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Emily Marquez

Conventional vs. organic? Missing the mark (again)

Earlier this week, the industrial agriculture-backed Alliance for Food and Farming launched a new effort to challenge organic farming. And a few days ago, an article was posted on Slate underscoring many of the same points — challenging the benefits of organic food and farming, and downplaying the harms of pesticides to children.

We wholeheartedly agree with the Slate article author that eating fruits and veggies is important to children’s health. But as I noted in a media statement yesterday, the fruits and vegetables children eat should provide nutrition to their bodies without exposing them to health harms that can last a lifetime. 

All parents should have access to safe and healthy food for their kids — and we’re not there yet. For now, it’s important that parents have the information they need to make informed choices. By choosing organic when possible, parents can both protect their families and help build a safer food system by supporting farmers who are moving away from reliance on harmful chemicals.

Protecting children’s health

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on pesticide exposure in children, stating:

Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity…understanding of chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging.

Recognizing and reducing problematic exposures will require attention to current inadequacies in…regulatory action on pesticides.

In other words, when it comes to children and pesticides, it’s time our policies caught up with the science.

In yesterday’s media statement, I highlighted the various ways the Slate piece misses the mark. We’ve debunked many of these myths before, but here we go again.

Organic facts

1. The weight of scientific evidence tells us that some pesticides, even in small amounts, have adverse impacts on children’s health and intelligence.

We recently examined more than 200 peer-reviewed studies on children’s health indicating that pesticides are indeed a cause for concern. You can check out the findings in our report, A Generation in Jeopardy.

Yes, we do go on about chlorpyrifos — but for good reason. Chlorpyrifos is a classic example of a pesticide that has been well-studied, with a body of evidence from a number of researchers who have documented the links between adverse impacts on neurodevelopment and intelligence in children. Chlorpyrifos is part of a class of pesticides called organophosphates (OPs) that share a similar mode of action via the nervous system.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also cited exposure from food as the “most important source of exposure for [the pesticide classes] organochlorines and OPs.” We know that chlorpyrifos residues show up in foods both here and in other countries, such as bread and cereal bars in the United Kingdom. And, there are the other OPs to consider. Though not as well studied, the fact that other OPs have a similar mode of action raises a warning flag.

But children in agricultural areas are still receiving a double dose of exposure, via residues in food and pesticide drift in communities where this pesticide is still used. Even though less is being used, we have documented chlorpyrifos drift in California and recently in the Midwest with our community partners using the Drift Catcher.

2. The regulatory system is broken and even laws that are meant to protect kids aren’t being adequately implemented.

Chlorpyrifos is a poster child for why good scientific evidence sometimes simply isn’t enough, given the pressure industry exerts on our regulatory system. It is a prime example of why we need to change the way we assess risk in this country.

Recognizing that children are more vulnerable to pesticides, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) in 1996 to ensure greater protections.

Documents such as the Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook, written as a part of the FQPA, recommend values to use for factors of exposure in risk assessment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fully acknowledges that,

In terms of risk, children may also be more vulnerable to environmental pollutants…. The developing brain can be particularly sensitive to environmental contaminants.

But those recommended FQPA safety values are just that. They are recommendations, and the factors are not consistently applied in every risk assessment of every chemical. Inconsistent application of FQPA safety factors is an issue we raise persistently with EPA.

3. Organic production has far-reaching benefits to our health and the environment.

Organic farming solves pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. I recently presented at a soil and water conservation panel at the Women, Food and Agriculture Network’s 2013 meeting. Conserving our soil and water by utilizing sustainable farming solutions must become a major priority.

The Organic Center adeptly illustrated the details missed in the Slate article’s discussion of organic farming in their blog, adding that it’s “also important to point out that eating an organic diet really does reduce people’s exposure to pesticides.”

A 2006 study looked at pesticide intake in elementary school-age children whose diets were transitioned from conventional to organic for five consecutive days. The researchers found that immediately after transitioning to an organic diet, detectable levels of pesticide in the children’s urine dropped to non-detectable levels.

To quote our colleagues from The Organic Center again, “the health benefits of organic are not without scientific basis, as suggested by this article, but supported by years of research.”

Moving towards a just food system…

We need to move towards a system that minimizes pesticide residues on food, and especially minimizes exposure to pesticides that are harmful to children’s health. Choosing food produced in a sustainable manner also protects the rest of us, particularly the health of farmers, farmworkers and residents of agricultural communities.

This generation — and those to come — deserve access to safe, fresh, nutritious food. Choosing organic options when possible reduces individual exposure to health-harming chemicals, yes, and also supports our food system to become more sustainable over the long haul.

Perhaps the most important point — that the Slate piece misses by a mile — is that we look to ecological and organic farming methods as a solution for the long term, and one that ultimately benefits our health and the environment.

Note: Please see the recent posting The Assault on Organicsfor an update on this important issue.

Photo credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock

Picture of Emily Marquez

Emily Marquez

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