April 24, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Are Scientific Studies Food’s Worst Enemy?

Buy organics? You may not like what you read in the “Organic Marketing Report” published by Academics Review. 

usda organic

Though the organics industry has been growing by double-digits for a number of years now, few people have stopped to wonder why. Joanna Schroeder, lead researcher, focused her report on the marketing techniques that have motivated customers to pay so much more for their organic food. Isn’t the biggest driver behind low-fat food that companies make you think it will help you lose weight? Why else would people be slurping down slimy chia seeds if not for the perceived health benefits? One of the biggest drivers behind organics – according to the study’s review of 25 years of market research – is “perceived safety concerns tied to pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.”

She quotes the 1999 Organic Food Conference speech by Kay Hamilton of Promar International, “If the threats posed by cheaper, conventionally produced products are removed, then the potential to develop organic foods will be limited.” It sounds a bit like an evil conspiracy – keep people scared and they’ll pay more for a safer product. Yet, even if this were the whole truth, it’s difficult to call organic food out when so many other food-advertising campaigns have based themselves on similar ideas or hopes for consumer misconception. Unfortunately for the Academics Review, this report is a well-researched look at the wrong question.

Just because a study was published, has a lot of footnotes, and involves scientists with good credentials doesn’t mean it isn’t disingenuous.

 This is one of many reports (there seems to be a new one every year or so) that threatens to abolish organics with their findings that the food isn’t actually more nutritious. In 2012, it was the Stanford Study which Mark Bittman described in an opinion article as, “declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries.” The Stanford study found that organics “may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria” but was no more “nutritious” in terms of vitamin count, the measure they chose to make their decision by.

Just because a study was published, has a lot of footnotes, and involves scientists with good credentials doesn’t mean it isn’t disingenuous. It’s easy for someone to write that another study found individuals who think organics have more vitamins and minerals or found people who believe “organic food is healthier” without saying who those people are, if they even buy organics, or what their definition of healthy is. Where are all these found people even hiding?

I consider organics to be healthier in terms of pesticides used, a lessened farm worker exposure to chemicals, and better profits for farmers. That doesn’t mean I think it has more vitamins. (Whether or not more vitamins are even an indicator of health is another controversial subject.) Unfortunately it appears that scientists – or at least the studies we journalists feel like promoting – are less trustworthy than the food companies they research.

(Credit: Maia Weinstock)

(Credit: Maia Weinstock)

Given my disdain for some of the fear-mongering that has infiltrated the loudest parts of the food movement, I can believe that there are organic producers and marketers who use the public’s fear of unsafe food and GMOs to promote their product. Businesses of all kinds have been known do to sketchy things to sell their products, especially in advertising. Everyone is playing dirty to survive these days.

However, this and any other study is useless unless it compares the behavior of the organics industry against others. It sounds really nice to write, “Research reveals that anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advocacy groups promoting organic alternatives have combined annual budgets exceeding $2.5 billion annually and that organic industry funders are found among the major donors to those groups,” in your conclusion. Unfortunately for the “Organic Marketing Report” it’s very easy to search online and find that PepsiCo itself spent nearly $1.5 billion on advertising and marketing in 2013. That’s one food company in thousands, not the mysterious amalgamation of non-profits and “advocacy groups” much less the unknown “organic industry funders” (plural meaning that there could be as few as two) found “among the major donors”.

It saddens me that there’s so much industry to be found lurking in the shadows of science. We made a confusing food system and then penalize a whole industry when we find people willing to be confused on the record. What happened to the kind of science that makes a confusing issue clearer? Why won’t someone do a fair study that examines the organic industry in comparison to conventional agriculture and tell me what they find then? If people don’t know what organic really means (like the people who think an organic orange itself is bursting with more vitamins than a normal one) then we should be fixing that on both sides of the equation, not making things worse.

-Tove K. Danovich