There has been a running, and often misguided, debate about the value of organic farming over the past few months.
It was initiated by a research paper that purported to show that organic foods were not more nutritious than conventionally grown counterparts. That paper has rightly been criticized for poor methodology. There is also inherent difficulty in defining the complex nutritional status of whole foods.
But the biggest problem with the paper, and its use by those who want to discredit organic farming, is the lack of recognition of the importance of pesticide residues on foods, harm from pesticides to farmers and farm workers, and harm to the environment from synthetic-chemical dependent farming.
The land of Oz
Most recently, Dr. Mehmet Oz joined the bandwagon of the misinformed in his Time magazine story dismissing the value of organic food. While acknowledging his advice on the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables, even if one cannot get or afford higher-priced organic, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones criticized Oz for ignoring the most compelling reasons for buying organic foods.
Instead of blithely dismissing those trying to improve agriculture to make it better for nutrition, safety, workers and the environment—by setting up the straw man of an elitist food movement—critics like Oz should be asking why the best foods, from the broader perspective of sustainability and environmental justice, are not more available to all segments of society.
Why, for example, are we spending billions of dollars a year on farm subsidies that go mostly to farmers who grow corn and soybeans and do not need them—including a proposed taxpayer-subsidized insurance scheme that would not substantially reduce handouts.
Why not instead support better access for low-income consumers to better quality foods, develop better insurance policies for the diverse farms that grow those foods, and support more research to improve the efficiency of farming organically or sustainably?
Trust us? – Pesticide cocktails revisited
An important blind spot about the health and environmental consequences of pesticides can be found in a brief statement in the earlier-mentioned paper about the nutritional value of organically grown food. The authors, after acknowledging that conventionally grown foods have higher levels of pesticide residues than organic, dismiss this by writing that EPA has not found those residues to be harmful.
This belies several serious limitations of EPA pesticide regulations.
First, the highest standards for health are reserved for consumption of foods, based on a “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard laid down in the Federal Food Drugs and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA). This standard is what the organic research paper indirectly referred to in dismissing concern about consumption of pesticide residues on food. Allowable pesticide residues are based on the results of numerous tests for toxicity, carcinogenicity, harm to susceptible populations like children, and so on.
But lower safety standards apply to farmers and farm workers, who are exposed through contact with skin and inhalation. Workers are protected by the Federal Fungicide, Insecticide, and Rodenticide Act (FFIRA), essentially providing that no unreasonable harm occurs.
So allowable worker pesticide exposure can be much higher after the workers go back into the fields, often as little as 12 to 24 hours after spraying, than through consumption of food (they are required to wear protective clothing and equipment, which is far from perfect). Worker safety is based largely on avoidance of short-term toxicity—sickness shortly after exposure—not long-term harm. This is despite the fact that several cancers, such as non-Hodgkins lymphoma, have higher incidence for farm workers and farm families. Is it elitist to be concerned about those who grow our foods? What happened to “first, do no harm”?
Second, the EPA standard for allowable environmental harm is also from FFIRA. This is part of the reason why our Midwest has been allowed to become a virtual biological desert. Without this permissive environmental standard for pesticides, it is questionable whether our current industrial monocultures of corn and soybeans (or fruit and vegetable monocultures in California or Florida), which should be replaced with highly productive sustainable alternatives, would be nearly as productive. An illustration of the low environmental standards at EPA is that FFRIRA is fine with the unnecessary decimation of milkweeds by Roundup herbicide used on herbicide-tolerant engineered crops, which is likely harming monarch butterflies. The way we farm conventionally-grown foods is also causing other huge environmental impacts from coastal dead zones to air pollution.
Mix it up
There are also several serious shortcomings in pesticide testing requirements under FFDCA that raise questions about the safety of allowable residues on foods.
EPA barely considers the possible harm from the cumulative impact of combinations of pesticides. Typically, we are exposed to several, not just one, and several are often found in our bodies. In 1996, congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which among other things, requires the evaluation of cumulative pesticide exposure. This was a real step forward, but it only involves pesticides that are known to share the same toxic mode of action. But pesticides with different modes of action may interact with unpredictable impacts. Evaluation of all of the many possibly harmful combinations of pesticides found on our foods is a challenge to our regulatory capabilities.
Second, there is still a lot that we do not know about how pesticides or other chemicals may harm us. The recent paper about the possible contribution of some pesticides to obesity exemplifies this broader point. In the past we have understandably been focused on harms such as acute toxicity, cancer, teratogenicity (harm to the developing fetus), and a few others.
It was only with the passage of the FQPA that regulation of endocrine disruption, for which obesogens are one example, was even mandated by the law. And it has only been in the past several years that EPA has developed assays for possible endocrine disruption. So far, most pesticides have not been re-evaluated for their endocrine-disruption potential. Our emerging understanding—which still has a lot of holes—of possible effects on obesity from pesticides has been even more recent, and I do not believe that EPA requires any specific tests for this effect. One particularly worrisome aspect of endocrine disruptors is that some may cause harm at extremely low levels, often in the parts per billion range.
There is still a lot that we do not know about how pesticides can cause harm. There are numerous other aspects of our physiology and biochemistry that could be affected by pesticides, leading to many other possible harms that we can’t predict and have no current tests to detect. This suggests some reasonable caution concerning our food.
So the case for organic—and sustainable food that requires much less pesticide—is about a lot more than the nutritional differences between organic and conventionally-grown crops. Respected spokepeople like Dr. Oz have an opportunity be leaders in the larger discussion about food and how we produce it. It is a shame that he squandered that opportunity.