Friday, September 7, 2012

Investigative Reporting: Needed for Basic Stories Too! Case in Point - That Organic Food Study

Big news in recent days about a study purporting to show that organic food isn't healthier than conventional varieties.

Here's yet another example of how reporters too often report uncritically about science and health issues - and why an investigative approach is so often useful even for reporting regular news, not just in exposés and lengthy features or docs.

The study, in a meta-review, found the following: "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."

In terms of health, "there isn't much difference" between organic and conventional foods, study coauthor Dena Bravata said in a story.

This prompted headlines such as CBS's "Organic foods hardly healthier, study suggests" and CBC's "Organic food's health benefits questioned in U.S. study."

Uh, What about Pesticides?

Interestingly, virtually none of the headlines highlighted the fact that conventional foods had dramatically higher levels of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Few reporters went on to look into the health impacts of consuming pesticides or antibiotic resistance - or if they did, that was buried far down in their stories.

Rather, the reporting highlighted the study's finding that pesticide levels in conventional foods generally didn't exceed government ceilings.

But wouldn't more pesticides and antibiotic resistance make any difference for health - even if they don't violate regulations? Sure, they could, as this Mother Jones piece about the study and the flawed reporting discusses.

In fact, this review of the study by Washington State University's Charles Benbrook says the study failed to include important evidence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture about toxicity of pesticides and health risks from antibiotic resistance.

Not Nutritionally Better? Hmmm...

Finally, there's the question of whether organic food is more nutritious. This 2011 study came to the opposite conclusion: Organic food is more nutritious and in fact extends life expectancy.

In fact, this issue is somewhat of a straw man. Organic food is generally the same variety of produce, fruit or meat as conventional (with the exception of genetically modified food) - but raised using organic methods. It wouldn't be that surprising if its nutritional content isn't so different from conventional food.

Nutritional quality isn't generally why you'd eat organic food. The real reason would be less pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And that's exactly Bravata's study confirmed in organic food.

What was also lost in the coverage is that conventional food varieties (and organically raised versions of the same varieties) have seen a steady erosion in their nutritional content in recent decades. That's thanks to breeding techniques used to enhance the look of produce, even if it tends to reduce vitamin, calcium and iron levels, as this 2009 Mother Jones story noted.

If you want more nutritional content, look for heritage varieties of food - older varieties that still pack the same nutritional punch.

The issue is yet another example of why journalists and editors should bring a more investigative approach to their regular reporting - asking critical questions rather than just taking the easy way out.

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