Stanford University's “Spin” on Organic Food Study Allegedly Tainted by Biotechnology Funding

Scientists tied to tobacco industry propaganda, and funding from Monsanto, turn attention to the topic of safety and nutrition of organic food.
From the Cornucopia Institute
September 12, 2012
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Despite many studies to the contrary, Stanford's organic food study claims that organic foods are no safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/YANTRA


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This article is posted with permission from The Cornucopia Institute.

A recent study by Stanford University researchers made international headlines when it claimed that organic foods are no more safe or nutritious than conventional foods. Organic researchers, farmers and advocacy groups immediately recognized the study as woefully flawed, and alleged underlying political motivations.

“People don’t buy organic food just because they think it contains slightly higher levels of nutrients, they buy organic for many other reasons, primarily to avoid toxic pesticide residues and toxins that have been genetically engineered into the food,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Food and Farm Policy Director at The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organic farm policy organization.

Academics and organic policy experts, including at Cornucopia, immediately recognized that Stanford’s research in fact substantiates dramatic health and safety advantages in consuming organic food, including an 81 percent reduction in exposure to toxic and carcinogenic agrichemicals. Unfortunately, readers would never know it by the headlines, since the results of the study were spun by the Stanford researchers and public relations staff, and accepted without the necessary fact-checking by journalists in a rush to file stories over the Labor Day weekend.

Not surprisingly, the study’s glaring errors, both in understanding the important and complex differences between organic and conventional foods and in the researchers’ flawed choice of research methods, prompted organic advocates to look closely at financial ties between Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, which supports the researchers, and the chemical and agribusiness industry.

“There was just no way that truly independent scientists with the expertise required to adequately answer such an important question would ignore the vast and growing body of scientific literature pointing to serious health risks from eating foods produced with synthetic chemicals,” says Vallaeys.

“So we were not one bit surprised to find that the agribusiness giant Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural business enterprise, and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have deep ties to agricultural chemical and biotechnology corporations like Monsanto, have donated millions to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, where some of the scientists who published this study are affiliates and fellows.”

Stanford researchers had touted their independence by stating they had not received outside financial support for their study, but failed to delineate the close ties between their internal funding sources and industrialized agriculture and biotechnology interests.

Organic advocates also discovered that one of the study’s authors has a well-documented history of accepting research funding from the tobacco industry when a growing body of scientific literature in the 1970s pointed to serious health risks from smoking.

Dr. Ingram Olkin, a Professor Emeritus in statistics at Stanford and co-author of the organics study, accepted money from the tobacco industry’s Council for Tobacco Research, which has been described as using science for “perpetrating fraud on the public.”

“Make no mistake, the Stanford organics study is a fraud,” says Mike Adams of Naturalnews.com and Anthony Gucciardi of Naturalsociety.org, who discovered the link between the organic study author and Big Tobacco. ”To say that conventional foods are safe is like saying that cigarettes are safe. Both can be propagandized with fraudulent science funded by corporate donations to universities, and we’re seeing the same scientist who helped Big Tobacco now helping Big Biotech in their attempt to defraud the public.”

Conspicuous Omissions

Researchers with expertise in organics became suspicious about corporate funding and other industry ties after finding no other explanation for the Stanford study’s glaring omissions and flaws.

For example, multiple studies have drawn attention to the negative impacts of pesticide residues on children’s neurological health and development. Pesticides commonly used in conventional agriculture and often found as residues on conventional foods are known to be toxic not only to the neurological systems of insects but also of mammals, including humans, with developing fetuses, infants and children especially at risk.

“When the Stanford researchers left out any mention of pesticide residue impacts on human health, well-documented in a number of respected peer-reviewed studies, it immediately raised a red flag that Stanford’s analysis was likely designed to favor the agribusiness corporations in their desperate attempts to convince an increasingly educated and skeptical public that pesticides are safe,” says Vallaeys.

As an example, the Stanford researchers omitted a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at the University of Montreal and Harvard, which found that children with higher urinary levels of organophosphate metabolites, breakdown products of commonly used insecticides that are prohibited in organic agriculture, were more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The Stanford study also omitted any acknowledgement of potential cancer risks from exposure to agricultural chemicals on conventional foods. This seems especially reprehensible to the scientists at Cornucopia in light of the 2009 President’s Cancer Panel report, which states: “Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered (i.e., approved) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system (CNS), breast, colon, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma.”

The authors of the President’s Cancer Panel advise Americans to decrease exposure to pesticides by choosing food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Extensive research, including studies cited in Stanford’s study, indicates that organic food is demonstrably lower in agrichemical residues.

“Journalists failed to do due diligence to check the credibility of the Stanford study,” says Mark Kastel, Codirector at The Cornucopia Institute. “Wanting to be ahead of the news curve, reporters rushed out their stories on this study, over a holiday weekend, without seeking the expert advice of scientists who have studied the harmful effects of chemicals used in conventional food products and the documented advantages of an organic diet.”

Cornucopia points to several additional ways in which the Stanford study is seriously flawed and should never have been deemed scientifically rigorous enough to make national headlines. One glaring inadequacy of the Stanford study and subsequent media coverage is the failure to mention the known and unknown health risks of genetically engineered foods, which are prohibited in organics but dominate the conventional food supply.

“Many of the genetically modified crops ubiquitous in our food supply have been engineered to make toxins part of the plant’s DNA, so that every bite of genetically engineered food means a bite of the pesticide that has been inserted into the plant’s DNA, and cannot be washed off,” says Vallaeys. “The credibility of the Stanford study was doomed from the moment that the scientists decided not to even consider such central differences between conventional and organic.”

In 2011, scientists at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada published results of a study showing that toxins that have been genetically engineered into plants are not broken down in the body, as the biotech industry had claimed, but are in fact absorbed into the bloodstream of people who consume genetically engineered foods. Alarmingly, the researchers even found the genetically engineered toxins in the blood of fetuses of pregnant women enrolled in the study.

Published studies have pointed to other health risks from eating genetically engineered food, including damage to the liver, kidney, heart, adrenal glands and spleen.

The Stanford study also ignored an growing body of research, including some conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), that shows that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, often used in conventional agriculture, can do severe harm at low doses.

“It is therefore disingenuous of the Stanford researchers to suggest that conventional foods are as safe as organic foods because pesticide residues on conventional foods generally, but not always, fall within EPA’s limits,” said the Cornucopia’s Vallaeys.

According to the NIEHS, “an independent panel of experts convened by NIEHS and NTP found that there was “credible evidence” that some hormone-like chemicals can affect test animals’ bodily functions at very low levels — well below the “no effect” levels determined by traditional [EPA] testing.”

Moreover, as with pesticide’s effects on cancer rates, the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals are generally long-term, sometimes even multi-generational. “New research funded by NIEHS also found that endocrine disruptors may affect not just the offspring of mothers exposed during pregnancy, but future offspring as well,” according to the NIEHS.

“Given the complexity of the topic, no responsible scientist would allow their university’s communications department to characterize this type of research as proof that organic is no safer than conventional,” says Vallaeys. “The deep financial ties to agribusiness corporations whose profits depend on the public’s acceptance of agricultural chemicals and genetically engineered crops, and one of the author’s expertise in twisting science for the benefit of the tobacco industry, seem to explain the shortfalls of this study.”

Stanford University has deep ties to chemical agribusiness and agricultural biotechnology corporations. Agribusiness giant Cargill boasts it has a twenty-five year partnership with Stanford University, and faculty, including at the School of Medicine, have served on the Board of Directors of Monsanto while holding influential leadership positions at the university.

More on Stanford University

Stanford University is also the home of the Hoover Institution, a prominent ultraconservative, corporate-funded think tank that has attacked the credibility of organic farming and food production in the past.

George H. Poste, a member of Monsanto’s Board of Directors is listed on the biotechnology giant’s website as also being a Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The Cornucopia Institute monitors its activities, and those of other right-wing public affairs and lobby groups such as the Hudson Institute and the Heartland Institute, as part of what the farm policy interest group calls “the corporate attack on organics.” 


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