Organic Resources :: Leaders in Organics
The Science of Organics: Peeling the Onion to Reach Core Truths
Zoe Helene Interviews Dr. Charles Benbrook (pictured), Chief Scientist of The Organic Center
ZH: Why is Science so important to the Organic Movement?
CB: Science is important because we need solid facts and clear messaging to bring about major changes in the purchasing patterns of the average American. Clearly, there is a segment of the population that is already convinced organic foods deliver more than enough benefits to justify premium prices, but if we're going to reach the majority of consumers on a daily basis, we have to give them stronger evidence of personal, as well as broader environmental and societal benefits.
ZH: What do you think has kept the majority from opening their minds to the message of organics?
CB: It boils down to the values of individuals and what experiences they've had and the people who have influenced them. Those in a big hurry, who haven't really enjoyed food as an essential part of family or their cultural identity, are not likely to be very aware or interested in messages about organic foods and farming. These people are among those who eat regularly at fast food restaurants and buy a lot of highly processed foods. But a growing number of people have come to cherish the role that food plays in the quality of life, and in particular, in human interactions. They are coming to understand their food and dietary choices have a very significant impact on health.
Until recently, seductive myths about our food and farming system have been accepted as conventional wisdom. Examples include "the U.S. food system is the most productive in the world...," "...the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world...," and "...food in the U.S. is a great bargain because we spend such a low portion of disposable income on food..."
In fact, none of these core elements of "conventional wisdom" are true, and in fact, they are surprisingly far from the truth. But still, these myths have been repeated so many times, most people have come to assume that they must be grounded in fact. In this way, these myths have served as a sort of collective tranquilizer on the nation's food consciousness. Over the years, they have insulated our agricultural and food policies from some uncomfortable realities. Our food system myths have delayed long overdue critical thinking that is just now getting underway because there is a viable alternative - organic food and farming.
ZH: Have you noticed a significant rise of interest in understanding organics?
CB: It is a relatively recent phenomenon that people have come to question the quality of the foods they're buying on a daily basis. Ten years ago the majority of people might have heard about certain foods with potential risk. Once in a while there was a food poisoning episode that was widely covered by the media, but for the most part the general public bought into the idea that American food was the best quality, most diverse food in the world and that it was also the safest and cheapest food in the world. For the most part, American food tasted pretty good, was convenient, and most people were getting - or so they thought - all the nutrition they needed.
ZH: Too much empty food?
CB: Clearly, measured by dollars and cents, or by impacts on human well being, excessive caloric consumption is now the nation's number one public health problem. Ironically, as USDA explained last year in a little-noticed press release, the U.S. population is both overfed and undernourished.
The USDA has released detailed nutrient intake estimates that show that the average American consumes inadequate levels of about 2.5 essential nutrients each day. Some of the deficiencies are surprisingly serious, especially for pregnant and nursing women, for the elderly, and people fighting certain chronic diseases. Just in the last few years, the media has begun to focus on the decline in nutritional quality in the conventional food supply. Emerging insights have triggered open discussion among scientists and in the food industry about declining food quality. Protein levels have declined in many crops. Vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant levels in conventional produce have declined. Fiber levels have dropped. A growing share of fresh produce doesn't taste good, especially in the middle of winter. Much of our food is highly processed and contains outrageous amounts of added salt, sugar, and saturated fats. So yes, we eat too much food containing high levels of the wrong nutrients, and not enough whole foods containing high levels of the nutrients we need more of to promote life-long health.
ZH: So many Americans think they're eating well but they actually are not.
CB: The newly revised, widely publicized dietary guidelines have opened the eyes of a lot of Americans. The growing evidence of decline in the nutritional quality of conventional food is beginning to get on the radar screen of the average American. At the same time the proven benefits of organic are also getting more attention and acceptance. It's this combination of factors that is leading more people to look for greater diversity in their food choices and more discipline in their dietary patterns.
ZH: So much of the conventional produce is just so tasteless.
CB: People are coming to realize there have been some quality compromises in creating the kind of food system we have today. Because of this recognition, they are much more open to new information from all sorts of directions on food quality, food safety, and organic food and farming. Awareness of food quality problems arises from many sources. For example, a mother buys a five-pound bag of conventional apples at the supermarket for her kids, only to discover her kids were dumping them in a waste basket at school after taking a few bites. Being inquisitive, the mom tastes the apples herself and discovers that they are mealy and almost tasteless. The first few times this happens, most people brush it off as an aberration, "Oh well, it's a big food system, maybe these apples just weren't stored right or were stored too long..." But after several such let downs - that picture-perfect peach that tastes like left over oat meal - people begin to recognize patterns and this leads to new questions and greater openness to information out there about food quality. I think the ranks of the unsatisfied food consumer are steadily growing and that many people are looking for and finding welcomed alternatives with a little green logo from the USDA.
ZH: How would you describe the role of bringing science into the comparative evaluation of organic farming and conventional farming?
CB: When studying the unique benefits of organic farming, in comparison to conventional farming, careful science is needed to control for a number of variables like plant genetics, the weather, and harvest and storage practices that have either direct or indirect impacts on nutritional quality, food safety, and taste. It is possible to grow tasteless food with low nutritional quality using methods that are in compliance with the organic rules. It is also possible to grow very high quality, nutritious and good tasting foods using conventional methods. It is also all-too-easy to mishandle high quality organic (or conventional) food after it is harvested and leaves the farm, eroding quality along the way. All sorts of things can happen to degrade food quality before the consumer actually eats it, including things that happen after the consumer has bought the food and taken it home. It is unrealistic to expect the average consumer to understand how all of these other factors influence food quality and come into play in determining how nutritious a given apple, or potato salad actually is.
We need science and well-designed comparative studies to explain to people the impact of various factors on food quality, both how to grow high-quality foods on the farm and preserve that innate quality as food moves from the farm to the consumer. Science will lead to a set of widely accepted "first principles of food quality" that can be used to better understand the sources of food quality and how it can be compromised. Such "first principles" will help people place into perspective the results of future studies, as well as their own experiences with conventional and organic foods.
Science is also going to make it possible to make stronger and more unequivocal statements about the unique benefits of organic farming and organic food. By carefully adhering to the scientific process, we will be able to isolate, and control in a given experiment, most of the variables that impact conventional and organic food quality. In a properly designed comparative study, a field growing organic strawberries should be managed in terms of tillage, planting methods, irrigation, and harvest practices in much the same way as a nearby field growing conventional strawberries. The two farms should be managed equally well, so that each has the same chance to produce a superior crop. By making these kinds of rigorous and unbiased comparisons, science is going to help peel away the layers of the onion to expose more clearly the core features of conventional and organic farming systems that directly and routinely, or indirectly and/or only occasionally, impact food quality. Once the unique attributes of organic systems have been carefully documented and traced to their source, the organic community will have solid facts and science to back up what most consumers experience when they seek out and consume high quality, fresh organic food.
ZH: Please explain qualitative, comparative and quantitative as fundamental principles of the scientific method-for the layman interested in science.
CB: Qualitative comparisons are going to come from things like consumer surveys where someone interviews 2,000 consumers and asks, "Does organic taste better to you?" A percentage of those consumers say organic tastes better and another percentage say conventional food tastes better and others say they can't really detect a difference. Qualitative data can also come from farmers, when asked about pest pressure in their lettuce fields following organic practices, in contrast to lettuce grown using conventional methods.
ZH: So qualitative data comes down to subjective opinion, really?
CB: Yes. Even the observations of experts trained to taste coffee or sample wines rest on a set of personal preferences. Yes, they'll be educated preferences but still subjective and hence qualitative. The point is, another expert looking at the same food and same question might come up with a different answer.
ZH: As opposed to Quantitative?
CB: Quantitative studies and data strive to capture the magnitude of differences in some variable, or set of variables. Most studies also try to isolate the sources of differences that are observed in a given experiment. Once you have identified a given quality attribute of food, for example Vitamin C or antioxidant levels, it is possible to measure differences in that attribute as impacted by plant genetics, harvest timing, and farming systems. When a given experiment is replicated over a few years and in several fields, it can be possible to rather precisely quantify the magnitude of expected differences, and to also link those differences to particular causes.
When other scientists decide to carry out similar experiments testing the same linkages reported in earlier work, and when they come up with similar differences, this replication of results lends greater confidence in the conclusions reached by the original team of scientists. The ability to replicate results in different labs and locations is one of the things that distinguish quantitative from qualitative research.
ZH: Very cool. So what exactly is REPLICATION, and why is it so important?
CB: One of the foundations of science is being able to replicate a finding in another place and at another time. In fact, whenever scientists publish a novel finding that's never appeared before, that data and any conclusions based upon it, are typically not accepted until it is replicated somewhere else by another team of scientists. And there's good reason for this. There are all sorts of ways that errors can creep into studies; laboratory equipment may not be working properly. There might be an unknown and unusual source of contamination in a study, or other factors that scientists may not be aware of that may impact results. Failure to replicate results is a sure sign that there are more layers to the onion than once thought, and tells scientists that they must probe more deeply to discover universal truths.
When a scientist publishes an experimental protocol, the intent is to explain fully what was done in a given experiment, how it was done, and how results were measured and analyzed statistically. The goal is to allow another scientist in another lab to basically do the same thing and reach essentially identical results. A lot of confidence is placed in a scientific finding when it's been replicated, particularly when it's been replicated several times on different continents by a wide diversity of scientists. Once a key set of experimental data have been replicated three or four times, the scientific community moves on by asking why a given experimental protocol leads to a given quantitative outcome, or how might the outcome observed in a set of studies - elevated levels of lycopene in tomatoes, for example - be augmented, or avoided if it is a bad thing.
In studies on the impacts of organic farming systems, especially field-based studies, precise replication is difficult, and indeed often impossible, since the conditions of each study are so heavily influenced by soil conditions, weather, levels of pest pressure, and how routine farming practices were carried out. One way for scientists to get around many common, uncontrollable sources of variability is by carrying out comparative studies over multiple years, in many places, on fields that are side-by-side. When the same sorts of impacts are observed year after year in such studies, greater confidence is placed on quantitative findings.
In looking at the science that has been done comparing organic and conventional food and farming, we often see that scientists have designed studies to address the same question, but with subtle and sometimes important differences. For example, some studies analyze organic fields that have just recently been converted to organic management, whereas others focus on fields that have been under organic management for over 10 years. The former field might actually still have more in common with a conventionally managed field that a long-term organic field.
In other cases, scientists have compared organic fields to conventional fields in which a number of core organic practices have already been adopted, such as use of compost, mating disruption for insect pest management, and use of cover crops to suppress weeds and build soil fertility. Scientists also tend to come up with different ways to measure food quality and as a result, the data collected in one study might not be directly comparable to the results obtained in other research.
The deepest and most significant benefits of organic farming almost certainly arise from complex system interactions that are extremely difficult to isolate and control in replicated field studies. They also are hard to study through reductionist research strategies (i.e., carrying out research on one isolated component of a complex organic system). This does not mean that the benefits do not exist; it just means that two of the core strategies of western science - replication and reduction of complex systems to their component parts - are relatively inefficient in peeling away the layers of this onion.
ZH: Would you say that most research carried out by university research teams is reductionist in nature?
CB: Yes, and much of the past research comparing "organic" and conventional systems has been flawed. One of the reasons that many studies done by academic scientists have failed to find consistent differences between conventional and organic food is because the scientists have based their field research on university experiment stations that have been farmed conventionally for twenty, thirty, or a hundred years. They attempt to convert some acreage to organic production, but typically do it quickly, accepting certain "compromises." They are simply not able to grow crops as skillfully as an experienced organic farmer. They don't have the time to build up their personal farming skills to match those of good organic farmers. They lack the time to work with a piece of land for five, ten, or twenty years in building up its fertility and capturing all of the biological benefits that are associated with organic farming.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation has done important work in documenting the lack of dedicated certified organic research plots at land grant universities. OFRF has also stressed the importance of assuring that scientific studies on organic farming actually utilize mature, well-managed organic systems, and not "organic light" systems designed by individuals lacking organic farming experience.
ZH: Equivocal basically means inconsistent data?
CB: Equivocal science is research that comes up with a different answer than other research addressing the same topic, or no answer at all. For example, there have been any number of clinical trials on drugs that have come up with conflicting evidence on the efficacy of a given drug. There have been many studies on the impact of low dose exposures of pesticides on the development of young animals that show impacts, and many other studies that have detected no impacts. Conflicting or equivocal results are valuable because they point scientists in new directions and hopefully help them delve more deeply into the onion. Science progresses when it comes to understand why different results are coming from comparably designed research.
ZH: Ahhh-The Big Why? That's the calling, isn't it?
CB: As I have said before, it's like peeling the layers of the onion. Scientists want to get to that core truth, the key biological principles that are driving how life happens. They want to understand biological phenomena and interactions at a very fundamental level. In order to do so, they have to peel away several layers of the onion to get at those core processes and linkages and interactions that determine how organisms grow and evolve and relate to their ecosystem and other organisms within it. It gets complicated quickly because there are all sorts of things that can happen in the outer layers of the onion that make it difficult for scientists to understand exactly what the core processes are, what triggers them, and what factors govern them. And this is what makes biology the incredibly fascinating science that it is. Scientists now have powerful new tools that allow them to more quickly burrow down toward the center of that onion, to understand why and how things happen to organisms within ecosystems.
ZH: What led you to become engaged in a professional capacity studying the benefits of organic foods?
CB: That's a really complicated question in my case. To be to totally honest, starting in the early 1980s and for about fifteen years of my professional career, I didn't believe that organic farming and organic food was that terribly important of a topic. I thought organic farming was of marginal significance because it accounted for such a tiny part of our food system and did not seem poised, or even terribly interested in growth. As a scientist working in Washington, DC on national policies that relate to food safety and food quality, my interest was how agriculture and food impacts the health of 275 million Americans and environmental quality on 350 million acres of farmland. I was interested in the broad impact of agriculture and our food system on soil and water quality, on public health, farm income and farmer well being, and the environment. Organic farming did not strike me at the time as a viable alternative to the conventional food system, and I felt that way through the nineties. It's only been in the last few years that I've become convinced otherwise. The growth potential for organic farming is very great now, I can see it having a substantial impact on the health of the American public and the quality of the environment.
ZH: I worked the booth at a grassroots Organic Festival here in Asheville, NC, earlier this month on behalf of the Organic Center. I would ask people, "Are you interested in the Science of Organics?" I got a lot of interest from just regular folks, which was just great. But there was this one fellow who looked to be about 50, and he says, "Yes! My wife and I made the discovery about six months ago and we've lost 40 pounds just by changing to organic food."
CB: We have a Critical Issue Report coming out that addresses the current and potential future impacts of organic food on diabetes and obesity. In this report we're trying to get at the question: What does organic food and farming have to contribute, if anything, to the Nation's epidemic of obesity and diabetes? We've reviewed the available science and reached some tentative conclusions regarding what might have helped this man loose so much weight so quickly. I would venture a guess that this man not only changed his diet, but also became more active. And now his big challenge looms - keeping his caloric intake in line with what his body needs so the pounds stay off.
ZH: I'm sure it also had to do with a larger life change; the other awakenings that happen once you start down the Organic path, and all of it so connected.
CB: Millions of people are making dietary choices that are killing them. They're eating way too much food overall. They are eating too much of certain processed foods that are particularly bad for them because they contain high levels of added fats and sugars and salt. It is absolutely clear that dietary choices are directly contributing to very costly and damaging long-term health problems. Too many people pay little or no attention to the quality of individual food items they purchase, and they also don't take responsibility for the collective food decisions they make. So in America, paradoxically, we have people who are eating way more than they should yet are still undernourished. The "big change" in public health in America is going to happen when the general public connects the dots about the quality of the individual foods they chose, their overall dietary patterns, and the impacts on their personal health.
ZH: And their children's health-but that's a whole other interview, which we'll do someday. I have a different type of question: What was the inciting incident (or incidents) that started you on this journey?
CB: In 1992, I went to the annual May-Day celebration at the Molino Creek Farming Collective, a semi-famous organic farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The May Day party comes at the peak of the spring crop season in the central California coast. I was a mid-career, Washington DC-based policy wonk in need of more time outside the beltway. I had gotten to know some of the people associated with CCOF, the organization that certifies organic farmers in California, and they invited me to the Molino Creek party. There was lots of very nice food and about 300 people nestled in a mountain valley on a beautiful afternoon. People had gone through the food lines and most had eaten. I was sitting around talking when a farmer drove up in a well-worn pick up. The back was literally full of just-picked organic strawberries. The berries were from Jim Cochran, who runs Swanton Berry Farms, one of the area's premier strawberry growers. The minute Jim's truck arrived, a stream of people headed for the truck, where each person was given their own personal pint basket of fresh-picked organic strawberries. They were so good I just couldn't believe it. They were a bit smaller than the strawberries I'd gotten used to in the supermarkets. The fruit had a deep rich red color and the taste was just fantastic. It was an awakening for me.
ZH: I recently ventured into a so-called conventional supermarket and the fruits just looked bizarre to me. The sheer size of the peaches- they were twice the size of the organic ones I'd been eating.
CB: A significant portion of the conventional strawberries today look as if they are on steroids. Some border on grotesque. They look like they've outgrown their skins.
ZH: What is your current project and passion?
CB: I'm building the scientific program of The Organic Center. I'm trying to figure out a practical way to follow, synthesize, and communicate the cutting edge developments in about fifty fields of science happening all over the world. It is proving to be quite a challenge.
ZH: With Warren Wilson College here in town I meet a lot of young environmental scientists; any advice for them?
CB: I think the big breakthroughs are going to occur with work being done by teams of scientists with a wide array of skills and experiences. There is always going to be a role for scientific specialties and very narrow research. But in the area of food quality, there are many factors that have to be taken into account and many things impacting food. To be effective in advancing food quality, people will need to develop a broad understanding of how all of these factors can and do interact, impacting food quality.
ZH: So, what specifically should a young person pursue in science if they are interested in food quality?
CB: Nutrition is something that is, at its heart, biological. It's not a big challenge to measure and document what people eat. The big challenge is to understand the impacts of what they eat on their health. To gain such understanding requires knowledge of how different lifestyles, and genetics, and environmental factors affect food and dietary choices, and nutrient needs, intakes, and bioavailability. Two different people can eat exactly the same diet but get very different nutrients out of that diet. Getting trained in one of the biological sciences is going to provide the best foundation for pursuing the inner layers of the onion as part of multidisciplinary teams.
Dr. Charles Brenbrook worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. He served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. In 1984 Benbrook was recruited to the job of Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, a position he held for seven years. Several influential NAS reports were done in this period on the need for and aspects of sustainable agriculture. In late 1990 he formed Benbrook Consulting Services. Chuck has written many reports, books, and peer reviewed articles on agricultural science, technology, public health, and environmental issues. Contact Chuck via email at email@example.com.
Zoe Helene is a recognized pioneer in the interactive messaging arena and is credited with a considerable list of firsts. Her work has received numerous awards and has been featured in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and MIT Technology Review. Ms. Helene played a key role in developing the industry's first and only holistic electronic solution for managing inbound electronic communications and executing complex, dynamic, dialogue-driven brand loyalty strategies. Over the past 12+ years she has helped major American brands embrace innovative business processes that leverage the power of the Internet and e-mail as new medium, working with kindred trailblazers to create symbiotic programs conducive to more open and trusting channels of communications with customers both one-to-one and in targeted customer affinity groups (Tribes). By proactively connecting life-style brands with virtual tribes in ways that enrich their lives in real-world terms, more loyal, mutually beneficial relationships can be developed and sustained. Zoe is currently exploring the uncharted territory of Collective E-Consciousness and 24/7 global connectivity as unprecedented phenomenon and potential catalyst for rapid human evolution. She is keen to support socially conscious businesses who are working to make the world a better place. Zoe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.