Food industry promoters trying to convince consumers that organic food is no more healthful than other food have been taking some hits lately. Several developments this summer, including a scary government report linking pesticides and cancer, are challenging their dubious claim.
These reports are alerting consumers to new evidence of the adverse health impacts of chemicals in their food and publicizing research documenting new chemical-cancer connections. These mainstream reports are expected to increase consumer awareness of the health enhancing benefits of organic food and farming.
The reports also are pressing policymakers to consider public health in responding to the urgent need to update and strengthen the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act. The Environmental Protection Agency, which has been responsible for enforcing this act since its enactment in 1976, has failed to use this authority to protect Americans from the adverse health impacts of the 80,000 toxic chemicals produced and used in this country.
The usual EPA approach is to assume chemicals are safe, to approve them without testing, and to do nothing further unless something really bad happens. The precautionary principle observed in Europe, which allows official approval only if testing shows chemicals are safe, has been rejected here. The EPA also is ignoring 30 years of environmental health studies leading to a consensus that pesticides and other chemicals in the environment and in our food are contributing to the increase in the incidence and prevalence of many diseases.
Linking Pesticides and Cancer
The newest cancer-pesticide link warning came in the report of the President’s Cancer Panel, an official document issued in May that calls for a drastic reduction in chemical exposure in the environment and in our food. Members of the government panel of medical professionals, who were appointed by former President George W. Bush, included an urgent warning in the 240-page report they submitted to President Obama.
“The American people–even before they are born–are bombarded continuously with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures,” the panel reported in an open letter to the President. “The panel urges you most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”
The link to organic food and farming, included in one of the panel’s recommendations to consumers about how to reduce their risk of cancer, was indirect but completely clear. “Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. . .,” the report stated. “Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic runoff from livestock feedlots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications.”
The report also included two scary numbers that should make both consumers and policymakers sit up and take notice. One is that 42 percent of all Americans either have had cancer, have cancer now, or will have cancer in the future. The other is that most of the more than 80,000 chemicals approved by the federal government over the last 35 years have never been tested. “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” this bombshell report states. “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”
Report’s Impact at USDA
There’s evidence, too, that political appointees with food safety responsibilities at USDA may have read the cancer panel’s report. A representative from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service admitted at a recent House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance. USDA has claimed in the past that using antibiotics in feed as growth promoters and to prevent rather than treat disease is not a problem.
A representative from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention supported the new USDA position by testifying that there is “unequivocal and compelling” evidence that using antibiotics in animal feed leads to drug resistance that has an adverse impact on human health. Even a representative of the Food and Drug Administration, which has dragged its feet on this issue for years, testified that the evidence supports this conclusion.
The connection to organic was strengthened in June by “Organic Food: Eating With a Conscience,” a new guide for consumers published by Beyond Pesticides. The guide points to USDA organic certification as “the only system of food labeling that is subject to independent public review and oversight, assuring consumers that toxic synthetic pesticides used in conventional agriculture are replaced by management practices focused on soil biology, biodiversity, and plant health.”
The guide issued by this nonprofit organization also warns consumers about foods grown with toxic chemicals that are marketed as having extremely low level or non-detectable levels of poisons. These so-called “green” foods, the guide notes, may be grown with hazardous pesticides that end up in waterways and ground water, contaminate local communities, poison farmworkers, and kill wildlife.
How hard would it be to make changes that reduce the adverse health impacts of dangerous chemicals in food? A new State of Science report issued by the Organic Center estimates that converting the nation’s eight million acres of farms producing fruits and vegetables to organic would reduce pesticide dietary risk by an amazing 97 percent. This risk elimination target can be achieved, the report concludes, if this conversion is coupled with consumers choosing imported produce that is only certified organic.
This first-ever quantitative estimate of the degree to which pesticide risks from food can be eliminated through adoption of organic farming methods is based on up-to-date pesticide residue data from USDA and an EPA dietary risk index for pesticides developed by the agency’s Inspector General. The report was prepared by Charles Benbrook, the Organic Center’s chief scientist, who noted that USDA surveys show that most people consume three to four pesticide residues daily just from eating fruits and vegetables.
The importance of driving down pesticide risks was emphasized by pediatrician Alan Greene, chairman of the Organic Center’s board of directors. “Recent science has established strong links between exposure to pesticides at critical stages of prenatal development and throughout childhood,” he noted, “heightening the risk of pre-term underweight babies, developmental abnormalities impacting the brain and nervous systems, and diabetes and cancer.”
Freedom from Chemicals a Civil Right?
Ecologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, author of “Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment,” makes a special point of informing consumers that farmers and their children have higher rates of cancer and that exposure to pesticides on farms may be to blame. She suggests going much further in dealing with the health threat caused by the chemical-cancer link by borrowing from the freedom from tobacco smoke campaign and making freedom from chemicals a civil right.
Although organic food often costs more than conventionally grown food, she acknowledges in her newly published Organic Manifesto, that conventionally grown foods carry with them both health risks and indirect environmental cleanup costs that consumers are forced to pay. Organic food prices, she suggests, will become more affordable as the organic food market expands.
“In the meantime, here is how I make organic food more affordable for my family,” she continues. “Instead of donating to the American Cancer Society or the March of Dimes, I fold my charitable giving into my grocery bill. By buying organic, I feed my own family and, at the same time, work toward prevention of cancer and birth defects in rural America.”
Steingraber’s approach may fall short of making freedom from chemicals a civil right. But it is one kind of informed family strategy that organic farmers, and all the rest of us concerned about the chemical-cancer link, should support and applaud.
by Roger Blobaum