Recently, some online musings have been bouncing around Twitter and Facebook claiming that there isn’t much, if any, difference between organic and conventional foods.
One article by Melinda Wenner Moyer titled “Organic Shmorganic,” published Jan. 28 on Slate.com, made several interesting points – including a couple that Environmental Working Group agrees with and a number we don’t.
Of course children should always eat fruits and vegetables – organic or conventional – instead of heavily processed snacks and candy. We all should. And most folks with a grain of common sense probably agree with that recommendation, even if they don’t follow it themselves.
EWG’s top-shelf advice on the subject, as the Slate author mentions, is: “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”
It’s also true that both organic and conventional agriculture rely on crop protection technologies to stave off damage from invasive weeds, insects and fungus. In her piece, Moyer highlights rotenone, a pesticide once allowed for use in organic farming that was later shown to pose a risk to human health. However, what she fails to point out is that organic farmers quickly abandoned it as soon as the science showed a potential risk. Rotenone is no longer registered for use on U.S. organic fields as a result – a glaring omission in the Slate piece.
That is not the approach conventional agribusiness takes when the sheen of safety begins to whither from many of the chemicals it uses on fruits and veggies. In virtually every instance, their strategy is to try immediately to discredit any science that challenges their practices and, when necessary, hire public relations experts, lobbyists and lawyers to fight any effort to restrict or ban a crop chemical in conventional agriculture’s toolbox. Of the roughly 1 billion pounds of synthetic pesticides used annually in the U.S., including on lawns, golf courses and in homes, about 80 percent get applied to conventionally grown crops.
Ms. Moyer took a very narrow view when comparing organic and conventional farming, focusing only on consumption of produce and leaving readers with no background on the effects that chemical agriculture has on other vital resources that every American relies on – such as drinking water, air and soil – not to mention the well-documented harm that pesticide exposure does to farm workers and their families who work and live near conventional farms.
There are any number of significant differences between organic and conventional foods and how each is produced. I’ll attempt to unpack some of them here.
So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Pesticides in food and children’s health
I asked several of the world’s foremost experts on children’s environmental health for their take on pesticides in kids’ diets. Moyer apparently didn’t, instead relying on pesticide and chemical industry advisors like Carl Winter of the University of California at Davis, who has his own distinctive disdain for anyone who questions the safety of pesticide residues on food.
I asked Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean of Global Health and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, why parents should feed their children organic fruits and vegetables and conventionally-grown produce that has lower pesticide residues? He told me:
Strong and well-conducted studies published in leading peer-reviewed journals have shown that families who consume an organic diet have 90 percent lower levels of pesticides in their bodies than families who consistently consume ‘conventional’ pesticide-treated foods.
Dr. Landrigan has been studying the risks to children of pesticide and chemical exposures since the early ’70s. His work was largely responsible for the removal of lead from paint and gasoline. And he was the principal author of the pivotal 1993 National Academy of Sciences study, “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children,” that led Congress to pass the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act that set safety standards for pesticides on foods.
I also reached out to Dr. Andrew Weil, the world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine. Asked if he agreed with Moyer’s conclusion that pesticide residues have no potential effects on children’s health he said he did not.
No, I don’t agree. Data comparing children who eat conventional vs. organically grown produce show a big difference in urinary excretion of environmental toxins between the groups. The principle point of the (Slate) article seems to be that pesticide levels on produce featured on the EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list are typically far below the EPA’s recommended exposure limits, so the hazard is negligible. I find that reasoning flawed, as I see no reason to regard the EPA’s exposure limits as the final word on pesticide safety.
Here’s more from Dr. Weil on why people should avoid synthetic pesticides in food.
Then there’s Dr. Chensheng “Alex” Lu, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. In 2005, he and several colleagues measured two highly toxic organophosphate pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, in the urine of 23 elementary school children between the ages of 3 and 11 who were consuming a diet of conventional produce. When Dr. Lu’s team had the children switch to a diet of only organic produce, their levels of both pesticides plunged to near-undetectable levels. As he told EWG in a video interview:
We know that the majority of the exposures to pesticides are coming from your diet, assuming you don’t use a lot of pesticides in your yard. And, we do know that if you’re not paying attention to residues, that’s your major exposure pathway.
Conventional agriculture, its spokespeople and the scientists the industry employs all claim that children’s dietary exposure to synthetic pesticides is so low that it’s not something parents should worry about, but others who have spent their lives working to protect the health of families and children – like Landrigan, Lu and Weil – strongly disagree. Again, here’s Dr. Weil:
Accumulation of those compounds in tissues can, I believe, lead to higher risks of neurodegenerative diseases and cancers in later life. Children who consume pesticides not only have longer lifetime exposure, but that exposure also covers the period in life when the brain and nervous system are developing and particularly sensitive to toxic insult. I think everyone should take prudent measures to avoid pesticide exposure, but children are particularly vulnerable.
In 2012, the respected American Academy of Pediatrics – hardly a hotbed of environmental activists, took the unprecedented step of issuing an exhaustive report on the unique risks that conventional pesticides pose. After reviewing all the routes of exposure, including food, the Academy issued a warning to parents and policymakers to reduce both exposure to and use of toxic agricultural pesticides.
“For many children, diet may be the most influential source of pesticides,” the AAP report said.
In a section titled “Efforts to Reduce Pesticide Exposure,” the AAP report added that “dietary modifications can help reduce pesticide exposure... consuming organic produce has shown a reduced amount of urinary pesticide levels in comparison with a conventional diet.”
In its advice to pediatricians, the AAP recommends that they urge parents to turn “toward reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables.” It cites EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce as one of two sources for parents.
Why are the American Academy of Pediatrics and other noted experts concerned about children’s dietary exposure to synthetic pesticides?
Children often consume much larger quantities of fruits, vegetables and juice than adults relative to their body weight. Also, children’s immune and detoxifying systems, not to mention their neurological development, are far from fully formed. The risk posed by pesticide exposure is even greater for the developing fetus still in the womb.
“Children, especially babies in the womb, are much more vulnerable to pesticides than adults,” said Dr. Landrigan. “The hazards of pesticide exposure in early childhood include learning disabilities, shortened attention span, loss of IQ and possibly cancer.”
Highlighting that risk, EWG in 2004 had two independent laboratories test 10 umbilical cord blood samples for hundreds of toxic pollutants and found 287 contaminants, including pesticides.
While the food the mothers ate were likely not the only source of those contaminants, it was probably one of them.
In 2011, three separate studies found that babies exposed to organophosphate pesticides in the womb had lower I.Q. scores than their peers when they started school. The exposure routes in these studies were not specific to food, but the pesticides in question are widely used on conventional produce.
“Babies exposed to the highest levels had the most severe effects. It means these children are going to have problems as they go through life,” said Landrigan in a New York Times report on the study findings.
Organic versus Conventional Pesticides:
At least 50 pesticides that were once approved for use in conventional agriculture have since been banned or phased out due to risks to health and the environment. Others continue to be used even though there is growing evidence that they, too, pose troubling health and environmental hazards.
So what about the “natural” and “synthetic” pesticides approved used in organic agriculture that Moyer seems to imply are just as hazardous? Haven’t many of them also been tossed into the ashbin because of risks to people and the environment?
The answer is no. Exactly one pesticide approved for organic use has ever been banned or phased out – the aforementioned rotenone.
“Highlighting rotenone, as the Slate article does, as an example of a toxic pesticide used in organic farming in the U.S. is a non-starter,” said Professor Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., an expert on organic agriculture and the head of the Farm and Food Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health program within the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. “Not only do no U.S. organic farmers use the substance, it’s no longer registered for use by the EPA.”
Moreover, in terms of the risk to children’s health, there’s a significant difference between the naturally derived pesticides used in organic farming and the synthetic ones employed by conventional farmers.
“Organic farmers use far fewer pesticides, and the pesticides that they use are for the most part safer than conventional pesticides,” Dr. Landrigan told me.
“There is roughly a hundred-fold difference between the toxicity of insecticides and fungicides applied on organic food versus conventional, plus there is between 50-to-100 times more of both applied on conventional crops,” said Professor Benbrook. “Furthermore, there are essentially no herbicides used in organic agriculture.”
Organic farmers turn to the few approved pesticides as a last resort when battling weeds and insects, unlike conventional operations that lay down multiple applications throughout the entire growing process.
Benbrook and his team built a terrific database that compares the pesticide residues detected on both the conventional and organic versions of a number of fruits and vegetables. For example, based on federal government residue tests from 2010, 47 different pesticides were detected on the samples of conventional apples, but only six on samples of organic apples. There are equally significant differences between conventional and organic versions of every other produce item in the database, including celery, peaches and strawberries.
That’s another glaring difference between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables that Moyer failed to mention in her Slate piece.
Pesticides in Drinking Water
Moyer also managed not to mention that conventional agriculture is the main source of drinking water contamination.
The omnipresence of pesticides in drinking water is due to runoff from farm fields into rivers, streams and lakes and aerial application by crop dusters, which can drift onto nearby bodies of water. We’re not only eating synthetic pesticides with much of our food, in many areas of the country we’re also drinking them. And keep in mind that young children, much as with food, drink far more tap water relative to their weight than adults do.
EWG’s most recent analysis of municipal water quality tests from around the country estimated that more than 215 million Americans were exposed to agriculture chemicals from drinking water, including several highly toxic organophosphate pesticides and the notorious atrazine, used in corn, soy and sugar beat fields. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Maternal exposure to atrazine in drinking water has been associated with low fetal weight and heart, urinary, and limb defects in humans.”
EWG found that the tap water of more than 27.2 million people in 33 states had various levels of atrazine, and the water used by 17 million Americans had levels above established health guidelines – again, courtesy of conventional agriculture.
Moyer featured EWG’s “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” in her Slate piece, including critiques of it by pesticide industry consultants, but she didn’t bother to ask us for our take on the issue, or to speak to any scientists who do have serious concerns about the risks pesticides can pose to children.
In light of her omissions, mistakes and general lack of curiosity, Melinda Wenner Moyer’s article has to be seen for what it is – a cautionary example of a writer who dove headlong into an important and complicated subject without much effort to gather all the facts.
And that’s not just my opinion. Others have responded to Moyer’s piece, including:
WBEZ’s Monica Eng: Are you dumb for buying organic fruits and vegetables?
Civil Eats’ Kristin Wartman: “Safe Shmafe: How Slate’s Latest Article on Pesticides Got it (Really) Wrong”
Prevention Magazine contributor Robyn O’Brien: “Organic Food vs. Conventional: What the Slate Article Missed”