Howard Bezar and Denis Curtain

Scientific support for organic farming isn’t all it seems

An article appeared in the Canterbury Digest in December, 2000, claiming organic foods have ‘superior nutritive value’. The article, titled “Rapid growth in organic products” was by Seager Mason, Technical and Certification Manager for Bio-Gro New Zealand. It contained a table headed “Scientists prove superior nutritive value of organic food”. The table presented data showing large nutritional advantages of five “organic” vegetables over “inorganic” vegetables. The source was said to be “Researchers at Rutgers University”.

A search of the internet revealed that over 20 websites have published this material together with some commentary. The websites attribute the data to F. E. Bear of Rutgers University. On further investigation the original paper was identified. This paper was published 52 years ago and is titled “Variation in mineral composition of vegetables” by F. E Bear, S. J. Toth and A. L. Prince, published in 1948 in the Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America Volume 13: pages 380-384.

The article grossly misrepresents the work of scientists who are now deceased and unable to defend their research. More seriously, the information is false and misleading to readers of Canterbury Digest as well as people using the internet as a source of information and who will not have an opportunity the check the data presented against results in the original, 52-year old research paper.

The deliberate misuse of scientific information in this way is a serious concern in that it undermines public confidence in science, it undermines the credibility of any organization using the information without checking the original source, and it undermines the editorial integrity of any media using the data without first checking with reliable expertise before publishing.

Seager Mason’s claims in relation to this paper are inaccurate on several counts. He claims that the researchers “set out to disprove the claim that organic is better”. Not so. The stated purpose of the paper was to examine the effects of variation in environmental factors (principally soil type and climate) on mineral concentrations in vegetables. At no point in the paper were the terms “organic” and “inorganic” production used or implied. In fact, there were no comparisons between vegetables grown in “organic” and “inorganic” systems. In essence, the study was a survey of the mineral contents of five vegetable crops sampled in ten US states with widely differing climatic conditions and soil types.

Mason claims that the “researchers purchased selections of produce at supermarkets and health food stores”. Not so. The paper clearly states that “samples of cabbage, lettuce, snap beans, spinach, and tomatoes were obtained from commercial fields of these crops.” Management practices used to grow the crops were not specified.

The results in the paper of Bear et al. were summarised in the form of Tables showing the lowest and highest values recorded for each crop. Mason misrepresents these results by indicating that the highest values were obtained for organically produced crops and that the lowest values came from crops grown by inorganic methods. There is absolutely no justification for this. As pointed out above, vegetables representing “organic” and “inorganic” production methods were not even included in the study.

The summary remark that “organic foods are three to 100 times more nutritious (than inorganic food)” bears no relation to the contents of the paper published by the Rutgers scientists. It is certainly ridiculous to claim that “many essential elements were completely absent in the commercial (i.e., inorganic) produce”. Plants just will not grow in the absence of essential elements!

The labels on columns of data are transposed, the molybdenum column has been left out and some other transcription errors are apparent. This means that the ash content is reported as phosphorus, the calcium column as sodium, etc. All the columns are wrongly labeled except for cobalt.

Further points to note in relation to this paper are:

  • A comprehensive review of international literature undertaken by Dr Diane Bourn and Associate Professor John Prescott of the Department of Food Science, University of Otago in April 2000 (currently in press), concludes that “With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is not strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients”.
  • In May last year the British Advertising Standards Authority upheld four complaints against the Tesco and Iceland supermarket chains for claiming in brochures that organic food is tastier, healthier and better for the environment and animals. They ruled the supermarkets had not been able to provide evidence and that the claims were “misleading” and “unsubstantiated”.
  • In a February 2000 interview with ABC News 20/20 Kathryn Di Matteo of the US Organic Trade Association, in answering the reporter’s question, Is it (organic food) more nutritious?, replied, “It is as nutritious as any other product on the market.” This has been widely taken as an acknowledgment by the US organics industry that organics are no more nutritious than other food.

Footnote: Seager Mason and Canterbury Digest editor Simon Nutt have since apologised for the article.

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