7 Things You Need to Know About Pesticides in Your Food
By any measure, organic foods are entering the mainstream American diet – and with good reason. Organic foods are grown without the use of toxic synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, artificial hormones, or genetic engineering. They depend on cultivating healthy soil to grow healthy plants to produce healthy animals.
Headlines referencing a scientific review from Stanford University recently trumpeted that organic isn’t worth extra money. That same review also found a five-fold difference in pesticides and a three-fold difference in multi-drug resistant bacteria (plus significantly higher healthy omega-3 fats in organic food). The review didn’t even look at differences related to the use of artificial hormones or genetic engineering – or of artificial colorings, preservatives, and sweeteners in processed foods.
Perhaps you have seen Genetic Roulette, the documentary on the very real dangers of Genetically Modifed Organisms (GMOs)? It’s quite illuminating and if you haven’t watched it yet, you should – the alarmingly serious effects of eating Roundup-ready crops are discussed at length as well as the trend for increasing amounts of pesticides used on GM crops. It’s free to watch until the end of October.
Organic foods have higher levels of nutrients and phytochemicals generally by 5 to 15%, and in some cases 30% or even 100% higher levels than conventional produce.
In the recent Stanford University review, which claimed that organic produce isn’t more nutritious than conventional, only half the studies compared the same varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in similar locations, which is the ideal way to conduct nutrient comparisons.
Organically grown plants have more beneficial compounds than conventional produce because of two key factors: the stronger natural defenses of organic plants, and a dilution effect in conventional plants from using nitrogen.
Organic food is less likely to cause food poisoning. Both organic and conventional foods can be a source of food poisoning out¬breaks. However, in an organic system, there’s a much higher level of microbial biodiversity with more naturally beneficial microbes in the system and soil. The biologically rich community of organisms that naturally occur either out-competes the pathogens or uses them for lunch. Pesticide use in conventional agricul¬ture reduces microbial biodiversity, both in the soil and on the surfaces of the plant, which allow pathogens to flourish; in addition, pathogens feed on nitrogen so it’s a vicious cycle that drives up pathogen levels.
Organic foods are nearly pesticide-free. Although organic foods are grown without using synthetic pesticides, they can pick up traces blown in the air from conventional farms or from water or packing materials in processing plants. The Dietary Risk Index (DRI) shown in the chart below measures pesticide residues found in conventional versus organic produce and shows that people get what they pay for.
Imports present the greatest risk to pesticide exposure in produce. Approximately 80% of the risk of pesticide exposure from food is from imports and only about 20% is from domestically grown food. Today, the highest-risk fresh fruits and vegetables almost across the board are imported. Americans are exposed to these mostly from December through April. This does NOT include pesticide exposure from pesticide-producing proteins present in GMO corn and GMO soy.
The recent Stanford University review found conventional produce is more than five times more likely than organic produce to have any pesticide residue. The study didn’t go a step further and consider that when pesticides are found on conventional produce, the pesticides are often more toxic, present at higher levels, and come as mixtures of different chemicals. The study also didn’t include the large body of literature about the toxic effects of some of these pesticides.
GMO crops have led to dramatic increases in overall uses of herbicides and pesticides. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe shows genetically engineered crops have led to an increase in overall pesticide use by 404 million pounds from the time they were introduced in 1996 through 2011. The crops were initially a hit with farmers who found they could easily kill weed populations without damaging their crops. But in recent years, more than two dozen weed species have become resistant to Roundup’s chief ingredient glyphosate, causing farmers to use increasing amounts both of glyphosate and other weedkilling chemicals to try to control the so-called ”superweeds.”
Today’s children, from infancy up to age 5, in the US have lost more than 16 million IQ points from exposure to organophosphate pesticides, according to another recent analysis. They’re exposed to these pesticides almost entirely through our food supply.
Today, almost all of us carry synthetic pesticides in our blood – pesticides that get there through our food. This is true even in babies at the moment of birth. A study with the Environmental Working Group analyzed umbilical cord blood – and found pesticides in every baby tested. To be more specific, 21 different synthetic pesticides were present in babies’ blood. We still have much to learn about their health effects, but higher levels of exposure have been linked to lower IQ, memory problems, developmental problems, and ADHD.
Choosing organic food can drop a child’s organophosphate pesticide exposure almost overnight. In another study, suburban Seattle children had their urine tested multiple times for evidence of organophosphate pesticides; it was present in all samples, suggesting exposure above what the EPA set as a safe level. Then the children were switched to mostly organic food where the pesticides disappeared. They were virtually undetectable in morning and evening urine samples for five days. Then the children were switched back to their typical suburban diet and the levels found in their urine shot back up.
Choosing organic – and non-GMO – is a choice for decreasing toxic pesticides in our air, water, and farms – as well as on our plates and in our children. Every bite of food is an investment in our bodies or a debt that will be repaid later. Good food – organic food – is a nutritious – and certainly more delicious – investment in the future of your family.
Nutrition Action Letter. October, 2012. Going Organic: What’s the payoff?.