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Green living expert, author, and TV personality, Sara Snow, explains the USDA organic seal and why "natural" is not organic.

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  • Three new studies confirm that exposures to common insecticides during pregnancy can cut a child’s IQ 4% to 7%  by age 9.
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Response to Slate Article “Organic Shmorganic”

Jan 30, 2014

Melinda Moyer’s article “Organic Shmorganic”, published on Jan. 29, 2014, misses some important points about the science behind the benefits of eating organic. It discusses the safety of conventional pesticide exposure, but does not take into account the many studies showing that these synthetic chemical cocktails can act synergistically to amplify health hazards. It also neglects to point out that while there are natural pest management materials that can be used by organic growers, these materials are used in combination with integrated management techniques that obviate the need for toxic controls.

The article starts by agreeing with the environmental benefits of organic production, but then dismissing them to examine the health aspects of organic in isolation. These benefits should not be overlooked, as they are paramount to the future of both our planet as well as our own health. For example, recent studies have found that organic techniques are less energy intensive and emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional techniques, meaning that organic agriculture is contributing to cleaner air and climate change mitigation. Nitrogen pollution reduction is another way that organic farms contribute to both environmental and human health. Nitrogen pollution is responsible for health hazards such as toxic algal blooms, acid rain, and smog, and studies have shown that organic farms contribute less nitrogen pollution than conventional farms.

This article also argues that pesticide avoidance is not an important factor when considering choosing organic. While organic farmers can use natural materials, rather than relying on a cocktail of synthetic fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides, organic production uses integrated pest management (IPM) programs, which include cultural, biological, and physical procedures created with the specific crop, local environment, and pest life history in mind. These strategies maintain biodiversity in the farming system that can reduce the overall presence of pests, weeds, and diseases, thus eliminating the need for chemical sprays. For example, many organic farmers manage pests by introducing predatory insects to eat the “bad” insects that harm crops. Lady bugs, soldier beetles, green lacewings, big-eyed bugs, and beneficial nematodes all eat harmful insects, and can reduce reliance on insecticides. The use of conventional pesticides, on the other hand, can harm these insects, thereby increasing the need for future pesticide application. Because IPM programs like those practiced on organic farms reduce the amount of pesticide application needed and the long-term need for synthetic chemicals, they are safer for human health than using conventional pesticides. One study published in Chemosphere, for example, found that organic production employed the least toxic pest-control methods.

This article also does not cover the multitude of health hazards associated with conventional pesticide exposure. Exposure to pesticide cocktails, for example, is an area that should be evaluated when it comes to determining health effects of pesticide exposure. Humans are rarely exposed to a single pesticide in isolation, and pesticide cocktails can have a multiplicative effect on health risks. For example, one recent study found that exposure to fungicide, herbicide, and insecticide cocktails can lead to DNA damage and elevated cell death of blood cells.

 

It is especially important for pregnant women and children to avoid pesticides, because they can have disproportionate adverse effects on developing immune systems. For example, a joint report by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine suggests that environmental chemicals such as pesticides are a risk in pregnancy.

It’s also important to point out that eating an organic diet really does reduce people’s exposure to pesticides. One scientific study that showed this reduction in pesticide intake looked at pesticide exposure in elementary school-age children whose diets were transitioned to organic from conventional. The researchers found that after 15 days of eating organic, children’s pesticide exposure levels dropped to non-detectable levels. The study concludes that it was “able to demonstrate that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production.”

This article also overlooks the health benefits of organic when it comes to avoiding antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Organic production prohibits the use of antibiotics, thus decreasing the development of antibiotic resistance. This has been supported by several studies, all of which found lower rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on organic versus conventional animal products. One study found that bacteria on conventional poultry were more resistant to ampicillin, chloramphenicol, doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, gentamicin, and sulfisoxazole, stating that “organic farming practices contribute to decreased dissemination of antibiotic resistance.”

In conclusion, the health benefits of organic are not without scientific basis, as suggested by this article, but supported by years of research. Organic production results in fewer large-scale environmental issues that contribute to human health problems, reduces exposure to toxic synthetic pesticides, and can decrease the likelihood of contact with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When it comes to choosing products that you can be confident are not exposing you to potentially dangerous chemicals, organic is the way to go.

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