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Pediatricians enter the organic debate. Media miss the boat.

Kristin Schafer's picture
Kristin Schafer
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Kids looking for organic produceYesterday the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on organic food. They found that "an organic diet reduces children's exposure to pesticides," and highlighted studies linking pesticides with many of the childhood health harms included in PAN's recent report, A Generation in Jeopardy.

Unfortunately, media coverage of APA's report has been all over the map. And given the power of headlines to shape public debate in ways that directly impact policymakers' appetite for taking on tough issues, this failure on the part of news desks and editors to report the substance of the science accurately is a serious problem.

On one end of the spectrum we have NBC reporting (to a very big, national audience) that the study finds organic food "no better" than conventional. Another headline even said the study found that organic foods are "not as good for children as conventional foods," and ABC tried this one: "Organic Food for Kids: Buy This, Not That." Meanwhile NPR reports, "Docs say choose organic food to reduce kids' exposure to pesticides."

So just what does the actual report say? After taking a close look at AAP's Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages, three main findings are clear:

  1. Organics protect children from pesticide exposure, and that matters.
  2. Children should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and since some have more pesticide residues than others, parents should be selective if the cost of organic is a concern.
  3. The jury is still out on whether organics have more nutritional value.

It's this last finding, that like the recent controversial study out of Stanford on the nutritional value of organic, provided fodder for the "organic is no better" headlines.

Pesticides do indeed harm kids

In exploring the health effects of pesticides on children, the report points to several studies linking both prenatal and chronic exposure with a range of health harms, from adverse birth outcomes to impaired mental development.

They point to an analysis of CDC data showing that at levels commonly found in most children's bodies, those children with slightly higher levels of pesticide breakdown products are more likely to have ADHD — an increased risk of "55% with a 10-fold increase in urinary concentrations" of a common metabolite of organophosphate pesticides.

The AAP report makes crystal clear that an organic diet reduces kids' pesticide exposure, and this  matters.

The AAP study is also crystal clear that an organic diet reduces pesticide exposure, citing the National Research Council finding that "the primary form of exposure to pesticides in children is through dietary intake," along with several studies showing that levels of pesticides measured in children's bodies is directly related to their diet.

In one of the studies they describe, when kids switched to an organic diet for five days, levels of pesticides in their bodies dropped to almost undetectable levels.

Overly cautious recommendations

It makes all the sense in the world that the pediatricians want parents to keep feeding their children fruits and veggies, and that they're concerned that the higher cost of organic could mean less fresh produce on the plate. And it's great that they explicitly advise pediatricians to send concerned parents to resources like PAN's whatsonmyfood.org online tool that shows which pesticides are found on what foods, and with what associated health risks.

This common-sense advice helps people know which foods have high pesticide residues of concern, so they can prioritize when to choose organic. Very helpful.

Yet the authors' final recommendations are much weaker than seems warranted by the case they themselves make. They present compelling science linking increased risk of children's health harms to pesticide exposure, and then make a strong case that kids are mostly exposed to pesticides on the food they eat. But in the end, they back away from explicitly connecting the two bodies of evidence.

Media missed the boat

Overall, I'm struck by three things. First, given the state of the science around pesticide impacts on children's health, it's about time AAP entered this debate. Their voice has been sorely missed. Second, this report is a somewhat odd combination of exceedingly conservative conclusions drawn from strong science, and study design over-reach (asking whether organics are more nutritional, more safe and capable of feeding the world is quite a lot to take on).

And third, the media missed the boat. Most coverage failed to capture the core findings, choosing instead to run with misleading headlines that undermine the report's good contribution to the public discussion of pesticides and children's health. 

Reports like this from historically conservative medical professional associations come out once every 5 to 10 years. If that. The fact that AAP entered the debate on organic food is important, and the opportunity missed here is meaningful. While provocative story titles may have generated a bit of buzz, the public conversation on a vital set of issues has been impoverished as a result. Not worth it. 

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