February 4 2014

Want to Save Money? Stop Buying Organic Food

Julie Gunlock

Slate has a must read piece by Melinda Wenner Moyer about the safety of conventional produce (versus organic produce). It's clear from the title -- "Organic Shmorganic: conventional fruits and vegetables are perfectly healthy for kids" – Moyer is hoping to reassure consumers about choosing the less expensive, conventional produce.

Up front, Moyer sets the parameters for her piece. She says she's not going to explore the rather complex issue of whether organic agriculture is better for the environment. Rather, Moyer wants to answer a simple question: are the pesticides on conventional produce harmful?

She starts by first debunking a few myths about organic food:

Myth 1: organic food is better than conventional produce because organic is grown without pesticides.

Moyer's response: "First, let’s start with the fact that organic does not mean pesticide-free. As scientist and writer Christie Wilcox explains in several eye-opening blog posts over at Scientific American, organic farmers can and often do use pesticides. The difference is that conventional farmers are allowed to use synthetic pesticides, whereas organic farmers are (mostly) limited to “natural” ones, chosen primarily because they break down easily in the environment and are less likely to pollute land and water. (I say “mostly” because several synthetic chemicals are approved for use in organic farming, too.)"

Myth 2: natural pesticides are safer than the synthetic ones.

Moyer's response: "Many of them are, but there are some notable exceptions. Rotenone, a pesticide allowed in organic farming, is far more toxic by weight than many synthetic pesticides. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency sets exposure limits for the amount of a chemical that individuals (including kids) can be exposed to per day without any adverse effects. For Rotenone, the EPA has determined that people should be exposed to no more than 0.004 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. Let’s compare this toxicity to that of some commonly used synthetic pesticides, like the organophosphate pesticide Malathion. The nonprofit Pesticide Action Network calls organophosphates “some of the most common and most toxic insecticides used today.” (Sarin, the nerve gas used in two Japanese terrorist attacks in the 1990s, is a potent organophosphate.) Yet the EPA has deemed it safe, based on animal tests, for humans to be exposed to 0.02 milligrams of Malathion per kilogram of body weight per day. This is five times more than the amount deemed safe for Rotenone. In other words, by weight, the natural pesticide Rotenone is considered five times more harmful than synthetic pesticide Malathion."

Myth 3: Studies show that organic fruits and veggies harbor fewer pesticide residues than conventionally farmed produce does?

Moyer's response: "Those studies only tested for synthetic pesticides. In the few studies that have also looked for natural pesticides—the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program tested for them on organic lettuce in 2009, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation tested a handful of organic fruits and vegetables for certain natural and synthetic pesticides in 2010, and the USDA did an analysis of organic produce in 2010—scientists have found that between 15 and 43 percent of organic produce samples harbor measurable traces of either natural or synthetic pesticides or both. As far as I can tell, however, no one has published a comparison of the overall amounts of both types of pesticides on organic versus conventional produce, so it’s hard to conclude much from these findings other than that, yes, organic produce can be pesticide-tainted, too."

Moyer also refutes the Environmental Working Group's fallacious "Dirty Dozen List" (I've written about the list here, here and here and IWF Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini has written about it here) by highlighting research that shows we’re barely even ingesting pesticides when we eat conventionally grown food:

What did [the researchers] find? Well, let’s start with apples, which the EWG considers the most pesticide-laden fruit or vegetable out there, and look at the pesticide that is most commonly found on them, called Thiabendazole. [Researcher] Winter and his colleagues found that, each day from conventionally-grown apples and apple-based products, Americans typically consume a dose of Thiabendazole that is 787 times less than the EPA’s recommended exposure limit. Put another way, you’d have to eat as many apples and apple products as 787 Americans eat in a single day combined in order to be exposed to a level of this pesticide that approaches the EPA’s exposure limit.

For other fruits and vegetables, Winter and his colleagues found even less reason to worry. For Captan, the synthetic pesticide most commonly found on conventionally grown strawberries, Americans are exposed to 8,180 times less of the chemical per day than the EPA’s limit. Overall, Winter and his colleagues reported that the EPA’s exposure limits were more than 1000 times higher than the daily exposure estimates for 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable comparisons they made.

Moyer's whole piece is worth a read and I hope at least a few parents find some measure of reassurance in her very thorough examination of the issue.  But perhaps the most important thing parents can take away from Moyer's piece is her method for staying calm and sane in an alarmist world. Early in the piece, Moyer explains what motivated her to look into this issue more closely, writing: 

Instead of continuing to wonder [about the safety of conventional produce], I decided to dig into the literature and talk to toxicologists, horticulturists, risk experts, and nutritionists to find out whether the chemicals in conventionally farmed foods could truly pose a risk to my child. What I’ve discovered has totally surprised me—let’s just say I’m going to be a little more relaxed about what I serve kid No. 2.

Moyer did what more women should do -- stop wondering, stop worrying, stop paying attention to the alarmists and stop spending money on organic produce when the cheaper conventionally grown produce is safe and healthy.

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