Live from POPRC!

Right now, I'm sitting in a room at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, located in Rome, Italy. Though I get to walk by the Coliseum every morning on the way to the FAO building, I don't leave the building until well after the sun has set.

I'm representing PAN at the Stockholm Convention's Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC), and learning a great deal about the scientific review of new POPs that's part of the global chemicals treaty process.

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Bad science makes the news. Again.

I hate bad science. It’s hard to do good science, but science is only effective when it is good science. This isn’t a rant about the bad science of genetically engineered foods (which certainly deserves a post of its own) but about a recent study published by Stanford scientists about organic food. You’ve probably read about it in the news, but if you haven’t you can do so here. The main point of the study was to test organic foods to see if they were more nutritious and safer to eat than non-organic foods. They found that organic foods were not more nutritious than non-organic foods and not any safer regarding E. coli contamination. Lower levels of chemical pesticides were found.

Why is this bad science? One of the points made to my cohort of graduate students was that getting results, even statistically significant results, is irrelevant if the questions being asked aren’t relevant. A corollary was that you need the right measures to test the questions you are asking. In this case, asking about nutrients is irrelevant because the organic standards aren’t about nutrition. They are standards for producing food without using artificial pesticides and herbicides. So, studying the nutritional value of organic foods is simply the wrong question. The correct question is whether organic foods have lower level of chemical pesticides and herbicides on them. This question was asked, and the researchers found that organic foods did have lower levels of these chemicals. But, this was not the emphasis of the study. Instead, they focused on nutrients and on E. coli levels. The latter was one of their metrics of healthy food, and they found no significant difference in organic vs. non-organic foods. Such results make for great headlines and lots of food industry punditry, but they are irrelevant and therefore bad science.

For further information and commentary on this topic, read this post by Marion Nestle (always a good source of scientific information on food issues), and a fuller commentary with multiple viewpoints here. Of the six commentators at the second link, I think Marion Nestle is the most succinct and accurate, based on what I know about organic foods from my many years following food issues.