Warning: if you are a chemophobic individual who eats only high-priced organic fruits and vegetables in your quest for a pesticide-free existence, don’t read the following or you’ll become severely depressed. If not, read on and learn why organic food is a waste of money with no health benefits.
New analysis by researchers with Consumers Union and the Organic Materials Review Institute shows that one-fourth of all fruits and vegetables marketed as “organic” have significant residues of synthetic pesticides in them. And, nearly a third of the time that synthetic pesticide residues were found on the organic produce, they were present at concentrations even higher than the average levels found on conventional fruits and vegetables! This is on top of any residues of organic pesticides, which weren’t even included in the analysis. So much for organic being pesticide-free.
Before you throw your organic kiwi and cucumbers into the toxic waste dump, it’s important to know that this research has very little to do with real food safety. The traces of synthetic pesticides on both the conventional foods and the organic foods were well below safety levels set by the government—levels set using 100-fold safety margins. After exhaustive research, the National Research Council concluded in 1999 that residues of synthetic pesticide posed a lower theoretical cancer risk than the natural carcinogens found in our food, but that neither were present in high enough amounts to worry about. As toxicologists say: there is no such thing as a toxic substance. There is only a toxic dose.
In the report, published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants,
the researchers reviewed three pre-existing sets of pesticide residue data; one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and one from limited testing conducted for Consumers Union in 1997. In total, the three sets of data covered over 94,000 produce samples, 1,300 of which were organic. However, less than 200 of the 1,300 organic food samples were subjected to comprehensive pesticide residue tests.
Yet even this tiny organic sample was sufficient to demonstrate a surprisingly high synthetic pesticide contamination rate. Of the 194 organic food samples comprehensively tested, 47 (24 percent) were found to contain synthetic pesticide residues. In all, organic foods had about one-third as much synthetic pesticide residue as conventional foods. But that’s still vastly more pesticides than the organic marketers want their customers to know about.
It gets even more depressing for chemophobic consumers: In addition to the residues of synthetic pesticides, organic fruits and vegetables may also have residues of toxic organic pesticides.
Organic pesticides? Yes. The biggest myth of all about the term organic
is that it means pesticide-free. Far from it. Organic farmers are allowed to use numerous natural poisons as pesticides. These include chemicals like pyrethrum, a mixture of nerve toxins squeezed from African chrysanthemums. In 1999, toxicologists with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed pyrethrum a “likely human carcinogen” after finally subjecting pyrethrum to the same rat force-feeding tests that synthetic pesticides are required to pass. The organic insecticide rotenone, a tropical root extract, is a neurotoxin that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease when administered to rats. Rotenone is also one of the most toxic fish poisons ever found. Copper sulphate, an organic fungicide, is broadly toxic to living things and can become a permanent soil contaminant. European regulators recently banned copper-based fungicides because of environmental concerns. This has caused Europe’s organic farmers to worry because they say they don’t have a natural alternative to pesticide—other than letting the fungi destroy their crops, which isn’t a good one.
The big secret of organic foods is that nobody tests for residues of the pesticides that organic farmers are allowed to use—because the government has exempted them (in some cases because of decades of apparent safe use and in others because of apparent low toxicity). Such is the case with pyrethrum—the one the EPA now thinks is likely to cause cancer.
The researchers acknowledged the government blindness on organic pesticide residues and called for changes:
The lack of residue data . . . and the lack of complete toxicological data for most [organic] insecticides, have seriously limited ability to carry out risk assessments for these pest management products. . . . It seems essential that the widely used botanicals be more completely tested for the full range of toxic effects that conventional pesticides are currently tested for. Expanded efforts to collect data on possible residues of the natural pesticides in organic and non-organic foods are also needed. Better toxicity data and residue data will improve the basis for risk assessments of these pest-management tools.
I couldn’t agree more.
Mostly, this research is a testament to our technical prowess. Today’s analytical technology can easily detect parts per billion traces of chemicals. Indeed, most of the synthetic pesticide traces were below one part per million. For perspective, that’s equivalent to less than one second out of 11 days. But these same levels were on the organic foods as well—not because there are so many chemicals in the environment, but because we can literally find the molecule in the haystack.
Organic food activists have claimed superior safety for years based on the myth that organic foods were toxic-free and that non-organic foods were drenched in chemical poisons. This research proves that in fact there is virtually no difference between the two—other than the higher cost of organic food.