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Organic farming plays defense against food poisoning outbreaks

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Organic farming practices can help buffer against pathogen invasions by building microbial biodiversity.

Organic has faced its share of skepticism over the past year with the much-publicized Stanford University study that found little nutritional benefit in choosing organically grown products over their conventional counterparts. In a review of 237 studies of organic produce, meats and dairy foods, the study concluded that just because it’s organic doesn’t mean a product carries less health risk or higher health value.

Locavores and longtime organic supporters also have decried the rise of “Big Organic” the sprawling mega-farms that in many ways mimic huge conventional agricultural operations.  

But, as many others have pointed out, it’s not just the nutritional benefits that make organic the better option. We know it reduces our exposure to pesticides and agriculture that avoids the use of harsh chemicals is better for the ecosystem as a whole.

And according to Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook, organic farming also creates a better buffer against potential food poisoning outbreaks. From spinach to peanut butter to cantaloupe, in recent years we have seen that no food is safe from consumer-sickening pathogens, but Benbrook suggests that organically grown produce may have a better defense when these tiny invaders are introduced into the system.

Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, explained that an organic system has a much higher level of microbial biodiversity than a conventional farm. When pathogens do invade, the millions of existing microbes compete with and even eat up the bad guys.

The liberal use of pesticides in conventional agriculture, on the other hand, creates what Benbrook terms an “ecological vacuum” that creates an environment ripe for pathogens to take hold and flourish.

“Microbial diversity is the farmer’s friend and the consumer’s friend in terms of preventing spikes in pathogenic microorganisms,” he said.

The excess of nitrogen from fertilizers used on many conventional farms provides further fuel for pathogens, so when they do take hold they produce much more dramatic blooms, Benbrook said.

So while the spread of pathogens is inevitable—they hitch a ride on everything from farm workers to birds to irrigation water—organic agriculture is one natural solution to fight back against these outbreak-causing bugs.

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