  • “Effects on Humans and Animals”

An overview of the debate and the outcome – the motion was soundly defeated — is available, as is the full transcript of the 90-minute debate.

The Center’s Chuck Benbrook was among the three panellists arguing against the motion.  He was joined by Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union and Jeffrey Steingarten, food writer for Vogue Magazine. Dennis Avery, Sir John Krebs, and Blake Hurst argued for the motion.

Audio files with excerpts of the debate aired on National Public Radio, and DVDs of the full debate can be accessed via the Intelligence Squared website.

TOC Consumer Blog Up and Running

Check out our new consumer-focused blog “Mission Organic Made Easy” featuring fresh postings three days a week by Sara Snow, Annie Brown and Jamie Kelly. Since launching we have covered topics ranging from organic bedding, the obesity and pesticide link, organic crepes, what exactly is a GMO, and the ultimate recipe for happiness (with pictures). Here’s the link:

Core Truths

A Perspective on the Co-existence of Organic and Genetically Engineered Crops

Dr. Charles Benbrook
Chief Scientist
The Organic Center

[Excerpts follow from the full commentary posted on the TOC’s website.]

Lingering scientific and legal questions and growing consumer opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops in the United States has slowed the pace of both research and approvals of new GE crops and technologies.  Law suits brought by the Center for Food Safety, among others, have illuminated enormous gaps and scientific inadequacies in the USDA’s review of petitions to deregulate (i.e., approve) new GE crops.

At this point, organic farmers and food companies bear all the risks associated with failures of “co-existence,” as well as all the costs, inconvenience, and related burdens of avoiding – and dealing with — the contamination of organic crops and the seed supply.

The almost inevitable adverse impacts of GE crops on organic farmers, organic price premiums, and the export of organic foods and animal feeds are fortunately gaining recognition and will have to be addressed more fully, and honestly, in future and ongoing USDA assessments…

… those promoting and vested in GE crops are working hard to change the subject.  New industry-driven tactics, strategies, and initiatives are emerging in an attempt to reposition GE crops, in the hope that a brighter halo will set the stage for a relaxation of regulatory requirements and/or new and expanded public subsidies for GE crop technology in the U.S. and around the world.

Two of the significant components of this evolving political and PR campaign rest on the notion that –

  • GE crops and technology are essential to feed the world and combat food insecurity; and
  • GE and organic crops can co-exist peacefully, without consequences, on the same landscape.

The assertion that GE crops are essential to feed the world is under active debate in multiple venues.  An example is briefly described in the item in this issue of “The Scoop” entitled “Debate over GE Food Heating Up in Africa.”

But what about co-existence?

Whether co-existence is possible, and the impacts of attempts at co-existence, will obviously depend on the definition of “co-existence.”

The biotech industry argues that co-existence exists now…

Co-existence, however, goes well beyond the mere sharing of a landscape.  In the context of the debate over GE and organic crop production, the term “co-existence” is used widely and consistently around the world to describe a state of being whereby cropland within an agricultural region is planted to both GE and organic crops with no added costs or adverse impacts triggered by one on the other, and if such added costs and adverse impacts occur, the party that is harmed is fairly compensated by the party bringing about the harm.

The costs associated with a co-existence scheme would include ongoing sampling and testing, the need for buffers, and the loss of markets and/or price premiums when buyers and/or markets reject organic crops because of detected or feared contamination.

Dealing with the Consequences of Gene Flow

Gene flow via pollen is the problem at the heart of the co-existence debate in the U.S. and Europe.  If this problem could be solved, or managed in a way acceptable to conventional and organic farmers, the trail to mostly peaceful co-existence would likely be blazed fairly quickly, assuming of course that conventional growers and the biotechnology industry accept the responsibility to cover the costs of co-existence and a mechanism is put in place to do so.

The Non-GMO Project

In the United States, the Non-GMO Project is by the most comprehensive effort to prevent GE gene flow into the seed supply and organic crops and food…

It is too early to estimate the effectiveness or costs of compliance with the Non-GMO Project’s requirements, which include routine testing and a healthy dose of paperwork.

…the Non-GMO Project is creating a rigorous, science-driven foundation upon which an organic-GE crop co-existence scheme could be devised and put in place.  The broadening support and participation across the organic food industry in the Non-GMO Project is encouraging, but a huge problem remains – all the costs of participation are borne by the organic food industry and organic farmers, as are the risks of setbacks, which are inevitable…

On the co-existence front, no one knows whether the old adage “Where there is the will, there will be a way” will ever apply.  One reason for doubt is another old adage with ample adherents on both sides of the debate – “I’d rather fight than switch.”