Organic Produce: Read the Label
- Thursday, April 15, 1999
In 1997, Nevada’s legislators approved regulations for organic farming in the state. While pesticide-free produce still represents a small portion of agriculture in Nevada and the nation, consumer demand for organically grown fruits and vegetables is rising. Last month the Nevada Division of Agriculture certified organic farms for 1999, and later this year it will be enforcing organic standards for produce sold at farmer’s markets throughout the state. "Going organic" can be good business for some farmers, but unfortunately the growth of this niche market helps spread longstanding myths about pesticides. While the alleged dangers of agricultural chemicals are circulated by environmental groups and their allies in the media, the risks posed by organic produce rarely see print. Herewith, an overview of the hazards associated with organic fruits and vegetables—and an examination of the fictitious perils of pesticides.
FQPA: Solution or Problem?
Pesticides have been a part of American politics for several decades. But after years of wrangling, in 1996 Congress passed the bipartisan Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), legislation which overhauled the federal government’s outdated regulations governing agricultural chemicals. The act directed the Environmental Protection Agency to reassess the risk tolerances for all pesticides. "Growers agree that a safe food supply is vital," writes American Fruit Grower Editor Gary Acuff. "But there are grave concerns that improper implementation of FQPA by EPA could raise costs, drive U.S. growers out of business, and actually have a negative impact on the health of consumers."
Acuff’s fear is warranted. During the tenure of Administrator Carol Browner, the EPA has shown a disturbing tendency to place politics before science—among other things, it has played fast and loose with the facts about secondhand smoke and "global climate change." Many farmers fear that the agency will allow junk science to influence its decisions about pesticide safety standards. As evidence, they cite a leaflet on food safety issues the agency drafted last year. In it, the EPA claimed "some pesticides have been shown to cause health problems such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other toxic effects in laboratory animals." The lab-rat reference is a common one for pesticide paranoiacs, but it is entirely invalid. It is not at all clear that rodents and humans are biologically similar, and the doses given to laboratory animals are typically tens of thousands of times higher than a typical human’s exposure to pesticides. "You’d never know from the EPA’s leaflet that the national research councils of both the United States and Canada recently said that pesticide residues pose no significant danger to consumers or their kids," writes Dennis T. Avery, editor of Global Food Quarterly. "Our food supply is not only the safest," writes former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, "but it is the most abundant in the world and pesticides are one of the important tools that have made the abundance possible." Last year, rumors of an imminent EPA ban on two entire classes of pesticides prompted Al Gore—no friend of sound science—to issue a thinly disguised warning to agency regulators not to go too far.
As a result of radical greens’ scare tactics, many people believe that there is a causal connection between pesticides and cancer. But no such link has been proven, and in the words of American Council of Science & Health Executive Director Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, "there has never been one documented case of ill-health related to the regulated, approved use of a pesticide." Recently Stewart Truelsen of the American Farm Bureau Federation noted that the Baby Boom generation was the first to grow up in an environment where pesticide use was common: "A recent major study of midlife adults found that more than 70 percent of them considered their health to be excellent. These are the people who grew up eating fruits and vegetables treated with pesticides. If anything, pesticides have contributed to the good health and longevity of Americans." Despite the belief that widespread chemical use causes cancer in the United States, the nation’s cancer rate—excluding lung cancer, which is caused almost entirely by smoking—has fallen 16 percent since 1950. While it is not commonly known, fruits and vegetables themselves contain the vast majority of pesticides consumed by humans. In a National Center for Policy Analysis study issued last year, Dr. Bruce N. Ames and Dr. Lois Swirsky Gold wrote that "99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves." While fruits and vegetables do make their own pesticides, the cancer-fighting value of produce is undeniable. Many in the public health community fear that the hysteria spread by environmental groups about the nonexistent cancer risks of pesticides may indirectly cause more people to contract cancer. In their study, Ames and Gold echoed the concerns of many in the medical community: "[F]ruits and vegetables are of major importance for reducing cancer; if they become more expensive because of reduced use of synthetic pesticides, then cancer is likely to increase."
While radical environmentalists constantly bray about the alleged dangers of pesticides, they devote little attention to the proven risks of organic produce. The natural methods organic farmers use to control infestations and fertilize their produce put consumers at greater risk than the pesticides used by traditional farmers. One culprit is the use of composted manure. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, this method of fertilization puts consumers in danger from E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. The Food and Drug Administration found that since synthetic fungicides are not used on organic fruits and vegetables, they may be infested by natural toxins, including the deadly carcinogen aflatoxin. Organic produce isn't the only culprit—last year Consumer Reports found that free-range chickens are more likely to be infected with bacteria.
As the Competitive Enterprise Institute puts it, "Nothing is ‘wrong’ with organic farming, just as nothing is necessarily ‘right’ with it either. Consumers who prefer to purchase organic food should have the freedom to do so. But those consumers who find that organic products are more expensive or less appealing should also have the option of purchasing non-organic foods." The latter group of consumers is currently threatened by the twin terrors of heavy-handed federal regulation and extremist—and scientifically unsupportable—environmental rhetoric. Organic farmers in Nevada and throughout the nation should be proud of their niche market. But organic farms will probably never be viable alternatives to farms which use agricultural chemicals, and all consumers should be aware of the health risks of pesticide-free produce.
D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s monthly magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.