- The European Parliament recently commissioned a report outlining the benefits of organic food and farming techniques over conventionally grown food, usually grown using pesticides on crops
- Conventional farming operations commonly use pesticides on the foods they produce hoping for greater yields, faster, but the report revealed pesticides are toxic to humans and particularly damaging to children’s brains
- Studies show farmworkers and communities in close proximity to pesticide application are at greatest risk during application and harvest, but overspray can get on clothes and be carried home, endangering workers’ families
- Choose organic versions of the “dirty dozen,” the foods with the greatest pesticide load, such as apples, cucumbers, peaches and celery, but there’s also the “clean 15” list of the safest, least contaminated fruits and vegetables
Besides air, water and shelter, the fourth basic human essential is food. For centuries, the biggest challenges were getting enough of it and obtaining the nutrients necessary from it to maintain health.
Today, the world is faced with a food conundrum that may have been unforeseen a century ago. It stems from the fact that crops for human consumption aren’t grown for optimal health as much as they are to be more easily produced. The term “pesticide”encompasses insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and rodenticides.
Recently, experts from several countries were asked to review the possible health advantages of organic food and farming practices when the European Parliament commissioned Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to prepare a report outlining possible benefits.
Researchers used in vitro and animal studies, epidemiological studies and food crop analyses to determine that the most pressing concern regarding conventionally grown food is the use of pesticides, which are still detectable even after being washed. In comparison, organic foods are generally pesticide-free.
Are Pesticide Residues on Produce Safe?
While authorities in both the European Union (EU) and the U.S. are adamant that the pesticides on produce, as well as the amounts used, are perfectly safe, the limits were based on animal studies, and scrutinized one pesticide at a time rather than cumulative amounts of several types. One reason that’s a problem, the report asserted, is because:
“The human brain is so much more complex than the rat brain, and our brain development is much more vulnerable because there are so many processes that have to happen at the right time and in the right sequence — you can’t go back and do them over.”1
The subsequent report also highlighted the dangers of antibiotics usage in farm animals, concluding:
“The prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. The prevention of animal disease and more restrictive use of antibiotics, as practiced in organic production, could minimize this risk, with potentially considerable benefits for public health.”2
Three Studies Confirm: ‘Pesticides Are Harming Children’s Brains’
The upshot of three long-term U.S.-based birth cohort studies was that pesticides are wreaking irreversible havoc on children’s brains.
Urine samples revealed that women’s exposure to pesticides during pregnancy can be linked to lower IQ, neurobehavioral development problems and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in their children.3
Magnetic resonance imaging also showed altered brain structure. In fact, the higher their mothers’ exposure to organophosphates, a common pesticide first developed as nerve gas during World War II, the thinner their children’s grey matter.
While some scientists say evidence on the negative impacts of pesticides on the developing brain is incomplete, the report made one thing clear: Pregnant or breastfeeding women or those planning to become pregnant, “may wish to eat organic foods as a precautionary measure because of the significant and possibly irreversible consequences for children’s health.”4
Conventional Farming May Promote Antibiotic Resistance and Harm Farmworkers
That’s not all the report revealed. There’s the “overly prevalent” use of antibiotics in farm animals to consider, as this practice contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
One reason this is such a threat to public health is because this resistance can spread from animals to humans. On organic farms, antibiotic use is restricted.
Animals are given more space to roam in natural conditions, hence the emphasis on “pasturing” animals to lower infection risks, prevent disease and minimize antibiotic resistance.
Something many people don’t consider is that farmworkers who apply the farm chemicals, as well as those who harvest the crops, are at high risk for pesticide exposure. It seeps into their clothing, and they carry it home to their families.
Populations living in areas where pesticides are frequently used for agriculture are also at risk.
Pregnant farm workers unknowingly expose their unborn babies, and in one study, male pesticide applicators in close proximity to a pesticide spill or related accident are more likely to undergo altered DNA associated with a higher prostate cancer risk.5
Beyond Pesticides6 contends that because organic farming methods don’t rely on toxic pesticides, the incalculable hazard to the health of these workers, their families and communities is eliminated.
What Constitutes ‘Organic?’
According to Organic.org:
“‘Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.”7
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that organic farming emphasizes the use of renewable resources and conserving soil and water in food production. Produce can’t be labeled “organic” until a government-approved certifier ensures farmers are following USDA organic standards.
Companies handling or processing organic food must also be certified before they’re shipped to supermarkets or restaurants.8 As a caveat, it’s important to know that some organic farms sometimes do use natural pesticides to get rid of or at least limit weeds or bugs, but it’s the origin of the product that makes the difference.
Using caution with any material on crops is advisable, because even pesticides given the organic label may be harmful to humans and the environment.
The ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean 15’ List of Best and Worst Produce
If you want to know which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables carry the greatest toxic load in terms of pesticides, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)9provides a list of the worst offenders, called the “Dirty Dozen.” These are among the most important foods to buy organic. Here’s the latest:
|Peaches||Apples||Sweet Bell Peppers||Celery|
Additionally, EWG notes:
“A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from GE [genetically engineered] seedstock. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid GE produce.”10
Fortunately, EWG also lists plant-based foods considered to be the safest bets to purchase conventionally grown, as they generally have the lowest amount of pesticide spray residue. These are known as the “Clean 15”:
|Sweet Peas (frozen)||Eggplant||Cauliflower||Asparagus||Kiwi|
|Honeydew Melon||Grapefruit||Cabbage||Papaya||Sweet corn|
If organic food where you live is simply unattainable, one way to minimize potential ill effects from eating heavily sprayed produce is to peel fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and pineapple, whenever possible.
Unfortunately, this may mean sacrificing some nutrition, since oftentimes the peel contains the most valuable nutrients.
Organic Food and Farming Gaining Appreciation Around the World
Since the early 1990s, people in the U.S. and other parts of the world have begun appreciating the concept of organic farming. In fact, most people are aware on some level that eating conventionally grown food may expose them to a number of harmful synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and hormones.
However, there’s not a lot of data on the true impact a lot of these chemicals, by themselves or in combination, have on human health, especially low exposures over long periods of time. Scientists agree more testing is in order, but toxin detection from mere handling has given organic food production methods more credence.
While most agricultural experts have approached the idea of organic farming with skepticism because they believe conventional methods produce greater yields, research has shown that production from organic farming methods may be comparable when it comes to bottom line yield and profit. Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Center for Health and the Global Environment asserts:
“As more and more studies are demonstrating, organic, and various integrated and mixed farming systems, are capable of producing yields that approach, or even exceed, those of conventionally-managed systems, particularly during times of drought. And they can do so over large scales and with greater energy efficiency.”11
In fact, organic farming is increasing rapidly in many industrialized countries because consumers are becoming more aware of potential dangers associated with conventional methods and realizing there are options; there are foods available that aren’t loaded with poison pesticides.
Some people feel that eating organic is too expensive, but when you look at the long-term cost of choosing foods with residues of potentially harmful pesticides to eat and feed to your family, the sometimes higher price tag is worth it. However, the marketplace is changing, and more stores and restaurants are realizing that consumers are informed and choosing quality over quantity.
Nutritional Aspects of Eating Organic Foods Versus Conventional
A British study12 found that organically grown foods contain “significantly” higher antioxidants than the conventionally grown variety. Jessica Shade, Ph.D., director of science programs for The Organic Center,13 a non-profit research and education organization, reported in Whole Foods Market’s blog, Whole Story,14 that, compared to conventional, organic foods have:
|19 percent more phenolic acids||69 percent more flavanones||28 percent higher levels of stilbenes|
|26 percent higher levels of flavones||50 percent higher levels of flavonols||51 percent higher levels of anthocyanins|
Additionally, organic fruit and vegetable consumption may up your antioxidant intake by 20 percent to 40 percent. Organic strawberries, for instance, have more nutrients and antioxidants than conventionally grown,15 and organic tomatoes contain 50 percent more vitamin C and had a 139 percent higher total phenolic content in comparison.16
Far from being bland, unappealing or otherwise peculiar, organic produce imparts a number of benefits you may never have thought of, according to the Huffington Post:17
- Organic food is fresher, more filling and free of additives that could keep nutrients from being absorbed by your body.
- Organic food tastes better because it’s real. Conventional growing methods often produce tough, mealy and/or tasteless fruits and vegetables, compared to organic.
- Processed or “treated” foods, from apples to chicken to bread, can be cross-bred within an inch of their life, injected with hormones and preservatives, genetically engineered or subject to other processes and ingredients that are harmful to consumers.
- Fast food restaurants are all about “hot and fast,” but the additives most contain can make you feel bloated and give you gas, heartburn or acid reflux, all while leaving you hungrier than before.
- Having undergone no harmful treatments or additives, organic foods are naturally resistant to bacteria and decay.
Hope and Change: How European Support for Organics Could Influence the US
One might hope that the European Parliament’s support for organic foods and farming techniques might inspire the U.S. to make policy changes. A joint effort in organic farming in both Europe and the U.S. may even lead to more sustainability, both economically and environmentally. According to Harvard Chan School’s Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health, who co-authored the European Parliament report:
“There is a lot of exchange of foods between the European Union and the U.S. Clearly, if the EU is going to favor organic products more in the future, that will open up an opportunity for U.S. producers of organic foods. And vice versa: If more products become available from EU farmers that are organic, that could be attractive to U.S. consumers.”18
One way to begin the process might be for lawmakers to support additional research and learn for themselves how organic foods would benefit the U.S. as a whole.