State of Science :: Commentaries
Manic for Organic
Author(s): L.A. Times
SCORE ONE FOR THE CRUNCHIES. Yes, proponents of organic farming have been maintaining for years that conventionally grown produce is neither as tasty nor as nutritious as organic fruits and vegetables. But many of us have been skeptics, perhaps to justify our reluctance to pay up to twice as much for food labeled "organic" and sold at smug yuppie temples to the "natural" lifestyle. Now comes a scientific study that shows that the nutrient content of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables has dropped markedly since the 1950s.
The study comes from the University of Texas, where biochemist Donald R. Davis decided to try to quantify anecdotal reports of a trade-off between crop yields and concentrations of nutrients. He compared historic and current U.S. Department of Agriculture data on 43 garden crops (vegetables, strawberries and melons) and found that the modern produce had lost protein (down an average of 6%), calcium (down 16%), vitamin C (down 20%), riboflavin (down 38%) and phosphorus (down 9%.)
What does this mean? According to the study, it may mean that methods that boost crop yields, such as chemical fertilization, irrigation and genetic breeding, decrease the amount of some nutrients in the crop. The theory is that when plants are made to grow bigger and faster, they are not able to draw as many nutrients from the sun or soil. So those tangerine-sized strawberries may be as devoid of nutrition as they are of taste.
These findings have disturbing implications for the "green revolution" in the developing world, where most agricultural aid is aimed at boosting crop yields by using fertilizer, irrigation and genetically improved crop strains (engineered either through conventional breeding or genetic modification). Are we sacrificing quality for quantity? According to Davis, we don't know. But we should find out.
In the United States, these findings no doubt will speed the expansion of the organic-produce aisle. For example, a group at Tufts University found higher concentrations of antioxidants - believed to be cancer-fighting compounds - in organic tomatoes than in conventionally grown ones. And a Swedish study found that the strawberries grown by organic methods inhibited the growth of breast and colon cancer cells more than did conventional strawberries. It has long been known that a diet richer in fruits and vegetables is correlated with lower rates of many diseases, from cancer to cataracts.
Of course, all this science is merely reinforcing what mothers have been saying for centuries: Eat your veggies - they're good for you. And, today's scientists may add, if you persist in eating conventional vegetables instead of organic, you may want to eat even more of them.