IF you buy organic food
because you think it's free of the cancer-causing pesticides used on other farms, think again
June 6, 2001
by Alex A. Avery
Organic farmers routinely spray their crops with naturally occurring pesticides and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified pyrethrum, a top organic pesticide, as a likely human carcinogen.
Feeling paranoid yet? Well, in fact, the EPA made that call in secret, almost two years ago! The revelation about pyrethrum, with other recent findings, calls into question the superiority of organic farming.
For decades, activists have claimed that organic food is healthier and kinder to the environment than chemically farmed food. Organic farmers, for example, didn’t use synthetic pesticides. What most people don’t realize and activists try to hide is that organic farmers are allowed to use a wide array of natural chemicals as pest killers. Moreover, these natural poisons pose the same theoretical (but remote) dangers as the synthetic pesticides so hated by organic devotees.
Last year, we learned that rotenone, a natural insecticide squeezed from roots of tropical plants, causes symptoms of Parkinson disease in rats. Now we learn of the EPAs pyrethrum decision.
The EPAs Cancer Assessment Review Committee based its 1999 decision on the same high-dose rat tests long used by eco-activists to condemn synthetic pesticides. Because no one knows just how pyrethrum causes tumors, the committee also recommended assuming that even the tiniest dose can be deadly. (The same logic is used to brand hundreds of other chemicals as carcinogens.)
Charles Benbrook, a long-time organic activist, notes that pyrethrum is applied to crops at low rates and that pyrethrum degrades relatively rapidly, minimizing consumer exposure. He’s right, but all this is true of today’s non-persistent synthetic pesticides as well.
Pyrethrum and modern synthetic pesticides break down so rapidly that consumers are rarely exposed to any at all. Two thirds of all fruits and vegetables tested as they leave the farm in the U.S. have no detectable pesticide residues despite our being able to detect chemicals at parts per trillion levels. (That’s equivalent to 1 second in 31,000 years!)
Pyrethrum is extracted from a type of chrysanthemum grown mainly in Africa. It is literally a nerve poison that these plants evolved to fight off munching insects. The dried, ground-up flowers were used in the early 19th century to control body lice.
In fact, many of the widely used synthetic pesticides are based on natural plant-defense chemicals. Synthetic versions of pyrethrum (known as pyrethroids) make it possible to protect a crop with one or two sprays instead of spraying natural pyrethrum five to seven times at higher volumes.
Organic activists hold to the twisted logic that if a toxic chemical can be squeezed from a plant or mined from the earth, it’s OK but a safer chemical synthesized in a lab is unacceptable.
It is possible to farm without pesticides, as demonstrated by a farm family recently highlighted in Organic Gardening magazine. They use a Shop-Vac and a portable generator in a wheelbarrow to daily suck insects off crops. Talk about labor intensive! And even that won’t fight fungal or bacterial diseases, or insects that eat crops from the inside out.
Organic coffee growers in Guatemala spray coffee trees with fermented urine as a primitive fungicide.
Bruce Ames, noted cancer expert and recent winner of the National Medal of Science, notes that more than half of the natural food chemicals he tests come up carcinogenic the same proportion as synthetic chemicals. These natural chemicals are collectively present in large amounts in the very fruits and vegetables that are our biggest defense against cancer.
Medical and health authorities are unanimous in their recommendation of 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetable per day to ward off cancer no matter how they are grown. Lesson: high-dose rat tests vastly exaggerate risks.
With global food demand set to more than double in the next 50 years and one third of the planet’s wildlife habitat already converted to farmland, humanity must responsibly use pesticides to produce more per acre.
There simply are no compelling reasons to demand chemical-free farming.
This article appeared in the New York Post on June 2, 2001
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.