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Early findings of Harvard, Northeastern research show organic's benefits

The Organic Center trustees hear updates on health, soil projects

Maggie McNeil
(202) 403-8514
Washington , DC
October 2, 2014
) — 

Members of The Organic Center's Board of Trustees gathered at Harvard University this week for their annual retreat and for scientific briefings on collaborative research on organic's impact on the health of humans and the environment. After hearing the updates, they reported that preliminary findings of the research support the benefits of organic food and farming and show organic's potential to solve a host of real-world concerns.

Meeting with Harvard professor Dr. Chensheng (Alex) Lu who is collaborating with The Organic Center to examine the health effects of pesticide exposure and the benefits of sticking to an organic diet, and Drs. Geoff Davies and Elham Ghabbour at Northeastern University who, with The Organic Center, are studying the impacts of organic management on soil, Board members expressed their commitment to problem-solving for the entire organic value chain, from the farmer to the consumer. 

"We wholeheartedly encourage research filling the gaps in our knowledge about organic, such as that being conducted by these high-caliber researchers on these complex topics," said Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Center. "The preliminary findings of this important research support the benefits of organic food and farming for the health of humans and the environment."

Dr. Lu spoke about his work to study the adverse health effects associated with pesticide exposure in a meta-analysis, and the health benefits of consuming organic foods in a pilot study. 

"Exposure to pesticides can affect human health in ways that we don't fully understand yet," said Dr. Lu. "Eating organic is one way to help reduce risks associated with environmentally induced diseases."

The Organic Center Board also visited Drs. Davies and Ghabbour, who lead the National Soil Project at Northeastern University. Their National Soil Project is collaborating with the Organic Center to examine differences in soil health between organic and conventional soil. Specifically, they are looking at the level of sequestered carbon in soils to investigate potential benefits that organic farming practices might have on soil health. The sequestered carbon content of a soil is a key component of the organic matter of a soil, which helps the soil retain water, acts as buffers, improves soil texture, helps regulate the climate and supports many other healthy soil functions. Massive quantities of synthetic fertilizers used in conventional farming however, destroy organic matter and can jeopardize the long-term health of the soil.

"We have preliminary evidence suggesting that organic soil has more sequestered carbon than conventional soil," said Dr. Ghabbour. "Synthetic fertilizer can strip the soil of organic matter, so organic farming should result in healthier soil." 

Shade added that the preliminary results of the soil study suggest that organic farming may play an important role in mitigating climate change because organic soils contain higher levels of sequestered carbon.

However, Drs. Ghabbour and Davies are seeking more organic soil samples to determine if this is the case. They are offering organic farmers free soil analyses if they send them a few tablespoons of soil. More information for growers who want to submit samples can be found on The Organic Center site. 

The Organic Center, an independent non-profit educational and research organization, has spearheaded and collaborated with several major universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a number of significant research projects this year:

  • Health Effects of Dietary Pesticide Exposure: This project examines the effects of exposure to synthetic chemicals such as pesticides from people's diets. With the generous support of the UNFI Foundation, this research is expected to be completed in February 2015. 
  • Soil Health on Organic Farms: This project compares soil health components between organic and conventional farms. With the generous support of Organic Valley's Farmers Advocating for Organics (FAFO), this research is expected to be completed in January 2016. 
  • Organic Solutions to Citrus Greening: This project is seeking organic solutions to stop this devastating disease from decimating domestic citrus without the use of toxic chemicals or GMOs. With the generous support of Cal Organic, Caito Foods, UNFI Foundation, Organically Grown Company, Ecosa Properties (Jeff Steen), Better Life Organics, Four Seasons Produce, Heath and Lejeune, Inc., RSF Social Finance, Global Organics in Florida, South Tex Organics, LC, Uncle Matt's Organic, Homegrown Organic Farms, Yin Yang Naturals, Natural Grocers, Jamba Juice, and A&E Television, this research is expected to be completed in July 2017. 
  • The Effects of Organic Farming Practices on Nitrogen Pollution: This project investigates the effect organic farming has on decreasing the serious environmental threat of nitrogen pollution. With the generous support of the UNFI Foundation, this research is expected to be completed in February 2015. 
  • Decreasing Arsenic Uptake in Organic Rice Systems: This project looks at the genetic, environmental, and temporal effects on arsenic accumulation in organic rice systems. With the generous support of the UNFI Foundation and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), this research is expected to be d this December. 
  • Organic Fire Blight Prevention Project: This project produced a publication detailing methods for preventing fire blight on organic apple and pear orchards without the use of antibiotics. Funded by The Organic Center, this research was completed in March 2014. 

"The Organic Center is tackling research that not only protects the organic industry, organic businesses, and the future of organic, but can benefit all of agriculture, and we will continue this important work," said Todd Linsky, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Center.

The Organic Center's mission is to convene credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming, and to communicate the findings to the public. As an independent non-profit research and education organization operating under the administrative auspices of the Organic Trade Association, The Center envisions improved health for the environment and for people through the conversion of agriculture to organic methods.