Health Risks and Environmental Issues
Organic Food versus Conventional
by Rose Marie Williams, MA
The organic movement of the 1960s promoted three basic concepts: growing food pesticide-free in harmony with nature; humane
treatment of animals; and local distribution of food through co-ops, farmer's markets, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture which distributes farm raised vegetables, fruits, herbs, and sometimes meat and dairy products directly to pre-paid members).1
Of primary importance was raising food to nurture people and the environment. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers would be replaced by cover crops and crop rotation to rebuild the soil and restore the mineral content. Crowded factory farmed animals raised with a steady diet of antibiotics to counter rampant disease, and the massive pollution of soil and water from animal waste, would be replaced by farms raising fewer free-range, grass-fed animals, whose manageable waste would serve as manure for plant crops.1
Local distribution would save huge costs for transporting and warehousing farm products, and deliver fresher healthier food to the consumer. Food diversification could be better accomplished by local distribution, whereas, mass distribution relies on durable varieties with the best shelf life.
Increasing numbers of health-conscious Americans seeking pesticide-free products made organics the fastest growing segment of the food business. The large food corporations wanted their share of the growing market. They were not interested in raising healthy food, only in raising healthy profits. With vast sums of money, lobbyists, and influence, they persuaded Congress that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should take over the organic labeling process.
The food industry wrote up guidelines for a new organic labeling bill that would allow synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetically engineered crops, irradiation, factory-farmed animals, antibiotic use, and everything they were already doing. The USDA's then secretary, Dan Glickman, was bombarded with emails, faxes, letters and phone calls protesting this outrageous assault on organic standards. Meetings were held, compromises were made, and eventually an organic standards bill was passed in 2002 that more closely resembled the original intent of the organics movement.2
Costs versus Benefits
The prevailing belief is that organic food is much more expensive than conventionally grown food. When comparing item for item most organic products may cost a little more. But there are many overlooked facets to food production and consumption that should be considered when evaluating the final costs to the US economy.
Organic food is healthier for the consumer, for the environment, and for wildlife. With skyrocketing health costs in this country, we should be happy to pay the farmer a little more up front and save on medical costs later on.
Organic foods are more nutritious and health supporting. Flavonoids are naturally occurring antioxidants found in plant foods. People who eat organically grown foods are found to have higher levels of these beneficial plant chemicals, according to a Danish study which involved one group eating a strictly organic diet while an equal number of participants consumed an identical diet of conventionally grown food. Concentrations of quercetin, the most common flavonoid, were significantly higher in the group eating organic foods.3
Even organic catsup appears to have more antioxidants, those wonderful compounds that protect us from cancer and heart disease. Researchers from the USDA looked at 13 different catsups, and found the organic products to consistently have higher levels of, and activities of antioxidants. The red pigment, lycopene (promoted for its usefulness in prostate disease), is the major antioxidant in tomatoes.4
Organic food has little to no pesticide residue, which is another major benefit. Organic growers utilize more disease resistant varieties, physical barriers (row covers), and other methods to protect against pest destruction. Or, they may employ biological deterrents (naturally occurring predatory insects and microorganisms that prey on specific pests but do not harm other forms of wildlife). Plant derived botanical substances break down rapidly in sunlight and air, leaving no residue.5
Organic farms contribute to cleaner air and water, and enrich the mineral content of the soil, while supporting a diversity of plants, animals and microscopic organisms that are part of the larger picture of sustainability. Studies show a greater diversity of plants, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, butterflies, spiders, beetles, insects, mammals and birds on organic farmland. In the United Kingdom and the European Union, organic farmers are rewarded with monetary subsidies for their careful stewardship of farmland and beneficial contributions to a healthy environment.4
Feds Subsidize Obesity
Associated Press Writer, Libby Quaid, takes the US government to task for giving half of all federal agricultural subsidies to grain farmers. whose crops feed animals for meat, milk, and eggs, which become cheap ingredients in processed food. Obesity has become such a serious health issue in this .country that two-thirds of Americans are currently overweight or obese, while at the same time being undernourished. Our tax dollars, in the form of government subsidies, encourage an abundant supply of corn, wheat, rice and soybeans that is turned into animal feed, overly processed junk foods, and high fructose corn syrup. Worse yet, is that processed foods are becoming progressively cheaper while the cost for fruits and vegetables is rising.6
Not only are we subsidizing obesity with government doles to produce cheap corn, wheat, and dairy products, but we are also contributing to a growing problem of food allergies among Americans, since corn, wheat, and dairy are among the most common food allergens. Unwittingly, our hard-earned tax dollars are even supporting the pesticide industry. Atrazine is a toxic herbicide used extensively on US crops, particularly corn and wheat production. Atrazine has been banned in six European countries. When we subsidize grain crops we are indirectly subsidizing the use of toxic pesticides, which eventually wind up in our bodies.
US farm subsidies set a record high in 2005. By forecasting lower prices for corn, soybeans and cotton, the federal government succeeded in raising farm subsidies. In August, 2005 the USDA predicted the government's payments to big-time farms would climb 61 % to $21.4 billion(!) from $13.3 billion in 2004.7
American taxpayers also subsidize the oil industry, which serves an integral part in transporting food around the country. Our tax dollars are used for road construction and maintenance. Locally grown and distributed farm products cut back on fuel consumption, wasted energy for warehousing, and environmental pollution.
We must also consider the expense of environmental degradation, mineral-depleted soils, erosion, polluted water and polluted air. Cleanup costs are generally externalized to the taxpayer, while the polluters concentrate on making their political donations.
Pesticides in Humans
Damage to wildlife from pesticides has been known for several decades, but we are only now getting a better picture of the body burden of pesticides in humans. A 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked for 116 synthetic chemicals including 34 pesticides, in blood and urine samples of 9,282 people. Results found that body burdens of two toxic organo-phosphate pesticides, chlorpyrifos (Dursban) and methyl parathion, each exceeded the permitted thresholds set by government health and environmental agencies. Chlorpyrifos was found to exceed the limits in all age groups by three to 4.6 times what is considered to be "acceptable" exposure,"
CDC data show that children carry the highest body burdens of breakdown products (metabolites) of the insecticide, chlorpyrifos, twice as much as adults. The organophosphate-family of pesticides damage the nervous system.8
The CDC found pesticides and metabolites in at least half of the study subjects. The average person had 13 pesticides in his or her body. TCP, a metabolite of chlorpyrifos was found in nearly all the test subjects, and p,p-DDE, a breakdown product of DDT was found in 99% of those tested. These tests only included a small fraction of the myriad synthetic chemicals we are exposed to. Our body burdens are actually much higher than what CDC researched,"
A 2002 study from the University of Washington School of Public Health found 8.5 times higher than average levels of organophosphate insecticide metabolites in the urine of children aged 2-5 eating conventionally raised food, than in children consuming a nearly exclusive organic diet. Many of these chemicals can cause cancer, weaken our immunity, disrupt endocrine systems, decrease fertility, cause birth defects, and hormone damage that shows up years later in children exposed in utero.8,9
Agricultural pesticides pose an even greater health risk to the million or more children of farm workers who live on farms, and to the 300,000 plus children of farm owners. These children are exposed to pesticide hazards in their food, water, air, playing areas, even from their parent's work clothes.10
A coalition of farm workers, environmental and public health groups have criticized the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to protect this vulnerable population, and on June 7, 2005, filed a lawsuit against the EPA. Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, which represents tens of thousands of farm workers whose families can be exposed to toxic pesticides stated, "It's common sense to protect our kids, but EPA is ignoring them. "10
To find out what pesticide residues are found in the USDA's sampling of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables one can check the web site, http://www.foodnews.org, and look at the specific vegetable or fruit of interest. Eating conventionally grown food is not our only source of pesticide exposure, but it is one source over which we have some control by the way we choose to spend our dollar. Avoiding the use of toxic pesticides and cleaners in our homes and yards is another way to reduce our body burden of toxic residues.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Since the food conglomerates entered the organic 'food business, the process has changed significantly to include large-scale farms that often practice monoculture (raising only one crop) and long-distance hauling and warehousing of organic produce. They care nothing about organic standards and will continue lobbying to change the organic standards to suit their needs.
The food giants waited a mere two years before initiating another assault on the organic labeling standards, trying once again to have Congress accept use of synthetic chemicals, genetic-engineering, and antibiotics for crops and meat destined to carry the USDA Certified Organic label. Public protest has temporarily stalled their efforts. On September 21, the US Senate voted to protect the integrity of the USDA organic requirements for at least another 90 days.11
The food processing industry is intent on weakening the organic standards by requesting that organic items be allowed to contain synthetic ingredients. Public interest and environmental groups fear the major food processors in the organic food industry are pushing Congress to "quietly" change the law to suit their interests. 11
The public is urged to keep up the pressure on Congress to uphold the strictest standards for all food products using the USDA Certified Organic label. Health minded consumers can call the Senate Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and the House Switchboard at 202-225-3121, and ask your representative to "Please make sure the Joint House - Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee does not weaken the organic law. "11
Resources More information on this topic is available from the following web sites:
• www.newfarm.org, provides the latest details on the domestic and international organic movement and updated database of organic prices versus conventional products,
• www.ifoam.org (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement),
• www.ams.usda.gov/nopINOP/l'rade.html, USDA's legislation regarding importation of organic products,
• http://ificinfo.health.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, International Food Info. Council offers a variety of food safety and nutrition information and resources to educators, the media, and consumers.
Organic Sources of Foods While not endorsing any company, the following list is made available for readers who may not have local access to organic foods.
• Natural Lifestyles - (800-752-2755) is Dr. Sherry Rogers' personal choice for organic whole foods. 11
• Shop Natural (www.shopnatural.com) offers 5,000 natural and organic groceries, health I beauty items, supplements and more.
• PEACE COFFEE (888-324-7872, peacecoffee.com) sells shade grown, organic, 100% Fair Trade coffee.
• Mountain Rose Herbs (www.mountainroseherbs.com. 800-8.,9-3337), sells organic herbs and teas in bulk, plus 4,000 other natural and organic products.
• Strand Tea Company (www.strandtea.com, 888-7186358), offers 100 fresh organic and regular teas.
• Naturalmedica, (www.drmarcuslaux.com. 800-7772002), organic teas and chocolate.
• NaturalZing (410-379-6174, www.naturalZing.com). provides raw, vegan food, and related health products to make vegetarian eating easy.
• The Grain &I Salt Society (www.celtic-seasalt.com. 800867-7258), natural sea salt, organic nut butters, dried fruits and nuts, jams, snacks, and more.
• Pet Guard Organics (www.petguard.com), for dog and cat food products.
• GranpaPos (www.Grandpf'os.com, 323-260-7457), sells Nutra Nuts, a crunchy organic popcorn snack with soybeans - gluten, dairy and GMO free.
• The Organic Wine Works (www.organicwineworks.com. 800-699-9463), Certified organic, grown and processed wine.
1. Pollan, M, "Back to Heart of Organica," Orion July/Aug 2003. www.oriononline.org
2. William., RM. "Food Label. - What Do the Numbers Mean?" TL/DP, #289, Dee 2005.
3. Cox. C, "Genetic Engineering Equal More Pesticide Use," Jrnl. of Pesticide Reform, Vol. 23, NO.4. Winter 2003.
4. Miller. J, "Organic Catsup: Redder, Better and More Nutritious," Jrnl. of Pesticide Reform,. Vol. 25. No.1. Spring 2005.
5. "Pesticide and You," NOFA. NY. (Northeast Org. Farming Assn. of NY. 2005.
8. Quaid. L. "Feds. Subsidizing Obesity, not fruits and vegetables" LA Times, Aug. 10, 2005. (www.organiconsumer.org/ofgu/obeoity081105.efm, Oct. 19.2005).
7. "US Farm Subsidies to Set Record High; www.chineview.cn. Oct. 10. 2005.
8. Schafer, K, "Chemical Trespass- Pesticides in Our Bodies & Corporate Accountability," Global Pesticide Campaigner, Vol. 14. No.2. Aug 2004.
9. Cone, M. "Study: Organics reduce exposure, ".LA Times, Sept. 3, 2005.
10. "EPA Sued For Failing to Protect Farm Children," Pesticides and You, Vol. 25, No.2, Summer 2006.
11. "Senate Votes to Protect Integrty of Org. Standards ••. "Tech Report, Beyond Pesticides Vol.. 20. No. 10. Oct 2006.
12. Rogers, S, MD, 'Total Wellness (800-846-6687), Sept 2004.