Farming has existed for nearly as long as we have. Agriculture was developed at least 10,000 years ago, and it has undergone significant developments since the time of the earliest cultivation. Evidence indicates that the earliest harvesting of plants occurred in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Independent development of agriculture occurred in northern and southern China, Africa's Sahel, New Guinea and several regions of the Americas.

Agricultural methods such as irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizers, and pesticides were developed long ago but made great strides in the past century. During the past 100 years, agriculture has been characterized by enhanced productivity, the substitution of labor for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, selective breeding, mechanization, water pollution, and farm subsidies.

That said, for quite some time now there has been an ongoing backlash against the external environmental effects of conventional agriculture, resulting in the organic movement. This movement is faced with many challenges in an effort to eliminate the following from farming:

Pesticides and Herbicides: These are used to combat insects and weeds. However, these highly toxic chemical residues have been found in the crops themselves. The FDA has since banned these chemicals from being used. However, many imported crops DO contain these chemicals.

Contaminated Sewage Sludge: This was originally thought to be a breakthrough idea as human waste was used as fertilizer for non-organic crops. It was also cheap and easy to obtain. However, recent testing has shown that large amounts may contribute to chronic illnesses.

Hormones, Antibiotics and the Remains of Other Animals: All of these contribute to quickly fattening up animals for sale. Hormones, while expensive and often illegal, are injected into animals to quickly make them bigger. Antibiotics are used to keep the animals alive until they are slaughtered. However, if this meat is eaten, large amounts of these antibiotics are ingested which, in turn, makes people immune to their bacteria fighting abilities. The remains of other animals are often a food source for other animals. Health professionals now realize the possibility that much of these remains are often diseased and have contributed to the periodic outbreaks of mad cow disease in the US and abroad.

Irradiation: Foods are exposed to radiation to kill bacteria or microorganisms that may be present. This does more harm than good and may lead to various diseases.

As previously mentioned, studies show that chemicals and other substances used in conventional farming are toxic and cause various illnesses and could even cause death. The government has made changes in the agricultural industry to encourage farmers to shift from a chemical way of farming to something that is less threatening and safer for everyone.

However, the organic farming world was rocked when researchers from Stanford University and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System found that organic produce and meat typically isn't any better for you than conventional varieties when it comes to vitamin and nutrient content. But, according to the same study, organic options may live up to their billing of lowering exposure to pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies that compared either the health of people who ate organic or conventional foods or, more commonly, nutrient and contaminant levels in the foods themselves. Those included organic and non-organic fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, poultry, eggs and milk.

Researchers found there was no difference in the amount of vitamins in plant or animal products produced organically and conventionally. The only nutrient difference was slightly more phosphorus in the organic products. Researchers also indicated that organic milk and chicken contained more omega-3 fatty acids. However, those results were based on only a few studies.

Interestingly, the study found that there were more significant differences in the amount of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food as follows:

More than 33 percent of conventional produce had detectable pesticide residues, compared to only seven percent of organic produce. And organic chicken and pork was 33 percent less likely to carry bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than conventionally-produced meat.

According to researchers, people should consider pesticide exposure in their grocery-shopping decisions. Smart consumers should choose food that has no pesticides for their own health and the health of their families. Isn’t this the best way to protect your health?

An Underlying Message

Organic is a hot button for so many healthcentric consumers. And with consumers spending up to twice as much on organic foods, this recent study has many organic consumers wondering what they're getting for their money. The Stanford study reported that the organic food industry was at $26.7 billion in 2010, up from $3.6 billion in 1997.

Curiously, the reaction has been mild. There has been criticism that the Stanford report looked at health effects of organic versus conventional too narrowly. However, that’s not the point of the organic lifestyle. Organic is not about better nutrition, it's about a healthier planet and a sustainable food system. It’s about working with nature. Conventional farming is working against nature.

Organic farming develops crops and livestock using the most environmental, humane, and economic systems available. In order for this to work effectively, two things are needed: (1) A fertile land which can be used to plant a diversity of crops and (2) people who are willing to work on the land and learn the organic way of farming.

Organic farming relies on the following principles:

  • Ensuring that the soil can be used for many succeeding generations of crops without using the fertilizers that were used in conventional farming.
  • Properly caring for the crops by using soil organisms and not pesticides.
  • Recycling livestock manure and organic materials, including crop residue.
  • Controlling weed growth and insect infestation with crop rotation. Also, not using anything that science has used in conventional, non-organic farming.
  • Respecting animals. Unlike conventional food preparation and farming, organic farms encourage biodiversity. They don’t kill or remove any animals or insects from farms unless they are specifically harmful to the crop. In addition, organic dairy cows are not injected with hormones or treated inhumanely. Finally, organic farmers do not tamper with the genes of animals (no genetic engineering). They allow animal life to progress naturally.
  • Protecting the world from pollution. Conventional farms allow chemicals and pesticides to run off into area waterways and pollute the air and soil. Organic farms don’t do this.

Moreover, the organic movement is about local food production, economic fairness, health for farm workers and creating a system that avoids nitrogen runoff, a major global threat to waterways.

Flawed Meta-Analysis

Ironically, the Stanford study makes a strong case for organic in many areas if you are able to read between the lines. As is the case with so many controversial health studies, the Stanford study was a meta-analysis of all the research on organic dating back decades. And a case could be made that certain studies could have been eliminated that didn't meet researcher’s objectives.  In fact, Tom Philpott of www.MotherJones.com had some very compelling thoughts on the Stanford study here:  http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/five-ways-stanford-study-underestimates-organic-food. In short, he challenges the findings of the entire study.

That said, the Stanford study is a flawed meta-analysis that is more fodder for the media with little or no scientific impact. On one front, the study actually reinforces what organic advocates have been saying for years: Organic consumers benefit by avoiding the pesticide residues generated by conventional farming. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, people must not lose sight of what the organic lifestyle sets out to accomplish: Organic is not about taking nutrition to the next level. The organic lifestyle is about a healthier planet, a sustainable food system and about working with nature. We need to make smarter choices. Organic is one of them.