Should you eat organic? Should you choose organic meat, or fruits and vegetables? Are the “clean fifteen” OK to buy “non-organic”?
It’s hard to answer these questions without a point of reference. What are your goals? How did you come to adopt these goals? What are the underlying questions?
We have grown used to inexpensive food (compared to other nations) to the point that our household budgets are dependent on it. However, there are many reasons to make a change, and not only for the most heavily contaminated “dirty dozen” crops.
Here are some of the reasons to prioritize organic food:
1. Organic food is better for your health. We finally have a study that followed 35,000 Danish women through pregnancy. Women who ate mostly organic foods had half the chance that their baby boys would be born with a birth defect called hypospadias. This defect involves the development of male reproductive organs, which are sensitive to the hormone disrupting effect of many pesticides.
2. Organic food is the moral thing to do: we have solid research indicating that children of farmworkers, and children in farm areas, are affected by the pesticides we use on our food. If there were less such food, these impacts would be lessened. Our choices affect others’ lives.
3. Healthier farm children translate into lower health bills for our nation, and improved school scores, and hopefully an improved workforce. ADHD, for example, can lead to increased rates of low school achievement, drug use, truancy, and arrests. We should all care about outcomes for farm children.
4. Pesticides are affecting our environment: actually, few disagree on this point. Do we think that the destruction of our environment will never impact our own health and happiness? Of course it does. We are part of this ecosystem. For example, if bees become extinct, our food supply will be threatened. We should boycott all products raised with the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Now. The world needs bees, we can’t afford to wait for scientists and businessmen to agree.
5. The old saying that “the dose makes the poison” is now believed to be false in many cases. You shouldn’t believe anything you read that relies on this argument. Unfortunately, many chemicals that affect our hormones work more powerfully in small doses than large. How can this be? Simple. These chemicals interact with receptors in our bodies. The receptors adjust to the level of chemical in the environment. If there is a low level, they accept the chemical and become affected by it. If there is a high level, they inactivate and stop becoming affected. Many chemicals were initially tested at high doses because we were looking for cancer-causing potential. Once they were found to be hormone mimics, the rules changed. They must be shown safe all over again, and many simply haven’t been tested.
6. Our regulatory agencies never thought that the effects of chemicals would pile up on top of one another. They somehow thought that if each chemical is at a safe level, then the food is safe to consume. But the truth is that the effects of chemicals add up on top of one another, even if they act on different biochemical pathways. It seems prudent to avoid chemicals where we can, even if their individual levels are deemed safe.
7. I sometimes see journalists make the argument that vegetables already contain toxins, which occur naturally to deter predators, and therefore we don’t need to be worried about small amounts of man-made pesticides. But I don’t understand: if plants, which we must eat to get our vitamins and phytonutrients, already contain toxins, then why add to the toxins they contain by eating vegetables with pesticides?
IS THERE A SAFE AMOUNT?
The basic question is whether there exists an amount of poison that is the minimum amount to cause any effect at all. Is there a threshold below which it doesn’t matter in any way that you swallowed a bit of poison?
As described above, levels of chemicals are additive (and sometimes worse than additive), and thus we really have no idea of the final effect of the mixtures we may be exposed to.
It also depends on the effect you are considering. If you worry about acute poisoning, meaning death within the week, there is definitely an amount that is safe. If you worry about getting leukemia and dying, there is an amount but it’s much lower. For example, mothers who use pesticides in their home up to a year before the birth of a child have children with a measurably higher risk of getting leukemia.
If you are trying to measure subtle changes in personality, or in intelligence, or behavior, then there often is an even lower limit of acceptable toxin. Over time, we have lowered the allowable limits of lead for example, because of being better able to measure the brain damage caused by small amounts of lead. First we used IQ, later we used reading scores.
You may say, what is the importance of this subtle behavior change? I may never notice the difference even with my kids. That may be true, but from the point of view of the country as a whole, if all the kids are a little more hyperactive, then thousands more kids will be actually “diagnosed” with ADHD, and thus many more will be taking medication and requiring follow up. It’s as though there were thousands of children on the cusp of being considered hyperactive, and this extra small amount of pesticide pushed them over the edge and into a “diagnosable” category. The same happens with developmental delay, or autism, or anxiety and depression. Many illnesses are a matter of degree.
There is yet another concern. Some children have slower defenses than other kids when it comes to getting rid of these chemicals. A standard dose accumulates and will lead to symptoms they may never have had if they were a faster “detoxifier”. Doctors don’t test detoxifying capacity or efficiency. There is no way to know except after the fact, when neurological damage has occurred. In one recent case (the case of Heather Poling), the courts ruled that a young girl acquired autistic behaviors due to a vaccine she received, because she had a genetic defect that left her vulnerable to this. We wish we had ways to detect all such children ahead of time, but we don’t. We understand the pathways in only a small number of children. We see that many children with autism actually seem to regress like this girl, but we don’t understand the sequence of neurological events very well at all. So we can’t say what “caused” it, but chemicals known to be neurotoxins at a specific dose, while okay for most, may be very harmful for a few.
There is no doubt that disabilities, specifically learning and behavior disabilities in children, are on the rise. The chance of having a child with autism is about 1 in 50 at this time. Autoimmune diseases, asthma, eczema, and allergies are also on the rise, including severe food allergies. Even for adults, neurological diseases are on the rise, such as Parkinson’s disease, which has a proven link to pesticide use.
HOW DO WE DECIDE
In the face of neurological damage rising nationwide, would you choose to give your kids neurotoxins, in any amount? In the face of increasing immunological abnormalities, would you choose to give them immune system toxins? What if you have one of the children with the genetically slow detoxification pathways?
What is unfair in this country is that so few children have access to clean nutritious food, and that not all children are safe from harmful farm practices. Let’s right this! If all of us who can afford it insist on clean food, we will have more clean farms, and cheaper clean food. This will allow even more people to be able to afford clean, tasty, healthy food. This is how you correct an injustice.
Our main agricultural outputs include corn, soy, and wheat. The first two are controlled by a single corporation that happens to be a pesticide manufacturer, and whose publicly expressed goal is the control of the entire food supply. Massive government subsidies flow to this type of agriculture. In turn, the largest corporations fund our universities and direct the public conversation on the need for artificial inputs in order to grow affordable food.
Careful studies have shown, however, that we don’t need chemical agriculture. In fact, given climate change and yields under unpredictable weather conditions, small-scale organic agriculture is what we need to turn to in the decades to come.
This is the time to transition to organic food as a nation: for our health and that of our kids’, and our neighbors and their kids’; for our environment and for our future as a species on this planet.