Psychology Magazine

Astro-Barack: On Organic Food and the (Apparent) Difficulty of Science Reporting

By Agholdier @agholdier

Let’s pretend like President Obama just went to the moon.

In a stunning reversal of recent policy, the federal government unveiled a massively funded initiative to begin construction on the first American lunar colony. Work had been proceeding for years in secret and the President felt like it was time for the country to recognize the massive success of the scientific project. In honor of the advancing program, the President himself was among the first crew to fly to the moon for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting party that was live-streamed to the entire planet below. Upon his safe return to Earth, President Obama grinned to the cameras as he stooped to his knees to jokingly kiss the ground in a move that would provide at least one photographer with material for a potential Pulitzer prize. And the next day, headlines across America read:

“Obama Proves Devotion to Islam: kneels towards Mecca in full display of the world’s cameras!”

Surely, we would never tolerate such gross incompetence from our nation’s journalism corps. Such an evident disability to accurately relate the events of the world – what might normally be called ‘reporting’ – and to instead turn something innocuous into an attempt at a vicious attack would seem to be grounds for both professional dismissal and public ridicule. We’d like to think that reporters should be able to, you know, report on things.

So, why do we let them get away with this same ignorance when it comes to actual stories about scientific studies?

By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (NASA Image of the Day) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (NASA Image of the Day) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I have noticed a couple of articles floating across my Facebook news feed about the relative health benefits of organic produce – or really, as the articles would have you believe, the myths of those health benefits. According to this article by Ross Pomeroy at RealClearScience, “Two systematic reviews, one from Stanford University and the other by a team of researchers based out of the United Kingdom, turned up no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or lead to better health-related outcomes for consumers.” Similarly, James Greiff at the Bloomberg View writes that while the organic market has soared to over $30 billion a year, “there is evidence that organic farms produce as much, or more, pollution than conventional farms and that organic products might actually contain more toxins than other foods.”

Damning indictments these are indeed to an industry that is modeled on environmental sustainability and nutritional value. The only problem: that’s not actually what the reports say.

In fact, it’s almost literally the opposite.

First of all, to be clear on what these two articles are looking at: systematic reviews are something that scientists do every so often to try and synthesize information from a wide variety of independent studies into a cohesive picture of the field as a whole. For example, the review from Stanford looked at 240 different studies to try and draw some comprehensive conclusions about the safety and healthiness of organic foods; the review from the U.K. initially looked at almost 99,000 separate studies with the same goal in mind. The idea is to cast a wide net for analysis so that otherwise unclear connections between study results can become apparent.

So, what did these literature reviews discover? The 2012 review from Stanford concluded that “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional food,” which does actually sound something like Pomeroy’s summary. However, to dig through the actual data of the study, as opposed to merely the simplified conclusive summary, reveals that:

  • Only 3 of those 240 studies had anything to say on this question,
  • Each of those 3 studies found that there was no significant difference between organic and conventionally farmed foods in almost any measurable area
  • Nutrient and contaminant levels were “highly heterogeneous” between studies – which means that they varied widely,
  • But the risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was consistently lower among organic than conventional produce,
  • And, most interestingly, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork.

But, because of the extremely limited number of studies available to look at (and the wide disagreement between those studies), the Stanford review had to conclude that “the published literature [remember: that’s all the scientists were looking at] lacks strong evidence”.  The study also concluded that “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” something which Pomeroy failed to mention, despite its relevance to his thesis.

What about that 2010 study from the U.K.? It found that within “a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking [emphasis mine] for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.” The data here boils down to three interesting facts:

  • The 99,000 studies initially panned boiled down to only 12 with relevance
  • “The results of the largest study suggested an association of reported consumption of strictly organic dairy products with a reduced risk of eczema in infants”
  • The majority of the studies were so different in approach and design, and they showed such negligible differences in the nutritional value of organic vs. contemporary produce, that “no quantitative meta-analysis was justified.”

Which means that the researchers didn’t do anything. They looked at a lot of studies, found a handle of relevant ones, discovered nothing, and reported “we found nothing”.


McDonald’s Hamburglar (a thief who may not, in the standard use of the word, “exist”)

And Pomeroy ‘reports’ this as follows: “The majority of Americans believe that organic foods are healthier than food grown using conventional methods. The majority of Americans are wrong [again, emphasis mine]. [These reviews] turned up no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or lead to better health-related outcomes for consumers.” Which is a lot like if the police were to say: “we tried to find that burglar who stole all your stuff while you were out, but we couldn’t, so he doesn’t exist.

To reference an old adage from the philosophical study of metaphysics: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – and, in this case, between the data about relative pesticide exposure rates and the small blip on the radar about eczema in infants, there seems to be shreds of positive evidence, even within his own data source, that Pomeroy has simply glossed over. By the same line of reasoning: I myself have never seen the brains of an American science reporter, am I to conclude that the “majority of Americans” are wrong when they think such things are real?

Which brings me to Greiff’s article on the environmental impacts of organic growing methods. He rightly points out that organic farmers still use a variety of fertilizers and pesticides that can affect the ecosystems around them, but he seems to be operating on the incorrect assumption that organic farms function on the same production scale as conventional ones. He says,

“A broader study of 12 different farm products in California found that in seven cases, those using conventional methods had lower greenhouse-gas emissions. A big reason for the difference? Conventional farming tends to be more efficient than organic farming, meaning fewer inputs are needed to generate the same amount of food.”

Here are the two reasons you should laugh at that paragraph:

It makes sense that conventional farming techniques are more efficient (and, therefore, profitable) – that’s why they have become conventional, sacrificing other concerns for the sake of increasing yields. The other study Greiff cites also supports this when its abstract says (as Greiff quotes), “Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.” When the study shifted to look at the effect on the land, rather than the profit margin, it concluded that “organic farming practices generally have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area.”

The question boils down to a priority check for your produce: quantity or quality? Compare the situation to two sprinters, one who pushes himself beyond his limits, exploding down the track in race after consecutive race, exhausting himself  and throwing medical caution to the wind for the sake of participating in another event – the other runs a race, relaxes, then runs another. Which sprinter will likely last longer over the course of his career? Which farming style has the greater effect on the environment, particularly over the long term?

And it’s also fun to note that Greiff failed to report on what might be the most interesting sentence of this study’s abstract: Most of the studies that compared biodiversity in organic and conventional farming demonstrated lower environmental impacts from organic farming. Instead, he cites a few snippets of this in the same article where he claims that “there is evidence that organic farms produce as much, or more, pollution than conventional farms”. In a way, I actually somewhat hope that Greiff was unfairly trying to attack organic farming from the outset of his article (rather than honestly report on any studies), because, otherwise, translating “they have lower environmental impacts” into “they make more pollution” makes absolutely no sense.

And many of Greiff’s other claims are similarly frivolous, such as his concerns over animal manure:

Organic animal production also can cause problems. Unlike conventional farms, organic farms usually let animals wander around. No surprise that animals then do their business wherever nature calls. Rain, in turn, washes waste into local streams and rivers. Think of that next time you see free-range something on the menu. By comparison, conventional farms can (although they don’t always) confine waste to covered areas. This prevents exposure to rain that causes polluted runoff.

I wonder where Greiff imagines an animal defecating in the wild and if that would affect his decision to swim in a mountain lake. (And the irony of feed lot lagoons being heralded as the sanitary option is literally as asinine as would be an argument to replace an indoor toilet with a chamber pot that is never cleaned out.)

Finally, Greiff should have quoted his Belgian study more extensively: he failed to mention, for example, that it found the tested mycotoxin contaminant in conventionally grown wheat to be double that in the organic wheat. Really, particular heavy metals being more prevalent in organic Belgian wheat should not be any cause for concern: their incidence rates were all far below acceptable daily intake levels from the start, and the contaminants are taken care of during processing anyway.

large_7533495970So, this is not to say that science reporters are fools, but that they seem to generally be more concerned with sensationalized titles that purport to be informative, while actually being more designed to drive traffic to their publication. Consider the nonsensical recent reporting about a “computer” (actually a chatbot) that “passed the Turing test” – the relative uninterestingness (and untruth) of this story was lost in the frenzy of people sharing a headline that sounded cool and relevant – truth became second-rate to the concern that newspapers need readers. So, out comes the embellished click-bait that trades informed consumers for potential advertising dollars. And we consumers tend to never care, if we even notice.

Is the environmentally-conscious organic label frequently misunderstood by consumers? Quite probably. Do people think “organic” means things that are not even possibly true? Almost certainly. Are organic farming techniques more healthy for the environment over the long haul? Apparently so, actually – just as they are marketed. Is this food healthier? This one’s harder to answer definitively: the limited studies say there is no recorded marked difference in nutritional value between organic and conventionally produced foods, though organic foods clearly offer lower exposure rates to pesticides. If you gave me two apples off the same tree (with clearly no difference in nutritional value), I’d easily pick the one exposed to less pesticide as the “healthier option”.

But that’s not how the headlines read; we get the flashy, controversy-sparking jab, rather than a genuine report. We get cherry-picked quotes and misrepresented data designed to draw our attention, not to expand our minds. We get Muslim-Obama when we should be reading about Astro-Barack.


photo credit: marfis75 via photopin cc

Tags: Gardening, Journalism, Organic, Organic Food, Science, Science Journalism, Truth

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