January 14, 2013

Organic agriculture often subject of debate


---- — Here we are again in the deep winter months.

For those of us involved in North Country agriculture, this a time not for toiling in the field, but for deep thoughts about farming philosophies and planning for future ventures. 

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organic agriculture. Back in September, Stanford University published the results of a study about organic food that the media latched on to, most likely because it challenged at least one of our notions about the benefits of “organic.” We know that organic food costs more than conventionally grown food (there are lots of reasons for this, but I’ll save that list for another article), and it can be a big budgetary decision about whether to spend money on organic.

In case you missed the uproar, let me recap the Stanford study for you. The research team, which included medical doctors Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler, said that “they did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.” 

The Stanford scientists did not conduct their own “hands-on” study, such as breaking down organic and non-organic broccoli into nutrients and measuring them. They embarked on a “meta-analysis.” This involves reviewing the research and results that others have conducted and published, sifting through tons of information and trying to make sense of it for the rest of us. 

In the end, the Stanford group dealt a blow to the organic-food world by essentially saying there’s no observable difference in health benefits between conventional and (pricier) organic food. At least, that’s the part the media chose to pass along, and it certainly got a rise out of me. Organic enthusiasts and experts were upset and determined to set the record straight.

In recent months, much has been written to dispute the “equal nutrition” claim. For one thing, the nutrient content of any crop is influenced by crop variety and the fertility and mineral composition of the soil, but none of those indicators had been examined. Further, Kristin Brandt, a researcher from Newcastle University, decided to review the same pile of materials from the Stanford study and arrived at the opposite conclusion: Organic foods can be more nutritious. It seems a number of important nutrients, many valued by folks who buy organic, had not been included in the Stanford study, and one key class of nutrients had been misspelled, skewing the results.

A much bigger picture went unreported back in September. What about all the other benefits of organic agriculture? Even the Stanford report said that “consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure,” and “there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional.” Yes. Some of these reasons include reduction of synthetic chemicals in our environment, conscientious land stewardship for future generations, less chance for harmful pesticide exposure for farm employees, naturally increasing soil fertility for sustainable agriculture and reduction of petroleum-based fertilizers.

Adirondack Harvest supports all farmers in the Adirondack North Country regardless of their choice of farming methods. Many of our farmers choose to farm using organic methods but do not become certified for various reasons. However, not everyone wants to grow organically, and not everyone can afford to buy organic food. Our goal is to help consumers and farmers connect in the local food arena. It’s up to you, the consumer, to decide what farming methods you support. Talk with your local producers and help keep the conversation about the importance of agriculture and our food systems vibrant. Visit, and use the search engine to find local foods.

Laurie Davis is an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Reach her at 962-4810, Ext. 404, or by email: