Organic Matters

What a deceptive and misleading article Henry Miller has written in about organic food!

Even so, in his opening paragraph he acknowledges that non-organic fruits and vegetables have greater pesticide residue.  He then counters, “that more than 99 percent of the time the levels are below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators – limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration…”

Many environmental scientists do not believe that these levels are safe.  While parts per billion sounds like an infinitesimally small number, recall that that is the very same dosage we use for many drugs, which we all agree effect human health.  So we ought not be surprised that part per billion (PPB) of environmental chemicals can impact our health and frequently serve as endocrine disrupters. Indeed, the EPA has identified 73 suspect pesticides with hormone disrupting effects.

While rarely reported on, Dr. Dena Bravata, senior author of the widely publicized September 2012 Annals of Internal Medicine paper that compared the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables. Dr. Bravata also reported that studies comparing pesticide levels in children who consumed organic vs conventional diets found lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets.  In addition she found that organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Far from being a negative study, the Stanford analysis found many significant differences between organic and conventional foods.

I do agree with Dr Miller that we have to fight to keep organic standards high.  Big Food has bought up many organic companies. With ownership comes the right to serve on the board of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and determine what is considered organic.  Consumers need to know that from 2002 to 2012 the list grew from 77 ingredients to over 250.

It is also true that plants produce chemicals that are designed to make us (and animals) avoid eating them.  From an evolutionary biology perspective, this was a wise survival strategy for the plants. Cooking inactivates some of these toxins and eating a wide variety of foods is wise as well. However, to equate these “natural pesticidal” substances in plants that we have eaten for as long as we have been human with newly synthesized chemical pesticides is misleading.

Genetic engineering has not been tested for safety.  This alone, is reason enough to pause.  We are literally doing a large experiment on the American population without their informed consent.  Other countries, who value public health above corporate profit, have chosen to reject GMO for their populations or to enforce labeling laws. Since labeling is not required in the US, at present organic is the best way to avoid GMO foods.

As a strong proponent of the precautionary principle, I am deeply concerned about the misinformation in this article.  I am particularly worried about the impression it may leave with women and men planning a pregnancy, pregnant women, and moms of young children as well those people diagnosed with cancer will also want to be cautious.  We know that these populations are particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental chemicals and deserve protection.