2016 Organic research shows health and environmental benefits

The year 2016 yielded an impressive number of research projects of interest to the organic community, with studies coming out highlighting the environmental and health benefits of organic. 

Health Benefits

In the health category, pesticides were a major scientific focus. Pesticides are unfortunately commonly prevalent in our food, and new studies in 2016 continued to highlight the frequency of residues from conventionally produced products from around the world. Two studies out of China and Korea showed that up to a quarter of all leafy greens exceed the maximum allowable residue limit for pesticides, while another study specifically looking at persimmons found that over 35% of conventional persimmons have high levels of pesticides.

Actively evaluating the presence of synthetic chemicals in our food system, The Center in 2016 launched a project examining the presence of synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics in store-bought organic and conventional milk. Results are scheduled to be published in 2017.

The concern about pesticides is not without reason, as dozens of studies released in 2016 examined health implications of pesticide exposure. Research on the impact of pesticides on children’s health was especially prevalent. Studies found that pre-natal and childhood exposure to pesticides may be linked to the development of obesity and metabolic disorders, developmental problems, neurodevelopmental impairment and decreased IQ.

Research also showed that it is important to think organic when it comes to body care, in addition to food.  A research team from the University of California at Berkeley showed that cosmetics can play a big role in toxic chemical exposure. Researchers found that even a short break from using makeup, shampoos and lotions that contain certain kinds of synthetic chemicals can reduce levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals in teens. 

Research on the agricultural use of antibiotics was also a hot topic because of rising concern over antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Organic Center released a report that reviews all the primary literature on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, showing that you can reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria through choosing organic. As organic doesn’t allow the use of antibiotics in its production, there is less prevalence of resistance with organic animal products.

Finally, research in 2016 focused on the nutritional benefits of organic, with two studies examining the benefits of organic dairy and organic meat. One study showed that organic milk has 56% more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, while the other found that organic meat has 47% higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional meat.

Environmental Benefits

There are also several studies that have come out in the past year showing the environmental benefits of organic farming. The sustainability benefits of organic are so well established that The Organic Center focused its Organic Confluences Summit on the intersection of environmental research and policy. To learn more about the conference findings, visit the conference recap available on The Center’s website.

A few specific environmental topics were especially prevalent in 2016.  Nitrogen pollution, for example, was an area of focus. Nitrogen contributes to many environmental problems, such as dead zones in the ocean. In 2016, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the size of the state of Connecticut. Choosing organic is one way you can decrease the amount of new reactive nitrogen that gets released into the environment. During the year, The Organic Center released an interactive tool allowing people to measure their own nitrogen footprint and explore ways to decrease their impact.

Another environmental tool released by The Organic Center allows farmers to measure and improve their on-farm biodiversity. Several recent studies have shown the benefits that organic farming can provide to the ecosystem, including one that found that organic production supports aquatic biodiversity in organic rice cultivation, and another showing that organic production improves biodiversity in the soil.

The multitude of research studies published in 2016 gives future research a lot to build upon.  To keep track of the most recent scientific discoveries in organic, make sure to sign up for The Organic Center’s newsletter.   //

Dr. Jessica Shade is Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center (www.organic-center.org).