Debunking the Organic Myth, Part 1

The response by pro-organic types to the Stanford study last week was swift and defiant (pretty sure I predicted it). The organics responded that nutrition is not the only reason they purchase the overpriced produce! No, they also do it for all sorts of supposedly environmental reasons. But a lot of these reasons given are scare tactics and, quite frankly, bunk. So, over a series of posts, we’re going to take a look at these claims and figure out where the truth really lies.

Myth #1: Eating conventional food increases your exposure to pesticide residue. Therefore, eating conventional food is equivalent to eating pesticides.

This argument is not new and, unfortunately, the Stanford study did little to sort it out. We’ve heard this argument coming from the EWG, which publishes its list of the so-called Dirty Dozen. They claim that some fruits and vegetables have more surface pesticides than others, and these are the ones you should definitely buy organic (note: check out the link to see how the list is completely misleading and wrong). Organics claim this is where the Stanford study went wrong: nutrition isn’t the issue, exposure is.

Before getting to the science of this issue, let’s cover some basic ground. The food being produced across our country by family farms, that same food you’re eating, is the same food being served to farm kids too. We eat what we grow. We don’t have a patch of food for production and a separate patch for personal consumption. It goes against all logic and reason to conclude that farmers would be satisfied with poisoning themselves and their families all for the sake of making money. We eat the same produce that we sell, so it better be good.

Pesticides are heavily regulated by the federal government. In order to even become commercially available, a new pesticide must go through countless studies, research, and millions of dollars to ensure that the product will be safe for both people and the environment. The EPA monitors this entire process (which you can read more about here on their website).

One step along the way is to establish tolerances. The EPA explains this as:

 A tolerance is the maximum amount of a pesticide that can be on a raw product when it is used and still be considered safe. Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), a raw agricultural product is deemed unsafe if it contains a pesticide residue, unless the residue is within the limits of a tolerance established by EPA or is exempt from the requirement. 

Before a product is available, we know exactly how much can be on a raw product (before any type of washing) and still be perfectly fine for human consumption. If the residue exceeds the tolerance, it is technically against the law. The Stanford study did not find any examples of residue over the tolerance limit on any of the conventionally grown food. It did conclude that there was a reduction in the exposure to pesticides by eating organic (which we will put into perspective in a moment).

But wait a second, this still means eating conventional food is like eating pesticides, which is really bad; right? No.

Under the Pesticide Detection Program food samples from around the country are collected and analyzed by the USDA and published annually. The data reflects the amount of pesticide residue on conventionally grown produce. Based on this data, the FDA, USDA, and EPA all conclude that there is no danger with the exposure to the pesticides on conventionally grown food.

Steve Savage, a plant pathologist, has been going through the data and he’s written why you don’t need to be worried (you can find his article on Science 2.0 and his own blog). He says,

Anything that is detected which is below the tolerance is not of any concern.  The tolerances are set specifically by chemical with differences for each crop to reflect  differences in the amount people would eat and which crops tend to be consumed the most by children.  

In other words, the tolerances for the pesticides are set considering who it going to eat it, how much you’re likely to eat, what the crop is, and what chemical is being applied. It takes into consideration that children are going to eat it, or that you’re going to eat 3 ears of corn. Anything below the tolerances are safe. In the USDA’s annual studies, the tolerance levels were well below the maximum allowed. If the maximum is completely safe, then “well below” is even better.

To put things in perspective:

That is why 36.6% of the residues detected in 2010 were for chemicals that are less toxic to mammals than things like salt, or vinegar or the citric acid in your lemons.   73 percent of the detections  were for pesticides that are less toxic than the vanilla that is in your ice cream.  90.5 percent of the pesticides detected were less toxic gram per gram than the ibuprofen that is in the Advil tablets that tens of millions of people take on a regular basis.  95.4% of the detected residues were from chemicals that are less toxic than the caffeine that is in your coffee each morning.  “Pesticide” does not equal “danger.” 

So you might have less exposure to pesticides in organic food, but that still doesn’t justify purchasing organic because the amount of exposure means nothing. I haven’t seen any of the organics crying out against ice cream and coffee.

If the science doesn’t convince you, take a look at this list. It takes the so-called Dirty Dozen and calculates how much of each you would have to eat each day to be at risk. Unless you’re eating 571 apples a day, there is no risk (and, as Savage explains on his blog, this stuff isn’t cumulative, so you really have to eat that much each day). (And who really wants to eat that much celery?!)

Conventional foods are perfectly and totally safe. Take a look at the science, the common sense, and the numbers. Don’t let the scare tactics (and underlying agenda) take you for a ride.

Consider this myth debunked.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3 of this series!

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1 Response to "Debunking the Organic Myth, Part 1"

  1. Anonymous

    Love this….just discovered Steven Savage recently and appreciate what you have to say, too!

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