A couple of years ago, I took a course titled “The use of science in public policy” taught by Prof. Lee Silver at Princeton University. The goal of the course was to bring basic science and policy students together and expose them to the challenges generally faced by each group. The take home message for me, as a scientist, was the paucity of black and white issues and how complex even mundane policies become when they’re applied to the entirety of a society. However, what shocked me the most was how difficult it is to bring the scientific world-view, which is some times counter-intuitive, into policy making. And this is nowhere more obvious than issues like “genetically modified food”, “homeopathic medicine” or even “organic food”. Organic produce, which have been supposedly grown chemical-free, is branded as “natural food” and has formed one of the most successful industries in the US with a growth of about 10,000% over 10 years. What distinguishes the organic food from conventional products however is for the most part in its sticker price. But the consumers are buying organic products in droves, assuming that its health benefits far outweighs the cost. There have been studies looking at this claim but a recently published study in Annals of Internal Medicine does a good job of bringing together all the available data over many years to perform an effective meta-analysis of this subject.
I think the main challenge in discussing organic produce is the laxity of standards in its definition. From what I understand, every farm has its own way of defining organic food. And without a national standard, it is more difficult (although not impossible) to study the health benefits of this category. Nevertheless, organic farms have been very successful in convincing the consumers about this matter, so much so that other industries are taking notes. Case in point, the rise of the “organic laundry” and “organic detergents” that (spoiler alert) has nothing to do with “organic” in the sense we use in our everyday lives.
In general, the industries seem to be very good at persuading the public about health benefits of food (e.g. brand names like Vitamin water). Also, as humans, it seems it is difficult for us to take into account non-linear relationships; for example, if a little bit Vitamin E is essential for your health, adding as much as you can to your diet should be even more beneficial. Teaching the public that there isn’t a linear relationship between health impact and intake seems to be a daunting task. Labels that connotate “nature” are very potent, which for me is very counter-intuitive. Nature is full of dangerous toxins… not every natural product is beneficial.
Another important challenge has to do with how well we can disentangle “organic food” consumption from other aspects of life. We can assume that people who care enough to pay 2-3 times more for organic produce just because they think it’s healthier, are also more likely to go for their annual checkups, exercise and in general be concerned about their health. Statistically speaking, it would be very difficult to correct for these covariates without doing a true double-blind experiment. Double-blind experiments need sponsors, which leads me to ask whether the government may in fact have a role to play in this matter. At this point, FDA doesn’t regulate anything that is “natural” which puts organic food outside of its jurisdiction.
Given these challenges, it is rather obvious why we needed several decades worth of data to be able to perform a decent meta-analysis. And to be honest, I still think this study could be much better and more distant from academic hype.
Despite these challenges, these researchers, I think, have done a decent job of analyzing the data. They find very little evidence in support of organic produce. Sure, they see marginally higher pesticide levels in conventional produce, but the levels are far lower than the risky threshold. Also, organic farms do use pesticides, but use natural ones instead of chemical ones and we don’t know if natural pesticides are in any way safer than chemical ones. More importantly, because natural pesticides are less potent, higher quantities needs to be used (adding more stuff to the soil and environment).
There isn’t enough data to fully debunk the perceived value of organic food, but at this point, I’m pretty sure it’s not worth the significantly higher sticker price.