Pesticide Politics

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Pesticides freak us out – and understandably so. The idea of otherwise healthy fruits and vegetables marred by residual poison unnerves us because, generally speaking, we’re clueless. We’re totally removed from the process of production. We don’t know what was sprayed, we can’t see the trace pesticides, we can’t measure them on our own, and, let’s face it, the vast majority of us don’t remotely understand how these agents work.? The upshot is that we’re left to trust outside interpreters to assess the risk for us.

And this, as a recently hatched debate reminds us, can be equally unnerving. Earlier this month, 50 environmental organizations got together and demanded that California return a $180,000 federal grant awarded to the Alliance for Food and Farming, an agricultural non-profit based in Watsonville, CA. The AFF received the grant, in its own words, “to correct misconceptions that some produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues.” The protesting organizations – notably the Environmental Working Group and the Organic Consumers Association – claimed that such a mission “strikes a blow” at the organic movement, adding that “it is inappropriate for state and federal officials to categorically take the side of conventional agribusiness in this scientific and policy debate.”

At the center of this emerging food fight is a popular pamphlet that the EWG has been publishing for years called the “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides.” In it, the EWG reports results of tests conducted for pesticide traces on 49 fruits and vegetables (conducted by the USDA and FDA). The takeaway from these high profile reports – the part that goes viral on the web and captures the headlines – is a list of the 12 most “contaminated” foods. This year’s “Dirty Dozen” includes blueberries, peaches, strawberries, kale and spinach. These are some of the healthiest foods that our good earth yields, but the EWG advises that you “can lower your pesticide consumption by nearly four-fifths by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables.”

The Alliance for Food and Farming finds this suggestion to be counterproductive. Drawing on a study conducted by five scientific experts (which it commissioned), the AFF in no way denies that certain foods contain trace pesticides. Instead, it contends that exposure isn’t the same as toxicity. The Dirty Dozen, it explains, “is misleading to consumers in that it is based only upon exposure data while remaining silent about available information on the assessment of the toxicity.”

Public-relations wise, the AFF is in a tough spot. Taking a position that tolerates pesticides hardly attracts throngs of happy supporters.? From a scientific perspective, however, the AFF seems to be on solid ground.? The EWG report cites not a single study to support a direct link between pesticide residue and health defects. In fact, it openly admits that “the EWG’s shopping guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks.” But then it refers to some pesticides that are “linked to brain and nervous system toxicity” and others that are “linked to cancer.” All of which raises the confounding question: what do we mean by “linked”? Directly linked? Or linked in the way that the flap of a butterfly’s wings is linked to a monsoon on the other side of the world?

Easily missed in all the linguistic ambiguity is the well substantiated fact that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables – organic or not – is healthier than a diet lacking in these foods. “The consumption of fruit and vegetable-rich diets,” the AFF explains (citing several peer-reviewed studies), “is associated with a reduced risk for high blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, and probably some cancers.”

What apparently worries the AFF is that consumers who know they should be eating more fruits and veggies (but are unwilling to pay twice as much for organic) will use the documented presence of pesticide residues as a convenient excuse to avoid eating more fruits and veggies. In this sense, the EWG’s implied health threat is obscuring an important question: could the density and variety of nutrients in plant foods far outweigh whatever possible health defects are caused by ingesting trace amounts of pesticide residue?

As critical as this question is, it cannot be answered with complete certainty. After all, it’s impossible to assert with 100 percent confidence that a particular chemical doesn’t cause cancer, especially when so many agents do cause problems if delivered to lab rats in high doses. Still, to use the premise that certain pesticides could cause harm in order to dissuade consumers from eating conventional produce fails to consider several basic countervailing points, all of them summarized in the AFF-sponsored rebuttal.

First, the vast majority (as in 99+ percent) of the dietary pesticides we eat are natural. Plants have evolved their own chemical defenses. Many of these natural pesticides are equally, if not more, carcinogenic than their synthetic counterparts. Dr. Bruce Ames, the Berkeley biochemist who has dedicated a lifetime of research to carcinogens and aging, has famously noted that we ingest more carcinogens from a cup of coffee than from a year’s worth of conventional produce. “People got it in their head [that] if it’s man-made somehow it’s potentially dangerous, but if it’s natural it isn’t,” Ames groused to Reason magazine. “That doesn’t really fit with anything we know about toxicology.”

Second, although it’s de riguer to dismiss regulatory agencies, the EPA’s guidelines for assessing the risks of residues are impressive.? Cancer risk is judged according to a one in a million “acceptable risk level,” while a 10-fold safety factor is applied when establishing acceptable levels of residue for infants, children and fetuses.? The USDA’s monitoring of residues finds very, very few cases of over-exposure. In 2007, over 11,000 sample tests detected residue exceeding legal limits in only .4 percent of the cases.? Moreover, legal exposure levels are ten times lower than levels known to have negative effects on animals, meaning that even the .4 percent was probably relatively innocuous.

Finally, the evidence is mixed at best that eating organic – the one alternative that avoids synthetic residues – is any healthier than eating conventional.? In a way, such a comparison is of limited value – the nutritive quality of plants can vary according to an indefinite number of factors (which may or may not be linked to organic or conventional production). That said, the Institute of Food Technologies observed in 2006 that “pesticide residues, naturally occurring toxins, nitrates, and polyphenolic compounds exert their health risks or benefits on a dose-related basis, and data do not yet exist to ascertain whether the difference in the levels of such chemicals between organic foods and conventional foods are of biological significance.”

At this point, it’s worth returning to the original objection to the AFF’s relatively small grant. The fifty groups opposed to the FAA insisted that “it is inappropriate for state and federal officials to categorically take the side of conventional agribusiness.” I understand the concerns with industrial agriculture. But – given the unresolved complexity of the matter – are there even sides to take? Isn’t it the science that we should be concerned about? Rather than bicker over whether or not agribusiness is currying undo favor, shouldn’t we be asking our expert gatekeepers to objectively discern whether or not I should be eating the handful of conventional blueberries I consume every morning? Or has the politics of food gone so far down the rabbit hole of interest politics that we’re all doomed to make our dietary choices in complete darkness?


Roy

@#5

A concept that facilitates clearer thinking on the subject.

The dose makes the poison.

Kristin Schafer

Fully agree that we should follow the science. The thing is, there's actually plenty of data about how pesticides affect human health - and especially kids.

Hard to miss all the media coverage recently of the link between organophosphate pesticides to ADHD - specifically looking at exposure via food residues (it's of course much higher for kids in rural areas where the chemicals are sprayed).

And that's just one example - there are many many studies documenting all kinds of health effects, from parkinsons to cancer.

A resource that may be useful is something our group put together last year to help consumers navigate the confusion swirling around pesticides & food: www.whatsonmyfood.org. We combined USDA data on pesticide residues with scientific studies of health impacts of specific chemicals. We're hoping it will help people make informed choices - and be a useful contribution to the important public discussion on these issues.

- Kristin Schafer, Pesticide Action Network

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CantuCMS

I believe I have to side with the AFF on this issue, at least until concrete scientific evidence proves that the trace amounts of pesticides in conventional foods can be hazardous to your health.
To me, the EWG report on the trace pesticides on foods and their recommendations not to eat specific conventional agricultural products is just a ploy to increase demand for organic products by changing customers' tastes. I believe the resulting change in demand is unfair to conventional producers and the consumers if there is no actual health risk involved in eating conventional foods. Conventional agriculture provides customers with large quanitites of low-priced fruits and vegetables that carry a large number of vital nutrients. Until it is proven that traces of pesticide cause more health problems than the benefits received from eating fruits and vegetables, there is no reason to switch to the organic variety other than personal preference.

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Alex Formuzis

EWG's response to Mr. McWilliams' editor:

October 20, 2010

Ms. Dwyer Gunn
Editor
Freakonomics

Dear Ms. Gunn:

Today's New York Times' Freakonomics opinion page carries a piece by guest blogger James McWilliams that overlooks or misstates key points made by our Shoppers Guide to Pesticides.

Mr. McWilliams writes:

"...EWG's implied health threat is obscuring an important question: could the density and variety of nutrients in plant foods far outweigh whatever possible health defects are caused by ingesting trace amounts of pesticide residue?"

But in fact, EWG and Mr. McWilliams are in complete accord on this point. The first paragraph of the Shopper's Guide "Frequently Asked Questions" says:

Do all these pesticides mean I shouldn't eat fruits and vegetables?

No, eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG's Shopper's Guide to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all. http://www.foodnews.org/faq.php

We obviously disagree with Mr. McWilliams' charge that "The EWG report cites not a single study to support a direct link between pesticide residue and health defects."

Our report cites a number of studies conducted by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Academy of Sciences and Harvard University, for example, at this page: (http://www.foodnews.org/reduce.php#2

Mr. McWilliams makes light of our characterization of research showing that certain pesticides have been "linked" to cancer or neurological damage. "Directly linked?" he scoffs. " Or linked in the way that the flap of a butterfly's wings is linked to a monsoon on the other side of the world?"

We consider the scientific studies that have found associations between pesticide and disease to have been conducted with scientific rigor and objectivity. The evidence they have produced is sobering and no cause for mockery.

We stand by our reporting that:
Some of the most toxic food pesticides have come off the market in the past 15 years. Some pesticides considered safe now will invariably be restricted in future years.

Since 1996 EPA has cancelled 6,224 registered pesticide uses, including some considered to pose the greatest risks to children (EPA OIG 2010). Chemical agribusiness interests might assert that pesticides in food are perfectly safe, but the reality is that many pesticide uses that are on the books as safe today will be found unsafe by EPA in the future, based on new science, new understandings about the mechanisms by which pesticides can harm the human body, or strengthened policies for health protection within the agency itself.

Pesticides are unique among the chemicals people release into the environment. As we all know, they were created for the express purpose of killing living organisms -- insects, plants and fungi that many people consider "pests." Because they are toxic by design, many pesticides pose health dangers to people. Independent research scientists and physicians throughout the world have established the risks of various formulations.

Experimenting on people is obviously unethical and immoral; so most evidence on pesticide hazards comes, as it must, from laboratory studies employing animals and observational studies of workers and the general public.

We say that some pesticides are "linked to cancer" because two-year feeding studies show a statistically significant relationship between exposure to high doses of pesticides and cancer. Such evidence is bolstered by studies finding that everyday pesticide may directly harm human health.

The word "linked" is a standard term accepted by experts in the field of chemical hazard, including epidemiologists, toxicologists, and risk assessors.

Some examples:

-- A recent Harvard study of pesticide levels in 1,139 children ages 8 to 15 reported a 55 percent increase in ADHD diagnoses for every 10-fold increase exposures to organophosphate pesticide used on foods and to kill pests in the home.

-- The Environmental Protection Agency website says, "Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate." http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/arsenic/index.cfm Few experts would find EPA's assessment unconvincing because arsenic is only "linked" to severe health effects.

An EPA press release about toxicity of improperly disposed electronic waste, says that "some of these wastes contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals that have been linked to cancer, developmental problems, neurological disorders and more." Few scientists would dispute this characterization.
http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/d0cf6618525a9efb85257359003fb69d/a85d7adf843dc04b852577ba005e7e4c!OpenDocument

-- Former EPA administrator Carol Browner said in a recent speech, "These endocrine disruptor chemicals, if they appear in pesticides in our food and in chemicals in our drinking water, could be linked to breast cancer and other diseases." http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/a883dc3da7094f97852572a00065d7d8/cd664300a9c902558525701a0052e323!OpenDocument

-- Chemical and Engineering News, a leading publication in chemical science and policy fields, headlined a recent article, "Formaldehyde Linked To Cancer In Humans." http://pubs.acs.org/cen/environment/88/8823govc3.html

-- A 2008 report entitled "Agriculture and Cancer," published by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, presents a full range of evidence on agricultural chemicals and cancer, suggesting "five ways we can prevent cancer linked to agricultural exposures" (available at http://www.sustainableproduction.org/downloads/AgricultureandCancer_000.pdf)

Absolute certainty and 100 percent proof of causation are rare in science, especially when professionals responsible for risk assessments must attempt to distinguish the particular health effects of one chemical or group of chemicals such as pesticides from those of other environmental pollutants. However, that we live in a complicated world is no reason to shy away from avoiding risks about which we are confident. When a diverse body of occupational studies and laboratory animal research suggests a link between a chemical and a deadly disease, public health protection and simple common sense would suggest that the chemicals is worth a second look - a very hard look.

I hope you'll ask Mr. McWilliams to correct his post to reflect the points I've laid out here. I'll also post a portion of this to the comment section so that your readers can hear our point of view and add their own comments, if they wish.

Sincerely,

Alex Formuzis
VP for media relations
Environmental Working Group

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Rob Johnson

If lots of studies have shown that eating vegetables is good for you, then doesn't that prove that the health benefits of vegetables outweigh the deleterious effects of pesticides? Unless the studies used only pesticide free produce, then all the vegetables the subjects ate presumably had normal pesticide levels.

Geoff Johnston

According to research from the Hartman Group, 29% of consumers reported in 2010 that they don't buy more produce because of pesticide concerns, which is up from 18% in 2008.

Bottom line... The "list" designed to help shoppers is actually scaring them away from the fresh healthy produce they need to be consuming to help fight cancer, obesity, heart disease and more.

J

"It's not just that there's only a choice between super-expensive organics and pesticide-laden but cheaper conventionals."

There really isn't a choice; organics are just as pesticide laden as pesticide laden but cheaper conventionals. Organics are basically a vanity product for wealthy consumers.

"Instead of getting my garlic up the road in Gilroy, it's 'cheaper' to have it shipped from China on boats powered by toxic bunker fuel from Venezuela"

That's because it's exponentially more efficient. If you drove your Prius down to Gilroy from SF to buy a pound of garlic, you burned several times as much fuel as was used to transport a similar pound from China to the Port of San Francisco.

"that we live in a complicated world is no reason to shy away from avoiding risks about which we are confident"

Agreed. Based on the numbers, starvation, which can be substantially reduced with cheap, mass produced food, appears to be a considerably bigger risk than cancer. Unless you're white and speak english.

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Y. Armando Nieto

I am writing as executive director of one of the organizations who signed on to the letter to say that while this is a well written article, in my opinion it entirely misses the point.

Pesticide manufacturers have millions in marketing dollars to promote their products and they do so quite freely and without restriction. Farmers and other growers who want to compete for dollars are likewise free to apply for the limited resources available through the 2008 Farm Bill under which the cited grant award was made.

But none of us should be so naive as to think that there is a level playing field with regard to pesticide use, which is the business of giant corporations--and not farmers.

Let's reserve the limited Farm Bill dollars for people, food workers and farmers who toil so hard to fix a broken food system and provide healthy food for us all. Because rest assured, the corporations will continue to pour millions into marketing their products without the need for taking public support from those more/most interested in the public good.

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Paul

@ Mark, #17. Organophophates, carbamates and pyrethroids are what??? Your entire post is completely untrue.

The first two are among the most toxic chemicals types known to humans -- they are nerve poisons that were originally used as weapons. Workers who apply those pesticides on farms have to have monthly medical check ups to confirm that the chemicals are not building up in their bodies. When they apply them, they wear full respirators with air tanks.

Both OP and CBs are likely to be banned by the EPA in the next ten years for these reasons, but are currently still widely used.

All three of these types of chemicals are incredibly toxic to fish and other aquatic wildlife. Farmers are heavily restricted over when they can use them to avoid run off to surfacewater.

Emmi

@Mary -

Thank you for the links. Since you've read these studies, can you tell me which one addresses my concern, which specific 17 carcinogens are found in coffee? The abstracts do not seem to indicate that Ames ever named them.

Maria BetancesCMS

Pesticides is something that is needed in all farming feilds. If not crops will get eaten by bugs and farmers will not produce anything. They won't be able to produce anything, their opportunity cost of producing these crops without the help of pesticides will be too high. In tho thoer hand it is true many pesticides are bad for our health, but if they've been prooved not to harm why not eat the crop. I am tottaly against those people that don't eat their veggies nor fruits because some have been spayed with pestisides. Then why don't they plant their own crops and grow them their ways? lets see if they are able to grow them without having bugs all over them. However I am totally on the AFF's side. Peopl should be confident that if these crops have been apporved to be sold in the market, it is because they do no harm. If not, then they will suffer the consequences of not eating the nutirents they need.

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StefanCMS

"Could the density and variety of nutrients in plant foods far outweigh whatever possible health defects are caused by ingesting trace amounts of pesticide residue?"

By the author's own referrals, yes. As James notes, "The EWG report cites not a single study to support a direct link between pesticide residue and health defects." So, whatever pesticide residues exists, at this point, have not even been correlated to cause harm (although the author goes on to speculate, then knock down that speculation after the above quote).

however, it's also important to note the PR effect this could have on the general public. While consumers seek to always make the best decision in a purchase, this decision may not always be grounded in the correct facts. Thus, should the AFF be aggressively portrayed by the EWG as "big agribusiness out to sell you pesticide vegetables" this could potentially cause a huge loss in revenue, even if the AFF presents cogent arguments and facts.

Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't be worried about the pesticides that go into our food, and the resulting malignancies that may/may may not occur. But if it ain't broke, atleast until proven otherwise, we don't need to fix it.

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EarlW

"to rescind a $180,000 federally funded grant".

I've got a better idea. Just rescind ALL the grants. Then they won't have anything to complain about.

Alex Formuzis

In reply to StefanCMS #33:

This is from EWG's note to Mr. McWilliams' editor re: his false claim we don't cite any studies on the links between pesticides and adverse impacts to human health.

Our report cites a number of studies conducted by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Academy of Sciences and Harvard University, for example, at this page: (http://www.foodnews.org/reduce.php#2

Mr. McWilliams makes light of our characterization of research showing that certain pesticides have been "linked" to cancer or neurological damage. "Directly linked?" he scoffs. " Or linked in the way that the flap of a butterfly's wings is linked to a monsoon on the other side of the world?"

We consider the scientific studies that have found associations between pesticide and disease to have been conducted with scientific rigor and objectivity. The evidence they have produced is sobering and no cause for mockery.

We stand by our reporting that:
Some of the most toxic food pesticides have come off the market in the past 15 years. Some pesticides considered safe now will invariably be restricted in future years.

Since 1996 EPA has cancelled 6,224 registered pesticide uses, including some considered to pose the greatest risks to children (EPA OIG 2010). Chemical agribusiness interests might assert that pesticides in food are perfectly safe, but the reality is that many pesticide uses that are on the books as safe today will be found unsafe by EPA in the future, based on new science, new understandings about the mechanisms by which pesticides can harm the human body, or strengthened policies for health protection within the agency itself.

Pesticides are unique among the chemicals people release into the environment. As we all know, they were created for the express purpose of killing living organisms - insects, plants and fungi that many people consider "pests." Because they are toxic by design, many pesticides pose health dangers to people. Independent research scientists and physicians throughout the world have established the risks of various formulations.

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Mary

@Emmi: sorry, I though you would actually be able to read the text too. In the PNAS paper table 2 has a number of the coffee ones. And it provides multiple references for them.

Similarly, the Science paper has lists and references for them as well. Some of them are hard to extract from the PDFs because they old-style as this data has existed for so long.

This paper has more that I can copy over, I'll do that: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6351251
"Coffee, which contains a considerable amount of burnt material, including the mutagenic pyrolysis product methylglyoxal, is mutagenic (21, 98). However, one cup of coffee also contains about 250 mg of the natural mutagen chlorogenic acid (9) [which is also an antinitrosating
agent (66)], highly toxic atractylosides (10), the glutathione transferase inducers kahweal palmitate and cafestol palmitate (11), and about 100 mg of caffeine [which inhibits a DNA-repair system and can increase tumor yield (99) and cause birth defects at high levels in several experimental species (100)]."

PS: Just because you can't read beyond the abstract doesn't mean he never named them.

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Mary

@Emmi: this reference has the best list, but I wasn't sure it would copy over. Typos may be an artifact of an old PDF, but I'll try. Table 1 shows this:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1411524

Table 1. Carcinogenicity status of natural chemicals in roasted coffee.
Positive Aceadehyde, Beazaldehyde, Bazne, Benzofuran, Benzo(a)pyrne, Caffeic Acid, Catechol, 1,25,6-Dibenzanthracene, Ethanol, Ethylbenzene, Fonnaldehyde, Furan, Furfural, Hydrogen Peroxide, Hydroquinone, Limonene, MeIQ, Styrene, Toluene

Marilyn

Newborn babies are born with pesticides in them, rather than using good land stewardship many agri business people plant the same crop over and over again with the result of ever having to increase the amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Eventually, and I mean within the next 25 years, most of the nutritious topsoils will have blown away creating a dustbowl that will make the 1930's look like nothing across this nation.
Currently methyl bromide is used with abandon in the USA even though it is eating a hole in the ozone layer. When it goes away it will be replaced by methyl iodide, a known carcinogen that causes miscarriage birth defects etc and is water soluable(and will stay there for years).
The average life expectancy of workers in conventional strawberry fields is 49 years. Autism, Adhd all linked to pesticide exposure is on the rise both near to farmland and away.
And yet, people make flip jokes about how they like their pesticide laden produce. How funny will it be when your children are just not right or your son or daughter cannot concieve or have cancer, neurological damage etc.
I fail to see any reasons to make glib jokes about this.

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hobbes

"de rigueur", not "de riguer"

bob

I actually think this issue just needs common sense. Today people have absolute faith in scientific studies, and yet it's very rare that a study definitively proves anything.

Look at smoking. Lots of studies showed a problem, but the industry resisted with its own info. But just think about it with common sense. When you first encounter smoke, you feel sick. If you don't smoke, you hate the thick choking air it leaves. Common sense tells you that it's going to be bad for you.

Now look at pesticides. They are designed to kill bugs. You can talk about natural pesticides all you want, but if those were good at killing, we wouldn't need man-made pesticides. So we have all these pesticides that are designed to kill bugs in our food supply and environment. Common sense tells me there are going to be some adverse effects.

Do we have any disincentive for a company to profit on making others sick? Cigarette companies made a lot of money for a long time selling poison.

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Jeffrey

or we could just remember to wash the fruit before eating it.