Several readers will remember two past discussions on this topic on
Sanet, which I placed on the PMAC web page. Those seeking more information
may wish to review the earlier posts and contact the individuals who offered
resources or information. The index page for the Sanet debate "Is Organic
Food More Nutritious" appears at <http://www.pmac.net/orgdebat.htm>. David
Leonard's post offers a detailed bibliography of resources on
Another discussion focused on "Food Quality -- A Matter of Taste".
A post to Sanet I did in March, 1997 amplifies on some of the themes
suggested below. It is at <http://www.pmac.net/fqshcb1.htm>.
The key point to remember in discussing/assessing the relationship
between farm production systems and health is that it takes more than
nutrients to produce "health." It takes more than nitrogen to grow a crop.
Science has done little to explore many of the more complex ways diet
affects health. I look forward to more discussion and leads to new science
that might shed light on these interactions.
My response of 11/9 follows:
You raise many questions, all important. How a crop is grown, the
richness of the soil, and what is put on the crop affect human health in
many ways. Some direct -- a reside of captan on your grape -- others
indirect, the impact of benomyl on worms, reducing earthworm populations,
slowing the cycling of nutrients, increasing the need for N fertilizers,
increasing N in drinking water, increasing stomach cancer risk, and so on.
I have seen plenty of solid evidence that how crops grow can alter
the frequency and severity of several things that are associated with, or
tend to lead to new and/or greater risks. "Associated with" does not mean
"causes" under all circumstances. My statement re organic methods improving
health is based on the many ways organic systems will improve the quality of
food, lessen the chances of various microorganisms getting out of control,
and lessen risks through water and food of various chemicals.
I also am aware that there are few studies on the human health
impacts of food as a function of how it is grown. I agree that there are
many other diet and lifestyle factors that can have a much bigger role --
like being 100 pounds overweight or living on Twinkies or Pringles potato
chips. But this does not diminish the importance of other factors
influencing the relationship between diet and health in more subtle ways.
I think that bioavailability of nutrients/minerals in people's
digestive systems is a huge issue/concern that science is just getting at.
The chemical conditions in the human digestive system affect all sorts of
systems, and alter the way the body interacts with the food it consumes, and
the way it deals with other things ingested with food or water.
Recent research reported in Science (maybe 6 months ago, I posted on
it back then) showed that diet and exposure to chemicals in food/water
affects the functioning of the immune cells in the stomach's lining. These
cells serve as a "first line of defense" against various microbiological and
viral threats. Many instances of ill-health, especially in otherwise
healthy people, are the result of very complex factors, working together, to
undermine the immune system or other protective mechanisms. Science has
hardly scratched the surface on how diet and chemicals influence these
protective systems, including during fetal development and early growth. As
science does explore these frontiers, I believe we will learn of many ways
that diet contributes to, and in a few cases, directly causes, abnormal
development and/or poor functioning of basic immune system and developmental
mechanisms, and that as a result the body will become more vulnerable to
whatever risks it faces. In some percentage of the cases, such people will
be fighting a cancer, an opportunistic infection, or will be compromised
genetically. Disease incidence will rise as a result.
I agree that people must be cautious when making claims that eating
organic food will improve health status. But I also feel there is ample
evidence to say that organic production systems, if widely adopted, will
substantially lower the scope and severity of several risk factors that
together contribute to some unknown, yet not trivial, incidence of
ill-health. It is easiest to make this case in reference to farmworkers,
farmers and pesticide applicators, and people living in areas with
pesticides and nitrate in drinking water. In the U.S., this is not
everyone, but it is millions of people. The case is harder to make for
those exposed to pesticides largely through the diet. Harder to make, but
perhaps no less important.
And one last point. Perhaps there is a correlation between the
motivational factors giving rise to an interest in a person to seek out
fresher, cleaner, better tasting food and the factors which also lead a
person to more carefully balance their caloric intake with their needs, to
make sure their diet is balanced, to drink less beer/wine/vodka, to make
sure their drinking water is clean and garbage managed safely. Some special
programs in prisons and in facilities/clinics working with people with
life-long health problems associated, in part with eating disorders suggests
that in some people an interest and active involvement with growing food in
a sustaining way can lead to changes in cooking and eating behavior and
attitudes that in turn improve quality of life.
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