Thursday 6 September 2012

"Give the baby an extra dollop of pesticide-sprayed carrots"

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.


Alison Cross said...

Zactly! It's not about whether it tastes better, is it? It's about what you are ensuring that you are NOT ingesting.

That man sounds like a complete arse.

Well said, Jane. As ever :-D


Zoë said...

another reason organic sales may be slipping is that many people who go the organic route also tend to end up growing their own. Organic doesnt mean no chemicals, they are still sprayed - just different chemicals!
Growing your own you have a lot more control about what is going on your plate. I now grow a lot of what we eat in season , and no chemicals go anywhere bear anything I grow. You wont find organic slug pellets even!

JOHN SHORTLAND, Cotswold Hills, England. said...

aerI'm very inclined to agree that there is no point in getting too agitated about these issues - which isn't quite the same as not caring, of course.

It isn't so much the individual chemicals that concern me, more the cocktail of hundreds of different ones we eat or absorb in one way or another every day of our lives. No amount of trials or tests will be able to assess that issue.

All we can probably do is just try and live as healthily as we can. Taking more excercise should be no.1 on the list. In the meantime, I'll just have another G & T to help me ponder on it ...

Anonymous said...

My late father-in-law was once asked by another shopper at Asda fruit and veg section why he was choosing apples that were blemished with the odd worm hole etc and he explained that if a bug or worm had had a nibble then it must be ok because in general, the perfect apples without a mark on them were probably so full of chemicals, no worm or bug in their right mind would take a bite.

Exmoorjane said...

@Ali - tbf, you can find pesticides in organic produce and there's a whole other argument about how organic food is regulated etc - I'm no expert but if I recall you have to pay a pretty hefty fee to register each and every product which adds onto the price and cuts out the option of certified organic farming for a lot of people. But yeah, I'd rather not stuff my face with chemicals and absolutely, he was a bit of a plank. :)

Exmoorjane said...

@Zoe - yup, think you could be right NDNs are pretty well self-sufficient (they freeze the excess). I am hugely envious but unfortunately way too lazy to emulate them. Your garden always looks just gorgeous - and of course you have eggs and honey as well!

@Johnson - yeah, totally - we're conducting huge wild experiments on ourselves...who knows what we're doing?! Yup, exercise is good, exercise and sort out your mind. Simple, huh? :)

@Jobo - yeah, I remember you saying that before and figure your FIL had a good point. Ever seen those vids of McD's burgers and chips that last for weeks or even months? Mind you, my nan had a hot cross bun which she stuck in a pot (for some unknown reason) back in the 20s. I inherited the pot and the bun is still there, still recognisable. :)

Anonymous said...

My late father-in-law once bought different types of pear in Asda and put them in the same bag, which confused the check-out girl. She asked what each of the pairs were called and he pointed at the bag saying,"Well, that one's called Harry and that one's called Fred....."

Rachel Selby said...

It's so expensive to buy organic but I do try to wash stuff really well and peel whenever possible (probably losing loads of nutrients though).

Exmoorjane said...

@Jobo - named pairs, huh? :)

@Rachel - yup, it is. I don't buy all organic, tbh - either not available (not huge choice here) or - like you say - too expensive. But some things I will only buy organic - apples (cos peeling them doesn't get rid of the chemicals sadly - they leach right through) and salad leaves mainly.
Only the very well-off can afford to eat organic sadly. :(

Jelly Babies said...

Great post! Really interesting!

Rainbow Prams said...

reading through the pesticide list, it's also strange how one or two of those still DO exist in the UK via cigarettes!
I'm in the process of getting a greenhouse in an attempt to grow our own, it seems the best option. x

the veg artist said...

We can probably assume that Harry Wallop and his family are lucky enough to enjoy perfect health
It's often only when there is not so much a drastic illness, but the type of niggling thing, like skin allergies, asthma, achy joints and so on that people start to become interested in the quality of food that they are putting into their bodies, although cancer tends to be a major wake-up call.
In other words - "I'm OK, so why are you moaning." !

Exmoorjane said...

@JB - thanks. :)

@Veg - sadly you're right.

@Jobo - relax! :) breathe... :) But yeah, I hear you (loud and clear) - the robit shit is shite...I'll turn it off again and put up with the spamfest.

Re Lyme Disease - yes, yes, yes - is to blame for a HELLUVA lot of undiagnosed illness. Trouble is, it's notoriously difficult to have to catch it in its active phase and treat it in its active phase or the bastard just lies quietly and tricks everyone.

Jay said...

My wife swears that she can tell and taste the difference between foods labelled organic or otherwise. We used to argue about it, but I gave up on it. She feels better about herself and what she cooks and feeds me when she uses organic foods. So while it's more expensive (and let's be honest, it's a more than a bit of a racket), the peace of mind she gets is worth it.

Exmoorjane said...

@Jay - could be she's right. So much intensively farmed produce is lacking in taste - but usually it's down to the type of vegetable or whatever, rather than the method of production.
And yup, it's back to the mind stuff - if you feel good about what you're eating, it removes a level of (even subconscious) stress. I would certainly feel much happier eating organic (or, heeey, biodynamic even better) if I could afford it and if it were available. Most of us just don't have any choice but to eat up our pesticides. :(

Unknown said...

this Wallop fellow sounds like John Gummer, except without a good reason to be like that. A bell-end, like Jeremy Clarkson. It's just blah from a crap person.
Not sure it's relevant to this thread but with organic milk, you can definitely taste the difference.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Harry sounds about as intelligent as his uncle Cods.

Anonymous said...

"@Jobo - relax! :) breathe... :)"

I'm already breathing and why would I want to suppress my anger -it's risen up for a reason and I'm purging it. Those who kid themselves they are creating health by dumbing down emotions and feelings through new age mumbo jumbo tools may well be putting their emotions and feelings in a nice little cupboard where it can manifest over time as some other monster...I wouldn't call that

Exmoorjane said...

@Mike - bellend...perfect. I don't drink much milk but for those that do, is really worth getting organic as non-org herds are fed hormones to pump up production) :(

@Anonymous -:)

@Jobo - better out than in, for sure. Mind you, that didn't help my late father - he exploded his heart in a fit of temper. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

When it's time to go, it's time to go.....