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September, 2012 Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst The Cornucopia Institute
I have enjoyed a virtually exclusive organic diet for the past 30 years. But I was deeply unsettled by a September 4, 2012 New York Times article and a similar Associated Press story casting doubt on the value of an organic diet.
In terms of the extra cost and value of eating organically, I have always subscribed to the adage "pay now or pay later." While my personal experience does not provide much in terms of a scientifically legitimate sample size, in the last 30 years, after suffering from pesticide poisoning prompted my shift to an organic diet, I have exceeded my insurance deductible only once, due to an orthopedic injury. And my doctor keeps telling me how remarkable it is that I, at age 57, have no chronic health problems and take no pharmaceuticals.
Unfortunately, the analysis done by Stanford University physicians profiled in the articles noted above did not look "outside the box," as many organic farming and food advocates do.
They discounted many of the studies, including by the USDA, that show our conventional food supply's nutritional content has dropped precipitously over the last 50 years. This has been attributed to the declining health of our farms’ soil, and healthy soil leads to healthy food. Organic farming’s core value is building soil fertility.
Furthermore, there are many externalities that impart risk on us as individuals and as a society, which the physicians failed to look at. For example, eating organic food protects us all from exposure to agrichemicals contaminating our water and air.
Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food with an estimated 80%-90% contaminated with patented genes by Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. The use of GMOs is prohibited in organics.
Interestingly, there have been virtually no long-term studies on human health impacts of ingesting GMOs, although many laboratory animal and livestock studies have led to disturbing conclusions. The best way to operate using the "precautionary principle," as European regulators mandate, is to eat a certified organic diet.
Current research now indicates that some of Monsanto's genes are passing through the placenta into human fetuses and into the bloodstreams of adults and children. Organics is a way to prevent your children from becoming human lab rats testing genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or a myriad of other novel life forms.
Stanford researchers, cited in the recent press accounts, dismissed statistically significant differences between agrichemical (pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc.) contamination in conventional and organic food.
The researchers might trust the FDA to set "safe" levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in the food we serve our families, but many parents have decided to set a lower threshold—as close to zero as possible. Even the doctors at Stanford confirm demonstrably lower levels of pesticide contamination in organic food.
In supporting this cautious approach, there is a growing body of scientific literature that suggests it's not just the gross level of toxic contamination that pesticides present but rather minute amounts of these toxins can act as endocrine disruptors, or mimickers, sometimes triggering catastrophic and lifelong abnormalities in fetuses and developing children.
Is it worth experimenting with the health of future generations when we know that there is a demonstrated safe alternative—organic food?
To illustrate the difference, researchers at the University of Washington published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives that documented a tremendous drop in organophosphate pesticide contamination, in the urine of children, after just three days on an organic diet. This is hard science that did sway the Stanford investigation's conclusion.
Scientists have also recognized that we must take into consideration the disproportionate quantities of food that children consume relative to their body weight, especially of certain fruits and vegetables that have been found to be highly contaminated with synthetic chemicals. Furthermore, their study failed to look at the cumulative effects of contamination in many different food items in one's diet. Again, children, for developmental reasons, are especially at risk.
Both the New York Times and AP stories did touch on a number of advantages, like lower levels of contamination from antibiotic-resistant pathogens. But that was also dismissed by stating that these could be "killed during cooking." However, we know that inadequate cooking does take place, and cross-contamination can easily occur in residential kitchens. So again, I pose the question, how many potentially lethal, antibiotic-resistant organisms do you want to bring into your home?
Although there is conflicting science on whether or not organic food is truly nutritionally superior, there is no doubt that in terms of many parameters, organic food is demonstrably safer.
I will stick with the diet that concentrates on fresh, local, more flavorful food that's produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms. And I for one think I'm getting a good value for my own health, while at the same time supporting good environmental stewardship and economic justice for family farmers.