Almost 40,000 people thought the “Organic, Schmorganic” article last week at Slate.com was worth sharing with their friends, including a sharp KS reader who was disturbed by the claims made, namely that buying organic produce, even for kids, is a total waste of money and not one iota safer than conventional produce.
Articles like this bug me, too.
I absolutely understand the author’s reasons for digging into the issue – every time I spend double or triple the money on organic food, I am pained. “Is it worth it? Really?” She’s not alone in asking the question.
Melinda Wenner Moyer of Slate.com 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 [her] child.” Anytime I read an article like this, I try to keep a few rules in mind for assessing the facts:
- What do the numbers actually say (rather than how they are presented) and what is the source?
- Who are the experts cited and what is their experience, motivation, and yes, potentially on whose bankroll might they be?
- Are the facts presented related to the issue the way the author intends? (Correlation does not always equal causation.)
- Are the results of the study applicable to the question? (For example, in this case, the author is looking at children. Do the studies study children???)
- And then, because I’m human, Christian, and a mom, I also look at my own experience if applicable, stories from friends and the KS community, and I do a gut check. That means I ask myself, “What makes sense to me and resonates with what I know to be true and what fits with traditional societies as well, the way things were done successfully decades and centuries ago?” Since God created the world and humans to be here, that’s a good starting point – keeping in mind that we are a fallen world and evil is real.
Let’s unpack Moyer’s research and arguments, one mom to another…
The Goal of the Research
In her own words:
I want to start off by saying that this column is not about whether organic agriculture is worth supporting for its environmental benefits (I think it is) or whether we as a society should care about the chemicals found in our foods and household products (I think we should). This column is about whether it’s worth buying organic produce for your kids specifically because you think the pesticides on conventional produce could harm them. (If you’re curious about the importance of feeding your kids organic dairy products, meats, and eggs, you’ll have to wait because I’m going to tackle that in another column.)
She discovered many facts in her search, some which make sense and support her eventual argument that we should all just buy conventional produce for our kids’ health, and some which ultimately do not.
1. Organic Does Not Mean Pesticide-Free
Ms. Moyer makes a very valid and concerning point here: Using citations and research, she lays out a few pesticides that are approved for organic farming and demonstrates that the organic versions are as toxic or more to human health than the conventional pesticides, and also that the organic pesticides typically have to be sprayed more often partly because of their ability to break down that enables them to be labeled organic, and partly because they’re just not as effective.
It’s incredibly concerning to me that one might ingest more toxic pesticides by buying organic produce over conventional. Without digging into the sources for hours and enlisting the help of scientists, there’s nothing I can do to debunk that.
However, I disagree that the news automatically means that we should avoid or fear organics.
What is most concerning about that entire section of the article is how flawed our government can be. Well done, USDA, for allowing super toxic pesticides to fall under your “certified organic” label. THAT is the real problem here, and the other problem is the use of the EPA’s “safe exposure limits” as the only measuring stick for the toxicity of one chemical vs. another (because even water is a chemical, you know).
Also, I think we can agree with Moyer that the lack of research is another real problem. After she discovered that the studies testing organic produce for pesticides only looked for synthetic pesticides, she writes:
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.
In other words, even though it is true that some of the organically certified pesticides are more toxic than the standard conventional (by weight, never tested on children), and also that those pesticides may be used 2-4 times as often on a given crop, no one actually knows what toxins are left by the time the apple gets to our cutting boards.
Perhaps the organic pesticides, certified as such because they break down in the environment, will have broken down into much less harmful substances in the weeks or months of storage and transport from Washington state to your grocery store. Perhaps those nasty natural pesticides will have broken down into something much worse!
Without the research, we really have no idea…which means that it’s not fair to throw the baby out with the bath water, or in this case, the organic produce out with the news about toxic natural pesticides.
We just don’t know enough yet.
2. “It’s the Dose that Makes the Poison”
Moyer’s preceding argument about synthetic vs. “natural” pesticides and the relative toxicity of each segues into this quote that “any toxicologist will tell you…”
It’s the dose that makes the poison.
The EPA’s exposure limits are once again treated as solid fact, when in my experience nothing changes faster than governmental recommendations on what is safe and unsafe. We are always learning more about our complex environment and human bodies, and I don’t think it’s prudent to rest on those limits and think, “Well, as long as I’m just getting a little of this toxic substance, it will be okay.”
I don’t want to sit around and wonder what my total load of pesticide X, Y, or Z might be if I eat 5 pieces of fruit and 7 vegetables in a day, plus meat, dairy, beans and grains. I’m not doing that math whether I’m eating organic or conventional, so my best practice needs to simply be to keep my total toxin load as low as possible. (It will never be zero; let’s just understand that right now.)
Our bodies are amazing systems equipped to deal with quite a bit of crap (pardon my language) and survive it. If every carcinogen my 34-year-old body had ever encountered actually caused cancer to begin, I’d be one big huge tumor by now. But our bodies counteract, we resist, we fight, we heal. Every antioxidant we eat is going to be one more positive weight on the balance scale of our health, while every carcinogen or other toxin, even the stress we put ourselves through worrying about food, will tip the scales toward disease of some sort.
So how do we deal with all that and “it’s the dose that makes the poison?”
- We wash our produce well, whether it’s organic or conventional. Washing doesn’t knock out all chemicals by any means, but Moyer’s article stated that a vigorous rinse with rubbing/scrubbing is in fact going to “reduce pesticide exposures significantly.”
- We don’t freak out if we can’t source organics. Trust that, yes, your body can and will handle plenty of junk before it succumbs to cancer or other disease.
- We consider total load vs. body weight and immune system. Is organic and conventional produce equal when it comes to children? The EPA hasn’t really told us. Their levels don’t account for a twelve or twenty-pound tiny little person with a developing gut. Do I know that pesticides hurt kids more than they hurt adults? Nope. Does it make sense for me to treat my little ones with more care than the EPA says I can treat myself? Yup.
The problem, of course, is that if organic pesticides are equally as toxic as conventional pesticides (in every instance? or just apples?), then how do we know what to feed those precious little bodies that would be least toxic?
Some say there is absolutely no difference, either in levels of toxicity or in nutrients, between organic and conventionally grown produce. There’s research to prove it. But I’ve read too many stories of people who make no change in their lifestyle other than switching to organic food to believe that all things are equal there.
I may not understand what the difference is, but when you read Carrie Vitt’s journey from multiple daily medications at age 25 to vibrant, med-free health at Deliciously Organic (or her book of the same title, found here on Amazon via my affiliate link), it’s hard to believe that organic foods can’t make a person healthier. Her changes later included more unprocessed foods, but at first the only change was organic lettuce.
No one wants to reach their total toxin load. Because of genetics and experience, every person is eventually going to reach their breaking point at a different level and in a different way.
For Carrie, it was migraines in her 20s, somehow related to conventionally farmed food. For my husband, Crohn’s Disease reared its ugly head at age 19. Gluten itself was likely as much of a toxin to his body as any pesticide, even though for other people gluten would not stress their systems. For my dad, who doesn’t like to admit it but has been a senior citizen for a decade already, bladder cancer just hit last week, and we’ll probably never know this side of Heaven precisely what sequence of events or exposures tipped the scales.
Will your toxic tipping point come early or late? Will have natural or synthetic influences? No one can foresee this. We can only do our utmost to decrease the total stressors from our diet and environment.
That may not mean that organic produce is the key to long life and good health – but I don’t think Moyer proves that organic food has no worth. Rather, she makes a clear argument that the government’s definition of organic food leaves much to be desired.
3. Pesticides Don’t Impact Children any Differently Than Adults
The article doesn’t explicitly say it, but it implies that studies that demonstrated negative implications for kids from pesticides were flawed: that they measured levels due to exposure to conventional farms themselves, not from eating conventionally grown produce, or that not enough samples were collected.
So again, perhaps Moyer can convince us that we don’t know if pesticides impact brain development or play a role in ADHD or autism. But I’m not in the camp of “innocent unless proven guilty” when it comes to what I’m putting in my kids’ bodies. Just because we haven’t proven that it causes an issue doesn’t mean we’ve proven it perfectly safe.
We come up with null once again. We learn that more research is needed, which will be hard to get funding for because the big bucks are behind the chemical patents and big pharma/big ag, not against them.
4. Fruits and Veggies have Naturally Occurring Toxins
This argument came as the greatest surprise for me; it’s one I had not heard of before.
I can’t decide where to cut this quote shorter, so I’m just going to share a really long one before I dissect it:
Research conducted by Bruce Ames, director of the Nutrition & Metabolism Center at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, has found that Americans consume about 1,500 milligrams of natural toxins from plants a day, which is approximately 16,000 times more than the 0.09 milligrams of synthetic pesticides we get from food every day.
These natural toxins are for real, too: According to Ames’s work, the natural chemicals that are known to cause cancer in animals and are found in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of our exposure to synthetic pesticide residues that are known to cause cancer.
In a 1996 report, the National Research Council, a non-profit institution that provides expert advice to the government, noted that “natural components of the diet may prove to be of greater concern than synthetic components with respect to cancer risk,” in part because “synthetic chemicals are highly regulated while natural chemicals are not.”
Let’s just sit and digest this for a minute. As if we don’t have enough to worry about, now we learn that the fruits and veggies themselves are going to kill us.
Let’s just stop eating, right?
Luckily both the researchers and Moyer quickly launch into an “eat more fruits and veggies” campaign, since the positive benefits of eating plants far outweigh the risks of consuming all those natural toxins. Moyer posits that since there are so many horrible substances in the plants themselves, we ought not split hairs about the miniscule differences between the kind of pesticide used, organic or conventional.
It’s a valid argument. But one could easily say the opposite:
Because we are exposed to so many toxins, even in completely natural foods, we ought be especially careful not to allow ourselves, and particularly our children, to be exposed to any more.
It’s all about how you say something. I laugh when people say that the new screening machines in airports expose a person to “no more radiation than a cross-country plane flight itself.” Far from comforting me, I interpret that as, “Going through the screening and then flying on a plane doubles my exposure and therefore risk of complication as compared to just flying on a plane.”
Whether any of that contributes enough to my personal toxic load to tip the scales to disease, I won’t know. But I err on the side of caution in airports, and I’m working on doing the same with what I ingest.
As for the 4-digit numbers of chemicals found inside that strawberry? I’m much more willing to trust that God who made the entire world, who fashioned the giraffe, the hippopotamus, and my children, who wants only good things for His children, was capable of creating good food for us to eat in the perfect packages, than that our sources of vitamins are laced with truly toxic substances.
If a strawberry has natural toxins, I would bet that it has exactly the natural antioxidants and other antidotes in the perfect balance our body needs to process those toxins out.
I’m much less inclined to believe that a room full of agricultural scientists have our best interests in mind when they formulate pesticides, be they organic or not!
5. Don’t Trade Organic Snacks for Conventional Produce
At the very end of the article, Moyer finally drives home the point she’s been trying to address all along: That the parents in her circles who were so afraid of conventionally grown produce that they’d eschew a banana and offer their kids Annie’s organic crackers instead are backward and foolish.
She rightly deems that decision “not smart” and says:
It is far, far better for your kids’ long-term health to get them in the habit of eating whole fruits and vegetables, regardless of what type of farm they came from, than to give them pretty much anything else to eat, no matter how organic or all-natural it may be.
Here, I can agree 100% – but I’ll do it without hours of research to try to besmirch organics and convince people that they are not worth buying.
What Moyer Missed
Here’s “the rest of the story…”
Organically certified food is not allowed to be genetically modified. Granted, there aren’t a vast number of fruits and veggies that are currently approved GMO, and the research isn’t black and white on whether genetic modification harms humans or not, but…it hasn’t been around long enough to be proven innocent.
What if GMO crops do cause major health issues? Parents who mistrust GM foods need to be assured that if they’re buying organic, they’re not getting GMOs.
It dries me crazy that every time someone talks about organic vs. conventional food, they seem to only focus on one aspect of the issue. Over and over, Moyer used the term “pesticides” as if that’s the only difference between organic and conventional crops.
What about the synthetic fertilizers? What about the herbicides? What about those GMOs?
They are unaddressed, which makes me feel like Moyer’s criticism of the issue is about as comprehensive as reviewing a book by the preview you can see on an Amazon Kindle page. She didn’t cover the whole story.
dead soil and the future
Moyer does admit that she’s not taking into account the health of the environment, only her child’s immediate health risk. Many conventional fertilizers are causing major problems in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s often said that U.S. farmland is becoming more and more infertile because the synthetic fertilizers are messing with the natural ecosystem and cycle of soil health.
Is it fair to judge organic vs. conventional produce without taking into account the whole picture? The health of the soil in California or Washington State will actually affect both Moyer’s and my children, because they are going to grow up depending on crops from those states, most likely. If we kill our ecosystem, humankind goes down with it, kids.
The mission of Kitchen Stewardship and the four pillars have always been focused on balancing all of our gifts. Of course I couldn’t advocate ignoring the big picture completely, even if I would rather keep my own kids’ immediate interests at the forefront of my decision making too.
Our organic purchase impacts more than just what’s on our plates.
The Bottom Line: Are Organics Worth Anything?
What all of this comes down to is that we can’t trust the government with our health, and that the amazing depth and breadth of science still hasn’t figured everything out about the human body and the ecosystem in which we live.
Our heads spin with all the stats and research we have access to on the Internet. But simply learning that with conventional produce, I’ll be exposed to fewer pesticides than the EPA says is okay is not all that comforting to me.
The EPA and all government agencies have been wrong in the past, and they’ll be wrong again, so those levels can’t be my measuring stick for my family’s health and my eating decisions. Maybe all exposure is carcinogenic in the long run. Maybe it’s all perfectly safe.
On the other hand, what this article is really saying is that “buying organic” isn’t the perfect answer. It’s not like a “get out of cancer free card.” This is a true and somber statement, and one I addressed not too long ago when I explored the safety of organic food from China.
The government, who regulates what “organic” means, has allowed natural pesticides that might still harm us. Great. Thanks, Uncle Sam. They also can’t or don’t regulate every aspect of organic farming, like the polluted irrigation water I pointed out in the article about China above.
What all this means is that it’s likely that the environment is safer with government certified organics, but we humans might not be.
It’s a quandary – as the author said, what do we do now?
If the double and triple priced strawberries really might not be all that much safer, do we (a) buy the conventional or (b) stop eating strawberries?
Of course, we have to have food to eat! The best case scenario is to find a local farmer who doesn’t spray at all or grow your own…but for many, that’s impossible.
Ultimately we need to trust ourselves, God’s creation, and, when we can, our local farmers. I would much rather buy from a farmer who knows precisely what he or she is putting on their crops and is doing the best they can, than to blindly buy a big conglomerate’s box of organic spinach.
Sadly, in February in Michigan, I have little choice but to take the gamble on organic or conventional produce. (A secret: I sometimes still buy conventional lettuce and often buy conventional produce when the organic option travels from places more far flung than California, like peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more.)
I just can’t and don’t do it all, and I’m trying to teach myself to let little things go, like not worrying if I grab a quarter cup of water from the tap instead of filtered water. I have to remind myself that just a few years ago, I drank exclusively from the tap, so our current filtering is far above and beyond that.
I have never been the type to push “one way only” onto people, even in something as minor the the style I choose to write my recipes: Have you noticed mine rarely if ever say things like “organic such-and-such” or “sea salt” or “filtered water?” I just list the basic ingredients, and then if you know better and use Real Salt, good! If someone didn’t know anything about what kind of salt to use, I wouldn’t want them to avoid my recipes just because they thought they couldn’t make them without the perfect salt, water, etc.
Sometimes we can have too much knowledge – like when I researched the anti-mold substance sprayed on the surface of all citrus. My first reaction was not to buy citrus, but I’ve found the balance in just trying to wash the citrus very well, with a scrub brush, and not using the peels in cooking or left floating in a glass of water. As repulsed as I am by the chemicals used, we need fresh fruit in the winter, and citrus is a great option.
Do I Spend More on Organic Produce?
So when I do buy organic produce, am I expecting that it’s safer for my family than conventional stuff?
Well, yeah, before I read this article, of course I did!
As with every single topic in nutrition, politics, and health, not one aspect of the discussion is black and white. There are no easy answers, and there is no shortage of controversy and conflicting research.
But in the end, I am not convinced that we should avoid organic produce and embrace its conventionally grown counterparts.
I think the most important lesson here is that conventionally grown produce is still more beneficial than anything with an ingredient list, organic or not. Another is that some conventional farmers grow fairly “clean” crops, and yet another is that organic-approved pesticides aren’t exactly as harmless as water.
We’re left thanking Ms. Moyer for her tireless research and praying all the more before we eat our meals, whether they’re mostly organic or whatever you could afford.
And while her son munches on his Shoprite strawberries at breakfast, mine will be enjoying frozen blueberries that we picked ourselves (only about 10% organic, sadly) and organic frozen raspberries from Costco – yet in small portions in homemade yogurt. I can’t afford to put a whole box of strawberries of any kind in front of my fruit-loving children at breakfast!
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- Can Pesticides be Rinsed Off? (video)
- Robyn O’Brien’s Prevention Magazine rebuttal of the same article
- The KS community weighs in on Facebook