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Organic Foods: Examining The Health Implications - STIRS Student Case Study

Katherine Hunting, PhD, MPH
Department of Environmental & Occupational Health, The George Washington University
Washington, District of Columbia
hunting@gwu.edu

Abstract:  This case study examines the health implications of organic versus conventional food production, with an emphasis on environmental and occupational health considerations.  It unspools from the perspective of a hypothetical college-aged shopper contemplating supermarket produce options.    Evidence is presented from a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2012 which attempted to address the question:  “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?”  Students examine other types of evidence as well, including results from a national biomonitoring program which measures pesticide metabolites in the urine or blood of a representative sample of the U.S. population.   Part I of this case study briefly introduces issues relevant to the health implications of organic versus conventional foods, and then focuses strongly on statistical concepts.  Part II focuses on evidence regarding four major environmental and occupational health issues:  pesticide exposures, meat animal production practices, carbon footprint, and nutrient pollution.  Part III briefly explores other issues such as food additives, genetic engineering, and the cost of organic versus conventional foods.   Part IV returns to the decision of the protagonist in the supermarket aisle.  The case may be taught as a whole, or instructors may choose to emphasize certain parts of the case and particular key questions depending on their learning goals. This is an analysis case which also includes elements of a decision case.  It can be effectively taught combining all-class facilitated discussion and small-group in-class student work.  Suggestions for written assignments or exams are also included.

Use in Courses:  This case study was initially developed for an undergraduate environmental health class consisting mostly of juniors and seniors.  Case material is also relevant to courses in environmental science, sustainability, biology, food issues, technology and society, and statistics or quantitative methods.  The case can be easily adapted to be taught either as a whole, or in parts.  Depending on their learning goals and student backgrounds, instructors may choose to emphasize certain parts of the case and particular key questions.

This case’s focus on the health and environmental implications of industrial food production provides a great opportunity for students to explore, analyze, and integrate issues connecting food, health, environment, and sustainability.  The case could be used in integrative first year seminars or capstone courses focusing on food issues or on sustainability.  It could serve as an excellent semester-long project for students in integrative first year seminars.  Compared to more advanced students, freshmen might need additional preparation and time to work through the case.  The case’s integrative work encompassing topical issues, examination of evidence, and statistical interpretation of data would provide solid foundations for subsequent courses in diverse fields.  Some of the key questions could be used as is or modified (as suggested in the Facilitator’s Guide) for use as assignments in writing-intensive courses.  The case provides opportunities for students to work collaboratively in small groups.  While much of the quantitative evidence presented is U.S.-based, the case also has a strong global perspective, as reducing the carbon footprint of food production is a critical worldwide sustainability issue.

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Professor Hunting developed this case study as an example for the STIRS Program