Critics Raise Alarms Over Stanford Organics Study

When Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were growing increasingly strange, she described them as “curiouser and curiouser.” That may be the best line to describe the Stanford study raising such a ruckus among those on opposite sides of the organics-versus-conventional debate.

Recently, I pointed out some of the flaws in the study. For example:

  • Seminal works that would likely have resulted in a very different result were left out of the survey.
  • Although the authors admitted conventionally raised foods contain more toxic residues, they saw no problem with that.
  • While higher amounts of some nutrients were attributed to an organic diet, the authors didn’t seem to think that mattered.
  • No long-term studies were included, nor were there any studies in which participants ate only an organic or conventional diet.
  • The authors acknowledged “publication bias” in some of the studies but included them anyway.
  • They ignored the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient tables, which have shown a gradual decline in the nutritional value of conventionally raised crops.

Whether or not corporate influence in this paper is direct, as some critics imply, Stanford has strong ties to some of the major beneficiaries and proponents of industrialized agriculture. Among them are Cargill, Caterpillar, British Petroleum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (investors in and supporters of Monsanto). This is not to say all of Stanford’s donors set out to influence its researchers. However, corporate influence on university research is ubiquitous and influences outcomes.

Some critics of the study pointed to Ingram Olkin’s participation. NaturalNews fingered Olkin as “an ‘anti-science’ propagandist working for Big Tobacco.” They correctly pointed out that in 1976 he received $12,000 from Philip Morris to develop a statistical approach to risk analysis. Conveniently, his research contributed to the tobacco industry’s long fight to deny that smoking was a health issue.

Although more than 35 years have passed since Olkin’s tobacco-related study, OpEdNews considers his participation in this one tainted. They reason that the research team used Olkin’s meta-analysis to generate the results reported in the organics study. Therefore, the study is using poor methodology.

Researchers always quarrel about each others’ hypotheses and methodology, but Olkin’s meta-analysis should be supported or dismissed on grounds more solid than his statistics having helped the tobacco industry nearly four decades ago. After all, he may actually have refined his approach since then.

Beyond Olkin, the research team appears to have no particular ties to anything nefarious. Nor do they appear to have any particular expertise in food or food systems issues.

One final concern has been raised, the timing of the study’s publication. Californians will be voting on Prop 37 in November. Big Ag (including Big Organic) is firmly opposed to GMO labeling and is shoveling money into the campaign to defeat the proposition. Proponents are fighting hard but have a fraction of the resources.


The study adds nothing substantive to the debate and might have been ignored had it not borne the imprimatur of one of America’s most respected universities. Most major media ignored the study’s flaws and reported it as if it were the last nail in the coffin of organic foods.

That is particularly unfortunate now, with Big Ag in a major push to promote industrial, technology-dependent agriculture as the only way to save the world from hunger. The irony of that is, of course, that highly industrialized agriculture is a major contributor to the climate change and environmental degradation that are going to push a whole lot more people into starvation.

Even one of the study’s lead authors admits the study is narrow. Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, a practicing internist and research instructor in the Division of General Medical Disciplines in the Stanford School of Medicine, told Remapping Debate her group did not look at environmental or health impacts of non-organic farming. Her comment is telling:

It was beyond the scope of our article to review and be able to really answer [those questions]. In these articles in the medical literature you aren’t given unlimited word count.

The Stanford team was conducting a survey, not writing a definitive treatise. Still, they have done harm to a movement that is working hard, with few resources, to counter the influence of industrialized agriculture. They have done a disservice to consumers, and Big Ag didn’t really need their help.



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