Sustainable Food News: Organic Center’s Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs in 2015

This article, initially published Dec. 28 by Sustainable Food News, is republished with permission. Sustainable Food News, based in Portland, Maine, provides daily coverage of developments important to those with interests in the Good Food movement. For more information or to subscribe, please visit Sustainable Food News’ website.

The article reports on the top 10 scientific findings about organic food as ranked by The Organic Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. The list is a roughly even split between developments that determined organic food production has positive health and environmental benefits and developments that showed negative effects from the use of chemical pesticides.

The Organic Center (TOC) has released the 10 most important organic findings of 2015, revealing scientific breakthroughs on the environmental and human health benefits of organic food and farming — from improving soil health and supporting water quality, to reducing our exposure to pesticides and mitigating climate change.

The Organic Center logoIn particular, a large body of the research shows that pesticides that are banned from use in organic can have serious negative impacts on the environment and humans, said nonprofit TOC, based at the Washington, D.C., office of the Organic Trade Association.

Top 10 organic science breakthroughs

1)  Pesticides negatively impact bees. Perhaps the most important topic was the impact of pesticides on pollinator health. Several studies showed the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics”) has various negative impacts on bees. One study found even exposure to very low levels of neonics can adversely affect bees. Another study correlated increased use of neonics with honeybee losses. And, another study found that even when neonics aren’t sprayed directly on fields, they can impact bee health. For more details, see TOC’s Pollinator Health report.

2)  Organic improves soil. Key research studied organic’s benefits to soil health, particularly soil organisms. A long-term study showed organic farming is beneficial for soil organisms, with larger soil animals increasing to over 250 times that found in conventional soils, and microorganisms up 70 percent. In addition, another study showed organic management improves nutrient availability and soil structure. And, another study found microbial communities of “good” soil organisms can suppress “bad” pathogens. Thus, diversity can promote resilience to diseases. One of TOC’s current projects collects soil samples from organic farmers to test for health qualities versus that of conventional soil.

3)  Organic farming supports water quality. Researchers examining nitrogen runoff found organic cropping systems have less nitrogen pollution than conventional systems. Another study looked at water quality, and found organic methods can be used to reduce water pollution in U.S waterways. It showed nitrate loss via water in the conventional cropping systems was twice as high as that from the organic system. Putting these benefits of reduced nitrogen pollution into context, TOC said it is developing a nitrogen footprint calculator for individuals to examine their specific nitrogen contributions based on personal consumption patterns.

4)  Dietary exposure to pesticides can hurt reproductive health. While research has long demonstrated clear dangers of pesticide exposure from living and working in agricultural areas, few studies have explored the health consequences of exposure to low-level pesticide residues in a conventional diet. Researchers at Harvard University published findings showing dietary exposure to pesticides can lower sperm quantity and quality in men. After taking into account confounding factors such as weight and smoking, researchers found that men exposed to the highest levels of pesticide residue through fruit and vegetable consumption had almost 50 percent fewer sperm and more abnormally shaped sperm when compared to men who consumed the least amount.

5)  A closer look at Roundup. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the pesticide Roundup (prohibited for use in organic), has been touted as a pesticide posing few risks to humans. New research suggests it might not be as benign as previously thought. One study suggested that low-level exposure to Roundup over a long period could cause kidney and liver damage in rats. The doses used in the study were low enough to prompt researchers to note that the results of the study potentially have significant health implications for animal and human populations. Similar research results were cited in a recent study published by the World Health Organization calling glyphosate’s risk level as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

6)  Organic farming has higher yields than previously thought. Several recent studies tackled the myth that organic farms have lower yields than conventional.  One study showed that farms under organic soil management systems can produce yields equivalent to conventional systems. It also found organic farming reduced weeds by up to 47 percent and increased total soil nitrogen by up to 7 percent. Another study synthesizing information from over 100 studies and over 1,000 observations, found similar results, showing the yields of organic crops are higher than previously thought.

7)  Eating organic reduces your exposure to pesticides. How to reduce personal exposures to pesticides was explored. One large-scale study involving 4,000 participants from across the U.S. confirmed that choosing organic does, in fact, reduce exposure to pesticides. Another study on children’s exposure to pesticides showed eating an organic diet reduces the exposure to some pesticides in young children, and that an organic diet was associated with lower levels of commonly detected metabolites for all children.

8)  Commonly used pesticides negatively impact children’s health. The health effects of pesticide exposure in children was studied. One study showed an association between early exposure to organophosphate pesticides and respiratory symptoms consistent with childhood asthma. Another study linked pesticide exposure and decreased mental ability in children, including neurocognitive abilities. One study linked exposure to pesticides during child development to ADHD symptoms.

9)  Organic agriculture supports whole-farm biodiversity. New research also showed organic farming promotes a wide diversity of organisms on the farm. One study showed organically farmed lands had more beneficial predatory insects and spiders than conventional farms. Not only did researchers find these beneficial insects controlled on-farm pests, they showed the impact reached beyond the organic farms, improving adjacent forest patches as well. Another study confirmed that the presence of organic farms increases the amount of biodiversity on surrounding conventional farms.

10) Organic farming helps mitigate climate change. Agriculture accounts for 35 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but an important study supports the idea that conversion to organic agriculture may be a climate-change solution. The study showed organic farming methods could mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Practices such as replacing chemical fertilizers with organic manure and using crop residues as forage for cattle were found to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase storage of carbon in the soils.

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