The Story Behind America's Current Cancer "Epidemic"
No One Has Linked Today's Food To Cancer—Except Organic Farmers Hawking Overpriced Food
July 25, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: July 21, 2000 Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.— A major new European cancer study says 20 percent to 40 percent of our cancers are hereditary. That's good news for both people and the environment.
It means we can live our lives without being terrified our food and furnishings are creating a cancer epidemic. We won't have to plow down our forests and make do with low organic crop yields.
A team of Scandinavian researchers used detailed government records in Sweden, Denmark and Finland to study cancer rates in nearly 90,000 twins. Identical twins share the same DNA, while fraternal twins are only 50 percent identical. The researchers used this differential to get an indication of how much cancer is hereditary.
The most "inherited" cancers, they found, were prostate (42 percent), colon and rectal cancers (35 percent) and breast cancer (27 percent). We already know 30 percent of our cancers are from smoking and a bunch more result from eating too few fruits and vegetables.
The one-fourth of the public that eats the most fruits and vegetables has half the total cancer risk of the one-fourth that eats the least. Only about 10 percent of us eat the recommended five-a-day servings of fruits and vegetables.
We've found only a few occupational cancers, most among asbestos workers, and a few radon cancers among hard-rock miners. Throw in a few cases of cancer from drinking alcohol (a well-known carcinogen) and that accounts for most of the cancers we suffer.
But what about the current cancer epidemic? My neighbor who teaches elementary school says practically everyone on her school staff has cancer somewhere in their extended families.
It didn't used to be this way, it's true. Isn't it wonderful so many more of us are living long enough for cancer to be a risk? My Aunt Virginia developed breast cancer in her late 70s and with a few rare exceptions, cancer is a disease of old age.
In 1900, our life expectancy was only about 45 years. Today, we're rapidly closing in on 80 years. As we extend our lifespans, more of us will certainly be diagnosed with cancer.
That's not an epidemic but the lesser of two evils. We're diagnosing more cancers, but that's also good news. In George Washington's day, cancer victims died of "wasting disease," or some such homegrown label.
They'd be dosed with morphine and bled with leeches, but they certainly wouldn't be cured. Aunt Virginia was cured and lived another decad e. Cancer m ortality (other than lung cancer) has fallen more than 16 percent since 1950. Lung cancer mortality is up because the smoking habit spread to women.
Where does eating organic food come into this picture? It doesn't. It never did. Organic farmers claim pesticides are giving us cancer, but they offer no evidence. That shouldn't surprise us. Organic farmers aren't cancer experts.
They never raised the cancer issue until Rachel Carson erroneously claimed in her book "Silent Spring" that six or seven of the pesticides then is use caused human cancer. Both Carson and the organic farmers totally missed the biggest food-cancer danger in history: lead arsenate.
From 1900 to 1950, farmers used millions of pounds a year of lead arsenate, a lethal sky-blue powder made of, you guessed it, lead and arsenic.
It was sprayed on our apples and dusted on our cabbages and kohlrabi. We didn't know then it was carcinogenic. We thought it was just severely poisonous. We washed the food carefully. I used to dust it on our garden from a burlap bag, wearing my usual tee shirt and jeans. To this day, lead arsenate is the only pest control put on our food crops we know can cause human cancer. (I'm 63, and no cancer yet.)
We haven't used it since 1950 because modern pesticides are far safer. Yes, some of the new pesticides cause tumors in rats at high doses. But so do half the compounds in nature. In fact, half of everything we've ever tested on the rats causes tumors at high doses. At low doses, say 10 or a 100 times expected human exposure, almost none of the chemicals in our environment cause rat tumors.
Bruce Ames, the famed toxicologist who last year was awarded the National Science Medal, says 510 percent of the dry weight of our food crops is made up of natural pesticides. The plants manufacture them for self-protection.
Coffee contains more than 1000 natural chemicals. Twenty-eight of them have been tested, and 19 cause tumors in rats at high doses. No one has linked either coffee or today's food supply to a cancer epidemic except organic farmers trying to scare you into buying their overpriced products.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.