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.