Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How Scientific are scientific studies on Organic Food

 When lots of organizations, people and groups are advocating to go for organic food and certain pro-activist NGOs  too are claiming a share in the propaganda, how do people decide whether to accept the recommendations or not. It is now a war between the organizations for and against organic agriculture and organic food. In the zeal to increase production of food grains, we contaminated our food with insecticides and pesticides and suffered  from lots of gastric ailments, cancer and pollution of our drinking water sources too. Gaining wisdom from the studies pointing out the miserable conditions of health and food in which we have now fallen, most people now wish to shift to organic food thus creating a natural pressure on the farmers to grow crops without the use of insecticides and pesticides. Obviously, this  will be disastrous for companies that manufacture synthetic pesticides and insecticides. It will cause mass unemployment further causing distress among all sort of people involved in operations such marketing, shares, speculation and property. Alarmed at the grave consequences, a number of multinational corporations engaged for long time in manufacture and marketing of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides have slyly and copiously funded studies to prove that the case for organic farming and food is wrong. Since they have stacks of money to spend on advertizing and the media, their PROs have been asked to prepare a strategy to counter arguments that have gone against their economic interests. On the other hand public has a right to know what is good  science and how can we lead a disease free, healthy life. Since food is essential to survival of humans and billions of dollars are spend to raise crops, distribute food articles across the globe via chains of stores and through large unorganized sector in developing and non-developing economies of Africa and South Asia, the war has assumed an acrimonious proportion, nowadays. 

The common man is incapable of differentiating between good and bad science and credible and non-credible outcome or recommendation emanating out of research. It depends on two factors: (i) who is funding the study or research and what is the methodology, and (ii) was there any conflict of interest? In normal course, national governments with Press as guardian of public interest too, there are little chances that anything wrong occurs with scientific studies as most are published in journals having a very strong peer review mechanisms. The peers holds the key to a good or a bad study and in most cases their identity is kept confidential. They are never paid for their work and have a long credible career in science. Therefore, there are enough opportunities before the media and the educated public to know the bad and good in scientific studies. 

It is in this connection a news item appeared in The Times of India of 5th September 2012 caught my attention. After carefully reading the main story and the disclaimer published as blurb along with it, I don't think that one should go by the news item. It may be a deception, we may not know the actual relevance of the study to India, and the context, irrespective of the fact that Stanford is a reputed American Institution there cannot be an apparent reason to distrust or disbelieve what they have found out. The study may be OK in the context of USA, particularly people of European origin and Caucasians, not even people from the eastern European countries in which countries the body constitution and metabolic responses are different from Indians. It was the US and western world scientists, who first advocated large-scale usage of chemical fertilizers in India. Indian scientists never discovered or synthesized chemical fertilizers but were influenced by the advice of Norman Borlaug, the Mexican scientist who introduced the Mexican wheat variety. MS Swaminathan, at the time of Mrs Indira Gandhi, was instrumental in bringing Green Revolution to India to eliminate hunger. The hunger could not be eliminated despite all the massive inputs that cost fabulous sums to India and eroded our traditional agricultural practices. Now MS Swaminathan is an enlightened person and advocates traditional form of agriculture, based largely on organic methods. A transformation, indeed.The readers and viewers of TV programs, particularly those that have seen Amir Khan's Satyamev Jayatay and its episode on Pesticides and organic farming may be puzzled at this study (clip attached as photo). My suggestion is that we don't trust this study and rather our own studies conducted in India and evaluated by ICAR, ICMR or DBT. Unfortunately, there are none but we are not without sound advice that may be inferred from numerous studies done by National Institute of Nutrition and several metabolic studies that compares body responses in cohorts as well as those that consume food items grown organically. It may be double blind study. It is also not trustworthy to believe the comments or quotes taken from so-called Indian experts because the Indian Press tries to attach credibility by adoption of this methodology on foreign studies that were not conducted in India or in which they did not collaborate. Just dismiss this news item published in Times of India despite a disclaimer published along with the story as 'Times View'. The Times knows the risks hence the rider. It is perhaps a new type of journalistic endeavor to remain on the safe side. The method is welcome and serves public interest. The Times of India takes a lead in this new kind of reporting.

No comments:

Post a Comment