Health benefits of organic food, farming outlined in new report


February 8, 2017 – A report prepared for the European Parliament, co-authored by Harvard Chan School’s Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health, outlines the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture.

Why did the European Parliament commission this report and what was its most important takeaway?

The European Parliament is concerned about food safety and human health. They asked a group of experts from several countries to review the possible health advantages of organic food and organic farming. Our report reviews existing scientific evidence regarding the impact of organic food on human health, including in vitro and animal studies, epidemiological studies, and food crop analyses.

The most important information in this report is about pesticides in food. In conventional food, there are pesticide residues that remain in the food even after it’s washed. Organic foods are produced virtually without pesticides.

Authorities in both the European Union and the United States insist that current limits on the amount of pesticides in conventional produce are adequate to ensure that it’s perfectly safe. But those limits are based on animal studies, looking at the effect of one pesticide at a time. The human brain is so much more complex than the rat brain, and our brain development is much more vulnerable because there are so many processes that have to happen at the right time and in the right sequence—you can’t go back and do them over.

Three long-term birth cohort studies in the U.S. suggest that pesticides are harming children’s brains. In these studies, researchers found that women’s exposure to pesticides during pregnancy, measured through urine samples, was associated with negative impacts on their children’s IQ and neurobehavioral development, as well as with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] diagnoses. Also, one of the studies looked at structural brain growth using magnetic resonance imaging and found that the gray matter was thinner in children the higher their mothers’ exposure to organophosphates, which are used widely in pesticides. I think that’s quite scary.

Although the scientific evidence on pesticides’ impact on the developing brain is incomplete, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and women planning to become pregnant, may wish to eat organic foods as a precautionary measure because of the significant and possibly irreversible consequences for children’s health. If there are times when organic food isn’t available, one option is to buy foods that have to be peeled—baking potatoes or pineapples, for example—but stay away from produce like leafy vegetables. A good resource for learning about the pesticide content of various foods is the Environmental Working Group, which maintains lists of produce with the highest pesticide levels as well as those with the lowest levels. There’s also a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website that lists ways to reduce exposure to pesticides in food.

What were other key messages in the report?

We know that the overly prevalent use of antibiotics in farm animals is a contributing factor in the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria—a major public health threat because this resistance can spread from animals to humans. On organic farms, the preventive use of antibiotics is restricted and animals are given more space to roam in natural conditions, which lowers their risk for infections. These techniques have been found to improve animal health, prevent disease, and minimize antibiotic resistance.

There are also other, though minor, advantages of organic food, such as higher contents of some nutrients, and less cadmium, but they are not of sufficient importance to guide food choices.

How might the European Parliament boost support for organic foods and organic farming? If it does, might that prompt similar changes in the U.S.?

Our report listed several policy options the European Parliament could consider to support and extend organic food production. For instance, politicians could decrease or waive taxes on organic food. They could decrease taxation on organic farmers. We also suggest that they support more research to learn more about the benefits of organic food.

If the European Parliament does take action, I hope it could influence practices also in the U.S. There is a lot of exchange of foods between the European Union and the U.S. Clearly, if the EU is going to favor organic products more in the future, that will open up an opportunity for U.S. producers of organic foods. And vice versa: If more products become available from EU farmers that are organic, that could be attractive to U.S. consumers. And perhaps the joint effect of that could be that organic farming, both in Europe and in the U.S., would become more sustainable economically as well as environmentally.

Karen Feldscher

Learn more

Organic food: panacea for health? (The Lancet)

Read a slightly abbreviated version of the organic food report to the EU Parliament published October 27, 2017 in the journal Biomed Central: “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review”

*Editor’s note: This story was updated on February 12, 2017.