Organic foods protect children from the toxins in pesticides, while foods grown using modern, intensive agricultural techniques contain fewer nutrients and minerals than they did 60 years ago, according to two new scientific studies.
A US research team from Emory University in Atlanta analysed urine samples from children ages three to 11 who ate only organic foods and found that they contained virtually no metabolites of two common pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos.
However, once the children returned to eating conventionally grown foods, concentrations of these pesticide metabolites quickly climbed as high as 263 parts per billion, says the study published February 21.
Organic crops are grown without the chemical pesticides and fertilisers that are common in intensive agriculture.
There was a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against the pesticides while consuming organically grown foods, said Chensheng Lu, an assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.
These findings, in addition to the results of another study published in Britain earlier this month, have fueled the debate about the benefits of organically grown food as compared to conventional, mass-produced foods, involving academics, food and agro-industry executives and activists in the global arena.
According to the new British analysis of government nutrition data on meat and dairy products from the 1930s and from 2002, the mineral content of milk, cheese and beef declined as much as 70 percent in that period.
“These declines are alarming,” Ian Tokelove, spokesman for The Food Commission that published the results of the study, told this reporter. The Commission is a British non-governmental organisation advocating for healthier, safer food.
The research found that parmesan cheese had 70 percent less magnesium and calcium, beef steaks contained 55 percent less iron, chicken had 31 percent less calcium and 69 percent less iron, while milk also showed a large drop in iron along with a 21 percent decline in magnesium.
Copper, an important trace mineral (an essential nutrient that is consumed in tiny quantities), also declined 60 percent in meats and 90 percent in dairy products.
“It seems likely that intensive farming methods are responsible for this,” Tokelove said from his office in London.
Organic fruits and vegetables had significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants, according to a 2003 study in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
The organic plants produced these chemical compounds to help fight off insects and competing plants, researchers said.
A 2001 report by Britain’s Soil Association looked at 400 nutritional research studies and came to similar conclusions: foods grown organically had more minerals and vitamins.
“Modern plant breeding for quick growth and high yields could also be affecting the nutritional quality,” says Katherine Tucker, director of the nutritional epidemiology programme at Tufts University in the northeastern US city of Boston, Massachusetts.
Lower levels of minerals in food we eat is cause for concern, she says, stressing that “magnesium, calcium and other minerals are very important for proper nutrition.”
Good nutrition and exercise are the major factors that can make a difference in the incidence of many diseases, including cancer, according to Tucker.
She recommends eating unprocessed foods, meat from free-range animals, and grains, fruits and vegetables grown organically or at least using more natural farming methods.
Farmers in other parts of the world should not adopt the intensive farming practices of North America or Europe, says Ken Warren, a spokesman with The Land Institute, based in the central US state of Kansas.
“It’s an unsustainable system that relies heavily on chemical fertilisers… to keep yields high and produces ‘hollow food’,” Warren told Tierramérica.
“Hollow food” contains insufficient nutrition and is suspected in playing a role in the rapid rise in obesity, as people may be eating more in order to get the nutrition they need, he said.
Suddenly, the tendency to overeat junk food is no longer so surprising. I’ve suspected this for years–when I ate a lot of fast food, prepared supermarket crap, ramen and other student staples, I gained weight but still felt undernourished and depleted.
Things like this make me glad I’ve been eating (and growing) my own organic food lately. My tomatoes, squash, cukes and peppers are especially beautiful and tasty, even if they ARE more demanding in terms of pest control (hand-killed bugs and caterpillars anyone???) I feel better, and I could swear I’m starting to lose weight, too. (Surely the energy spent digging, hoeing, watering, weeding, feeding and composting is also contributing to that…)
I’m also making note of which varieties of veggies are the easiest to grow organically. So far, the “White Queen” variety of heirloom tomatoes (which, as their name indicates, ripen as white rather than the usual red) is a robust winner and grows nice and tall with minimal caging or staking; the fruit are still unripe, but look very promising. Tasty, but hard to cage, are the yellow hybrids, “Lemon Boy” and “Golden Girl”, which make a lovely pasta toss when combined with shallots, any red variety, garlic and either green or purple basil. They are VERY prolific, especially “Golden Girl”, which produces fruits that are large (a double handful!) as well as abundant in number. The Italian-type red tomato “Health Kick” ripens fast but is not a very prolific fruiter, unfortunately. (I hope it will start to bloom again once the current crop is all picked, but if not, I’m uprooting them and devoting that bed to Russian Red kale for winter.) Still waiting for my “Roma”, “Glamour” and “Celebrity”; some trouble with the heirloom “Mortgage Lifter”, but the other heirloom red, “Moneymaker”, is growing happily, though rather small of fruit. Next year, I may try out other heirlooms; there are some wonderful weirdies out there that have piqued my curiosity.
I’m also looking forward to putting in lots more shallots next spring–those humble onions, which originated in the ancient city of Ashkelon, recently turned out to be a cancer-fighting nutritional champ! (Gentlemen, you may want to take a cue from your Chinese counterparts and eat more green onions, too–they turn out to be good at preventing prostate cancer. Chop ’em up raw and sprinkle them over everything.)
I just wish organic meat, eggs and milk were the only game in town. Right now they are available, but expensive and relatively scarce. My family and I are making do with “the other kind”, but we’re not happy about that. Organic beef is very tasty, and I much prefer it over the supermarket kind.
I’ll bet it’s far more nutritious, too.