Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Research Dispels Myth of U.S. Food as Safest and Cheapest
The public is led to believe that the U.S. food supply is the cheapest and safest in the world yet is rarely given a scientific basis for these claims. Recent reports use government data to question the accuracy of these claims, and point to unsafe levels of chemical pesticides in the food we eat and in our bodies. Even more troubling, research shows an increased probability of exposure in those most sensitive to the negative effects of pesticides — the elderly, pregnant women and children.
Dr. Charles Benbrook, an agronomist working with the Organic Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center in Sandpoint, Idaho, has compared systems of food safety and supply in various nations for 25 years, and notes that a purely fact-based international ranking system for the safety of food does not exist. Benbrook argues that testing is not done for all of the factors most likely to affect food safety, including testing for everything from pesticide residue to microbial contamination. Once all the necessary factors are taken into account, several counties — including France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Japan — would score much higher than the U.S. in terms of food safety. These countries have made substantial investments in food safety standards and monitoring and now have systems that are far more comprehensive than those in the U.S.
The issue of pesticide residues on food tops Benbrook’s list of factors contributing to food safety. In a report released in May 2004, Minimizing Pesticide Dietary Exposure Through Consumption of Organic Foods, Benbrook concludes that eating organic produce drastically reduces the likelihood of ingesting pesticide residues and thus increases the safety level of the diet. According to his report, conventional crops are three to four times more likely to contain pesticide residues at levels 3 to 10 times higher than levels found in organic crops. Of even greater concern, however, some of the most contaminated foods are those frequently consumed by children, including apples, pears and celery. This finding is particularly significant because children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of pesticides. The recent PANNA report, Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability concludes that children carry some of the highest levels of pesticides in the U.S. population.
Benbrook’s work also disputes the claim that U.S. food is inexpensive when compared to food costs in other countries. The most commonly used method of comparison examines food prices based on the proportion of average income devoted to food. Using this method, the U.S. would have the cheapest food prices, devoting only 9.7 percent of per capita income to food. Benbrook points out, however, that this does not mean that food is necessarily cheap in the U.S., but simply that it is affordable based on the average U.S. income. When consumers purchase food with an income level lower than the U.S. average — not an unlikely scenario as poverty rates increase – food costs are substantially higher than the analysis would indicate.
In order to get a more realistic international measure of food affordability, Benbrook compares food prices based on the income spent per 1,000 calories in a given day. The U.S. ranks far worse using this method, spending US$ 2.28 per 1,000 calories, compared to US$ 0.39 spent in Sierra Leone. In reality, “Some 90% of humanity spends less per calorie of food than Americans,” said Benbrook. He notes that U.S residents pay for lots of convenience, packaging and services with their food dollars, so it’s perfectly reasonable that they pay more for it.
Sources: The Agribusiness Examiner. April 2, 2004, http://www.organicconsumers.org/foodsafety/foodmyth040504.cfm; Benbrook, C. Minimizing Pesticide Dietary Exposure through Consumption of Organic Foods. The Organic Center for Education and Promotion, May 2004, http://ocep.spiralfx.com/pics/Executive%20Summary200dpi.pdf; Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability. PANNA, May 2004, http://www.panna.org; Press Briefing Census Bureau, Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division. September 26, 2003, http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/income02/prs03asc.html.
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don’t always get coverage by the mainstream media. It’s produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.
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