So, I was reading the other day about how “the health benefits” of organic foods are being called into question. It was written by a guy called Harry Wallop and was a curious piece, strangely triumphal. The writer joyfully admitted that he would lie to his wife about there being no organic milk left at the shop so he could score the small victory of buying non-organic. His ‘little protest’ as he put it against the ‘tyranny’ of expensive organic food, sounding just like an obnoxious little boy scoring one over on a parent.
He went on to trumpet about how the ‘latest research’ has ‘concluded’ that there is no clear evidence of any added health benefit to organic food. But, reading the actual report, that’s not entirely true.
Yes, organic and non-organic apples, for example, will contain exactly the same phytonutrients. Some say the organic apple will taste better – I’ve never been quite convinced about that. It’s what the organic apple doesn’t have that interest me. And it’s what the growing of the organic apple isn’t doing to the environment that interests me. It's the pesticide bit that interests me. And the writers of the report themselves admit that ‘consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.’
|If you can't go all organic...|
Organic food, they go on to say, has a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables. A third less? Given that ‘Laboratory studies show that pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other effects that might occur over a long period of time’ (US Environmental Protection Agency, my italics) then, hell yeah, I’d like to ingest a third less of them.
And, talking about those italics, what the papers have also neglected to mention is that the meta-analysis was not exactly dealing with long-term research. The research team admit: ‘There were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food: the duration of the studies involving human subjects ranged from two days (!!!) to two years.’ (exclamation points my addition).
If you weed out (sorry) the long-term studies, the picture is less clear-cut. Just to take one example, a long-term study from the Netherlands found that children who consumed organic dairy products had a 36 percent lower risk of eczema by the time they turned two. But, hey, we all know you can skew statistics any which way you want, right?
You could argue it's better than it was. Farmers now use one third less chemicals than they did thirty years ago. Some are now banned throughout the EU but they are still used in some countries around the world – and, of course, few of us buy totally locally, do we? Let’s have a quick look (by the way, this info isn’t coming from some militant green site, but from the UK Environmental Agency and the Health and Safety Executive in the UK).
* Lindane – banned throughout the EU because of links to breast and other cancers and fertility problems.
* Vinclozalin – used in the UK and worldwide - concerns that it may disrupt hormone systems and affect reproduction.
· * Carbendazim – most commonly used fungicide in the UK, known to disrupt hormone systems – and has been shown to damage the development of mammals in the womb.
· * DDT – banned in the UK and worldwide since 2001 but still used in some developing countries. Linked to cancer and male infertility. High levels can develop in fatty foods such as meat and dairy products.
· * Organophosphates – don’t let the organo bit throw you off – these are a large group of chemicals that form the basis of many insecticides and herbicides and which can pass into the body via food. They irreversibly block an enzyme that is essential to correct nerve function. Even at low levels, they can affect the brain development of fetuses and young children. Also linked to excessive tiredness, headaches, limb pains, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, mood changes and suicidal thoughts. Nice huh? The EPA banned most residential uses of these in 2001 but they’re still used in agriculture on fruit and vegetable crops.
Some scientists believe pesticide exposure while in the womb may be to blame for the huge increase in behavioral disorders amongst children, but the evidence is hard to find as researchers admit that subtle harm done to the brain early in life may not become evident until much later. What is pretty clear is that pesticides can weaken the immune system and that exposure while in the womb could make people more vulnerable to their effects as adults. As the BBC reported, ‘The main health fear associated with pesticides is not that someone will eat a sprayed apple and get cancer, but that residues will build up over the years and cause disease to develop slowly.’
And yup, that is my concern. It seems to be the concern of many parents too. Wallop's piece in the paper went on to say that, while sales of organic food generally are sliding (presumably because of cost – it’s tough enough to buy normal food nowadays), the one area of the market that is booming is in baby food (up seven percent last year).
He concluded his piece by saying. ‘I for one feel rather resentful that I should fork out for organic just because it might be a ‘lower risk’. Tomorrow the baby is going to get an extra dollop of pesticide-sprayed carrots.’
Nice, real nice, Wallop. Save that clipping for your child’s scrapbook.
But seriously, what do you do? What can you do? Can we, on a macro level, stop our planet and our food being contaminated by chemicals? It’s like the argument I had on FB the other day about GM food. Which went along the lines of ‘it’s all very well and good for people in developed countries who have the luxury of nibbling namby pampy organics and biodynamics but that’s stuffing it to the developing world.’ Is it? Isn’t it really about a radical shift in the way we eat, about what we eat and don’t eat?
On a micro level, I guess I would say (and you might find this ironic) probably the best thing to do is not to stress too much. I figure it’s as toxic to panic about every potential pollutant you put in your mouth as it is to mainline pesticides. Though if you're planning a baby or are pregnant, I reckon I'd err on the side of caution. And (just saying) my son ate solely organic food up until he went to school.
Just before I posted this, I thought I'd check and see what the general advice is...and found this from the BBC.
What can you do?
If you are worried about possible exposure of you or your family to pesticides, you may want to:
- Only choose foods that have been grown under organic or pesticide–free conditions. Look for the labels in your supermarket such as those from the Soil Association or talk to your local supplier.
- Grow your own vegetables (presumably without chemicals - my aside).
- Check products in your household and garden - the websites of the UK Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive are a good source of information.