Friday, September 7, 2012

Conventional vs. Organic: It's Not About Getting More, But Getting Less For Your Money. Less Pesticides, Dioxins & Co

Image 1: The Ökomonitoring program took a very different approach to the question whether or not organic products are worth the extra cost, they did not look for the additional edge, but rather the "subtractive edge", if you will, and tried to answer the question: "Can we even produce 'organically' in an increasingly polluted environment"; now ten years after the program started the answer appears to be "Yes!" (MLR. 2012a)
"Organic produce is no better than conventional! You are being ripped off!" Statements like this have made the headlines in the past couple of days and many people (obviously not you, though!) are scandalized or shaking their head haughtily uttering things "I knew it, and that's why I always buy the cheapest..." What both groups are missing, though is the simple fact that the question the scientists posed, or rather the question the journalists put to the forefront, i.e. "Are organically produced fruits and vegetables more nutritious?", is nonsensical, because it would imply that the absence of certain chemical agents and production methods would increase the amount of nutrients a plant puts into its fruit, leaves, roots or whatever. Since I have discussed this with my friend Carl Lanore on yesterday's joint SHR + SuppVersity News Round Up pretty extensively (in fact so extensive that we could not cover the other topics I had lined up - sorry for that, folks!), I won't go into more detail on that here, but simply repeat that the fallacy of this approach was part of my reasoning not to bore you with write-up / comment #5325 published that's been published on the bazillion of blogs within the past couple of days, but rather give you the long and short of a governmentally subsidized program that's been running for 10 years, now, here in Germany: the Ökomonitorin program of in Baden-Württemberg (this is one of the individual states here in Germany).

It's not about what's in there, but about what is not!

The researchers who are mainly working at the University of Stuttgart set out with a whole different research question than most of their colleagues. Rather than trying to answer loosely defined questions such as "What's better: Conventional or organic", they wanted to know whether or not it would even be possible to "produce organic" in an environment that is already profoundly polluted; and though I don't want to give away too much in advance, after 10 years and ten-thousands of samples of organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and animal products being analyzed the answer is "Yes it is!"
"Organic fruits and vegetables had on average 180x lower pesticide content than conventional products; and only 5% of the samples from organic produce were objectionable."
That's the conclusion the researchers in the 10-years special report that has been published in July 2012 (MLR. 2012b). Since I know that you don't content yourself with universalities like this (otherwise you would hardly be here ;-), I would like to invite you to let me walk you through some of the detailed results of the latest data from 2011, although this may not be the exact same goods you have (or haven't) been buying in the course of the last year (I just checked: Only ~6% of you are actually from Germany)

The good the bad and the equally ugly

While the general trend that emerges does in fact speak in favor of the organic products, a brief look at the data in figure 1 should suffice to see that despite the fact that the number of offenders, i.e. products with pesticide residues above the maximally allowed threshold is close to zero, even organic produce is far from being pesticide free.
Figure 1: Percentage of conventionally and organically produced products with detectable (those did not have to be above the allowed threshold levels!) pesticide residues (data based on MLR. 2012a)
Of all the categories I picked when I compiled figure 1 there are however four product categories that caught my eye immediately, because the "organic advantage" as you may call it, is particularly small, here: Wine, plant oils and processed fruit and vegetables (the latter category included frozen, usually relatively pesticide free, but also canned food and dried foods, as well as fruit jars etc.). Intriguingly, in all of those four the pesticides could (and in the case of the Wine, the researchers even proved that) have gotten into the food-chain during the processing / manufacturing process, as well - in other words processed and organic tend to be contrastive pairs.
Figure 2: Percentage of products with pesticide levels above the allowed threshold (data based on MLR. 2012a)
When it comes to the actual "offenders", i.e. those products with levels above what is officially allowed, here in Europe, there are actually seven of which I feel that they really stand out (one for each day of the week, isn't that great?):
Mothercorn, the "abortion fungus" of the middle ages, the first source of LSD and the result of inappropriately stored and subsequently moldy grains / flour being used in the production of breads, is a potential cause of auto-immune diseases and lethal toxicities.
The mothercorn (Claviceps purpurea) content [µg/kg] of multi-grain breads with rye and wholemeal rye bread (please mind the leap on the primary axis; data based on MLE. 2012a)
The ingestion of 2 mg of mothercorn does already lead to adverse reactions which range from nausea over headaches, and cramping to a loss of sensation in the extremities and vascular occlusions (the latter will also arise from chronic low-grade intoxications)- in pregnant women it will induce contractions of the uterus and spontaneous abortion. The ingestion of 5-10g of the ergot-alkaloids from the fungus kill an adult man... not exactly what you want to have in your bread, right? Not even in "harmless quantities" - which is what even the worst offenders would have to be considered, still.
  • the processed foods - irrespective of whether you buy veggies or fruit, you can be sure that the contamination raises with every processing step; be smart not lazy and buy whole foods, learn how to prepare them and cook for yourself
  • cereals - 3.4% of the "oh so healthy superfoods", of which at total 72% of the conventional and 36% of the organic ones contain pesticides, are also on the list of items even the European officials suggest you should better not eat, if you don't want to become sick
  • legumes - another favorite of mainstream dietitians are not just among the worst offenders (24% of the conventionally produced legumes contain pesticides above the tolerable limit), they are also the only product where even the organic variety is not suitable for human consumption in 11% of the cases and as if that was not enough, the number of substances above that threshold amounts to 17 compounds in the conventional and 3 substances in the organically produced legumes
  • leafy greens - the health food per se may not be among the worst offenders but in those 6.7% of the samples that had pesticides above the the threshold level, the scientist were able to identify 27(!) different pesticides (note: not all pesticides were found in all samples and the worst offenders were not broccoli & co, but rather salads)
  • ginger (=ingwer)- the conventional variety something many people use to improve their health had higher than tolerable levels in 12.5% of the cases; a health food "gone unhealthy", if you will
  • berries - they may not be among the worst offenders, but they are "versatile": With 5 different pesticides in the samples the scientists analyzed they can't compare with the processed veggies with 45 different pesticides, but are doing quite "well"
  • exotic fruit and citrus fruit - while with them the conventional farmers obviously assume that the consumer would throw away the peel anyway; or, and this segues right into our next topic, there are no governmental controls and regulations in place; after all, you should be aware that Germany is not exactly the country to grow "exotic fruits" ;-)
If we seize on the notion of "it's not us, it's only the others that contaminate their produce, ship it to Europe (or the US) and poison us", we must however realize that things aren't so easy as they seem: While the German organic produce may in fact be the less polluted one, neither the Israelis nor the South Africans or Moroccans, but rather our European friends, the Italians are trying to poison us ;-)
Figure Y: "Worst offenders" statistics for the countries of origin of organic produce (based on MLR. 2012b)
Now, all jokes aside, it is simply not possible and probably also highly un-rewarding to replace one prejudice, i.e. all organic produce is good with another more sophisticated one such as all organic produce from Germany is good and everything from Italy, Egypt and Greece is poison. Therefore, it is probably also not so important that the intricacies of these statistics are meaningless for the majority of you who are (I just checked) US residents and not among the 6% "resident" (=German) SuppVersity students ;-)

Organic = Say no to GMO!?

With the different legislative situation here in Germany, the quantitative data on GMO "contamination" in figure 3 is probably likewise irrelevant for many of you, but with the production of GMO corn being banned, here in Germany, it does give you a sneak peak on what can happen if the government is willing to act on behalf of its people (the majority of Germans is against GMO) instead of the industry (in all fairness it must be said that it is the US and not the European, let alone the German agrar-industry that's constantly trying to push GMO corn and other produce into the German market).
Figure 4: Relative percantage of soy and soyproducts that has been genetically modified (MLR. 2012b)
Even among the conventional produce, the number of outliers was small - roughly 5% of conventional products contained <0.1% corn from genetically modified plants - a result which is probably also to be accounted for by the awareness of the industry that they will have to throw all their produce away once the GMO-skeptic consumers realize that product is contains significant amounts of genetically modified plants.

The data in figure 4 does yet also show that things look different for soy products, most of which are imported from countries where the production of GMO foods is actually allowed (like the US ;-) and even non-GMO crop can be exposed to cross-contamination. If we take a closer look and discard the annual variations, it does yet become obvious that the GMO content of organic products is just as their pesticide content still much lower than it is in conventional ones. What is pretty troublesome, though, is that in 2011 25% of the products that are advertised as "GMO free" contained small amounts (<0.1%) of genetically modified soy - for you, my American friends this means: Having a label alone does not protect you from "GMO fraud" ;-)

Eggs, salmon, animal productts and other notable observations and changes from 2002-2012

Before I'll conclude this post with a couple of notes on trends and general observations the scientists who have been working on the Ökomonitoring program over the past 10 years made and let you make up your own mind of "whether or not you feel that getting less is worth paying more", let me briefly address the issue of dioxin-laden organic eggs Carl and I have been talking about, yesterday, already:

Image 2: If you have not done so, already, I highly suggest you read my previous post "Urban Gardening: 12x More Cadmium in Your Tomatoes Than in the Conventional Produce? Plus: Domestic vs. Foreign - What's Healthier?". After all, your own organic tomatoes and other produce can be effected by the environment in which you grow them, as well.
  • Not just organically produced eggs, but also organically produced salmon have on average higher levels of DDT, PCB and total dioxins (TEQ) and HCB, DDT2, PCB 153, Dieldrin, Endosulfan, Chlordan, Toxaphen, Tribromanisol, PBDE, respectively (note: wild salmon is almost free of any of the latter!)
  • Those contaminations are not brought about by what the farmers do, but rather what they didn't do, i.e. make sure that their free ranging hens are not running around on toxic soils and their fish are not swimming in a toxic sea - and this is where the initial research question of the Ökomonitoring program, "Can we even produce organically?", must be answered with a somewhat shabby: "It depends" and the one parameter it depends on is the environment, to which the animals (and to a much lesser degree, the crop) are exposed
Now, the implications of this are not that all organic animal products are worse than their conventional counterparts (in fact the number of products without any residues is larger for the organic products, unfortunately those products which are contaminated contain much higher levels!), but rather that you have to be choosier and try not to rely on the label "organic", if you know your local farmer and trust him, you may be better off buying his non-organic eggs that those from an organic farm on contaminated land...
Find out if your area has contaminated soil by using the MyEnvironment search engine at! Enter your area code and get the result right away. If you type in "Bronx New York", for example, you will learn that the major risk factor from air pollution is formaldehyde, that there are two final NPL sites and so on and so forth (thanks to Carl Lanore and Alisa Profumo for pointing this out on today's Casual Friday).
But enough of that let's wrap it up for today, with a couple of more or less unrelated, but interesting facts, the first of which is so important that I decided to repeat it, although I mentioned it at the beginning of the article, already:
What is Furan? Furan is a heterocyclic compound that has originally been used in the chemical manufacturing industry. It does however also occur during the combustion of coal and is a component of tobacco smoke, as well as in a number of heat processed food items such as canned and jarred foods and coffee (FDA. 2004). Furan is carcinogenic to rats and mice and was classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 1995; see as well Cordelli. 2010; Chen. 2012)
  • on average 180x lower pesticide residues in organic fruits and veggies - that's the astonishing result after 10 years of Ökomonitoring
  • no = ZERO pharamcologically active substances in any of the testes organic produces
  • antibiotics residues in organic honey were reduced from 23% to 0% from 2003 to 2005; no complaints thereafter
  • the mycotoxin load is about equally high in conventional and organic produce
  • No significant differences in terms of organic contamination and pesticide residues exist between animal products; the dioxin load in eggs free ranging hens and organic salmon are exceptions to this rule (while levels spiked in 2009, when "buying organic" really took off over here and more and more farmers started producing "organic eggs", the levels have been slightly declining over the past years)
  • the way organic coffee is roasted leads to increased furan levels in organically produced roast coffee
  • the amount of acrylamide in cookies is equally high in organic vs. conventional products, the in organic chips is higher and the number of samples with levels above the 1,000µg/kg threshold is higher as well
  • no differences were found in terms of trans fatty acids in ready-made meals
  • organic softdrinks are free of preservatives
  • no artificial colorings in organic sweets
Now it's up to you - organic, yes or no? And remember: We cannot always make everything 100% right, but that does not mean that you should give up trying.

  • Chen T, Williams TD, Mally A, Hamberger C, Mirbahai L, Hickling K, Chipman JK. Gene expression and epigenetic changes by furan in rat liver. Toxicology. 2012 Feb 26;292(2-3):63-70.
  • Cordelli E, Leopardi P, Villani P, Marcon F, Macrì C, Caiola S, Siniscalchi E, Conti L, Eleuteri P, Malchiodi-Albedi F, Crebelli R. Toxic and genotoxic effects of oral administration of furan in mouse liver. Mutagenesis. 2010 May;25(3):305-14.
  • Food and Drug Administration. Exploratory Data on Furan in Food, vol. 2011. 2004 <∼dms/furandat.html >
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Summaries & Evaluations, vol. 2011. 1995. 
  • Ministerium für Ländlichen Raum, und Verbraucherschutz Baden-Württemberg (MLR). Ökomonitoring. Ökomonitoring Bericht für das Jahr 2011. June 2012b.
  • Ministerium für Ländlichen Raum, und Verbraucherschutz Baden-Württemberg (MLR).Ökomonitoring. 10 Jahre Ökomonitoring. 2002 – 2011. Jubiläumssonderausgabe. June 2012b.