Public Health and Organic Food

Many of you may have heard that a recent study from Stanford researchers indicates that the health benefits of eating organic food are not as readily apparent as once thought, at least over a course of a few years (http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685).  Utilizing over 200 peer-reviewed studies that examined both the differences between organic and non-organic food and the health of people who eat organic and non-organic food, researchers concluded that: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” 

 

Reaction was widespread, but to make a gross generalization, many consumers were upset and felt duped or misled by companies advocating the benefits of organic food, which is often more expensive than comparable non-organic products.  After all, it only makes logical sense that putting more chemicals and artificial pesticides into your body would be worse for your health; this study seemed to refute that. 

 

There are a number of things to keep in mind, however, as people immediately pointed out after the study was published (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/07/160766896/organic-food-study-may-not-change-consumer-habits, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/07/opinion/why-organic-is-better-never-mind-the-study.html, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/sep/05/opinion/la-ed-organics-20120905, etc):

-First, the studies are short-term, looking into the health of individuals over a small period of time.  What the long-term effects of eating organic food are is perhaps even more important than understanding the short-term effects, and while such studies are currently under investigation the jury is still out and will be for a while longer.  Even though the health benefits alone were inconclusive for organic food, the study does say there is a much greater amount of pesticide residue on non-organic food.

-Second, having a specific organic label for certain types of foods adds to the transparency of the food industry, which has been anything but transparent in the past.  Having a clear understanding of where and how food is grown and processed is important to consumers.  The organic label, which is regulated by the FDA and the USDA, is just one relatively small way in which individuals can clearly recognize how a specific product came to be.

-Third, organic food is proven to be better for the environment.  Industrial, non-organic farms use chemicals and pesticides that are devastating for the local environment, polluting watersheds and negatively affecting animals and plants downstream.  Organic farms, on the other hand, contribute less to climate change, and do not put harmful chemicals in the soil, making them more sustainable.  Furthermore, organic meats are free of antibiotics and hormones that similar non-organic foods contain, thereby decreasing the presence of drug-resistant bacteria and hormone-related side effects such as early puberty in girls. 

-Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, organic food promotes a healthy lifestyle, where people celebrate the spirit of eating things that are maybe not necessarily better for you and your health but are grown sustainably and often locally, with the environment and the future in mind.  Organic food, as NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, can promote the health and happiness of farm animals: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/kristof-where-cows-are-happy-and-food-is-healthy.html?src=me&ref=general.  Organic food, in this way, becomes a moral choice, not just a personal health choice. 

 

In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see how consumers react to the Stanford study; there may well be a decrease in the number of organic products sold. But it looks as if, at least in the interest of public health for cows and humans alike, organic may still the way to go.  The bioethics aspect, in a way, is the organic, locally grown cherry on top.


Food for Thought

Global Distribution of Death by Nutrition Deficiency

How does individual behavior affect the international realm?

In the past 50 years, the rapid growth of the fast food industry has stimulated the industrialization of food. As a result, a few big businesses have come to control the food industry: what is produced, how it is produced, who produces it, how it is distributed, to whom is it distributed, and, even, how is it regulated and by whom is it regulated. The grand-scale commercialization of food, especially meat, has given rise to a new type of agriculture–factory farming.

Overproduction of corn from a farm factory.

Factory farming is not only unsustainable, but also perpetuates inequity among nations with regards to food abundance. Consumers, as an aggregate entity, influence the supply and demand of such unhealthy, unsustainable foods. Through informed, conscious choices, consumers can change what businesses sell, who will change how farming works, who will decrease overproduction which could lead to further equilibrium among countries.

– Kalindi Shah


Meeting with Dr. Atsu

“Ten years from now we will see this project grow out of the work of some students from the U.S. It will go beyond everyone’s dreams.” – Dr. Atsu, regional health director of Ho Municipality, in reference to the nutrition program at the H.O.P.E. Center

On Monday, the GROW Team and Margaret met with Dr. Atsu, the new regional health director of the Ho Municipality. During this meeting we discussed the role that Ghana Health Service (GHS) should play at the HOPE Center and the partnership between GHS and GlobeMed. Going into the meeting, we were all really unsure about how receptive Dr. Atsu would be to our ideas, but we were all really pleased with what he had to say. Dr. Atsu sees Ghana Health Service playing a major role in the H.O.P.E. Center and GlobeMed’s outreach programs. It was rewarding to see how well-received our work has been by GHS and the strides they are willing to make to expand this project to other communities. He stressed how important GlobeMed’s projects are, as they are one-of-a-kind projects, at least in the Volta region of Ghana. He sees the nutrition project as a model for similar projects throughout the Volta region, and thus wants to play a more active role in the research that the GROW Team and other GlobeMed students conduct. He wants all research conducted and all reports written to be validated and owned by Ghana Health Service so that our projects can be implemented in other communities.

Dr. Atsu also addressed the ideas of cultural competency and creating reports that accurately reflect the Ghanaian culture and mindset. As we all make progress on the reports of our various community surveys, it was important to keep these ideas in mind. What might seem significant and extraordinary in our eyes may be completely common place to the average Ghanaian. I was glad to be reminded of this idea that is constantly stressed in any discussion on global health projects. Even though I completely understand the idea of cultural competency and value its components, it is really easy and almost human nature to take a piece of data and place it in the context of one’s own culture. -REEMA GHATNEKAR