Organic Food Health Benefits Have Been Hard to Assess, but that Could Change

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Organic Food Health Benefits Have Been Hard to Assess, but that Could Change

By Cynthia Curl, Assistant Professor, Boise State University. First published on The Conversation

“Organic” is more than just a passing fad. Organic food sales totaled a record US$45.2 billion in 2017, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of American agriculture. While a small number of studies have shown associations between organic food consumption and decreased incidence of disease, no studies to date have been designed to answer the question of whether organic food consumption causes an improvement in health.

I’m an environmental health scientist who has spent over 20 years studying pesticide exposures in human populations. Last month, my research group published a small study that I believe suggests a path forward to answering the question of whether eating organic food actually improves health.

What we don’t know

According to the USDA, the organic label does not imply anything about health. In 2015, Miles McEvoy, then chief of the National Organic Program for USDA, refused to speculate about any health benefits of organic food, saying the question wasn’t “relevant” to the National Organic Program. Instead, the USDA’s definition of organic is intended to indicate production methods that “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

While some organic consumers may base their purchasing decisions on factors like resource cycling and biodiversity, most report choosing organic because they think it’s healthier.

Sixteen years ago, I was part of the first study to look at the potential for an organic diet to reduce pesticide exposure. This study focused on a group of pesticides called organophosphates, which have consistently been associated with negative effects on children’s brain development. We found that children who ate conventional diets had nine times higher exposure to these pesticides than children who ate organic diets.

Food Is Medicine: How US Policy Is Shifting Toward Nutrition for Better Health

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Food Is Medicine: How US Policy Is Shifting Toward Nutrition for Better Health

In 2019, could U.S. government leaders resolve to improve healthier eating as well, joining public health experts in seeing that food is medicine?

In 2018, Congress initiated a series of actions that represent a shift away from placing the full responsibility – and blame – on individual people to make their own healthier choices. These actions also show a growing recognition that many stakeholders – including the government – are accountable for a healthier, more equitable food system. This shift in thinking reflects an understanding that government can and should play a role in improving the diet of Americans.

As faculty members at Tufts University, our expertise spans clinical medicine, nutrition science, public health, policy analyses, Congress, federal agencies and government programs. It’s clear to us that the time is right for meaningful policy action to leverage food as medicine.

Overcoming Barriers to Urban Agriculture In American Cities

PHILLY’S URBAN FARMING PLAN COULD INCLUDE HUNDREDS, POSSIBLY THOUSANDS, OF VACANT LOTS . MARCH 20, 2019. JESSICA GRIFFIN / FILE PHOTOGRAPH PHILLY.COM

PHILLY’S URBAN FARMING PLAN COULD INCLUDE HUNDREDS, POSSIBLY THOUSANDS, OF VACANT LOTS. MARCH 20, 2019. JESSICA GRIFFIN / FILE PHOTOGRAPH PHILLY.COM

Overcoming Barriers to Urban Agriculture In American Cities

Achieving such yields in a test garden does not mean they are feasible for urban farmers in the Bay Area. Most urban farmers in California lack ecological horticultural skills. They do not always optimize crop density or diversity, and the University of California’s extension program lacks the capacity to provide agroecological training.

The biggest challenge is access to land. University of California researchers estimate that over 79 percent of the state’s urban farmers do not own the property that they farm. Another issue is that water is frequently unaffordable. Cities could address this by providing water at discount rates for urban farmers, with a requirement that they use efficient irrigation practices.

In the Bay Area and elsewhere, most obstacles to scaling up urban agriculture are political, not technical. In 2014 California enacted AB511, which set out mechanisms for cities to establish urban agriculture incentive zones, but did not address land access.

One solution would be for cities to make vacant and unused public land available for urban farming under low-fee multiyear leases. Or they could follow the example of Rosario, Argentina, where 1,800 residents practice horticulture on about 175 acres of land. Some of this land is private, but property owners receive tax breaks for making it available for agriculture.

Lily Aldridge Loves 'Sakara Life's' Plant-Based Diet, Getting A Big Boost From 'The Game Changers' Documentary

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Lily Aldridge Loves 'Sakara Life's' Plant-Based Diet, Getting A Big Boost From 'The Game Changers' Documentary

Victoria's Secret Angel Lily Aldridge is not new to a plant-based diet developed by vegetarian meal delivery service Sakara Life. Founded in 2011 by Danielle Duboise and Whitney Tingle, the GOOP-endorsed organic, vegetarian food delivery service was founded on the principle that food is medicine. Models Erin Heatherton, Hilary Rhoda and Karolina Kurkova also use Sakara. Note that Sakara does use honey, but will eliminate it from its dishes. The delivery service is expensive, but its testimonials ring true in 'The Game Changers' described by Vogue as "the shocking new documentary that will change the way you look at meat."

“When I first saw the study that indicated Roman gladiators were eating almost exclusively plants, I thought it had to be bs,” says James Wilks, a special forces trainer, winner of The Ultimate Fighter, and the star of The Game Changers, a new documentary set out to debunk the myth that meat is necessary for protein, strength, and good health through an exhaustive—and persuasive—lineup of tests and interviews with pro athletes, soldiers, and scientists. “After thousands of hours of research, [I realized that] everything I thought about nutrition—eating meat and eggs and milk for your bones—was totally untrue . . . I was shocked.”

Eventually, Wilks called in the big guns.