Eat more pesticides!

Given my social circle of lots of over-educated college professors and such, I know lots of people who pretty much by all their food at Whole Foods and will only eat organic food.  But all that conventional fruit is damn good for you, too.  So, let me borrow the Melinda Wenner’s introductory beliefs on the matter, which I share,

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.

Right.  Organic foods can use pesticides so long as they are organic pesticides.  Ummm, there’s plenty of organic stuff that can kill you:

The assumption, of course, is that these natural pesticides are safer than the synthetic ones. Many of them are, but there are some notable exceptions. Rotenone, a pesticideallowed in organic farming, is far more toxic by weight than many synthetic pesticides…

The synthetic pesticide Captan is 32.5 times less toxic than Rotenone, and another one, Pyrimethanil, is 42.5 times less toxic than Rotenone. Rotenone is also not the only natural pesticide that out-ranks synthetic pesticides in terms of toxicity. The pyrethrins, a class of pesticides derived from chrysanthemums that are approved for use in organic farming, are more toxic by weight than Round-Up, Captan, and Pyrimethanil, too.

So, there’s that.  But we also need to think realistically about the amounts of pesticides we’re actually being exposed to and their potential for harm:

 Well, let’s start with apples, which the EWG considers the most pesticide-laden fruit or vegetable out there, and look at the pesticide that is most commonly found on them, called Thiabendazole. Winter and his colleagues found that, each day from conventionally-grown apples and apple-based products, Americans typically consume a dose of Thiabendazole that is 787 times less than the EPA’s recommended exposure limit. Put another way, you’d have to eat as many apples and apple products as 787 Americans eat in a single day combined in order to be exposed to a level of this pesticide that approaches the EPA’s exposure limit.

For other fruits and vegetables, Winter and his colleagues found even less reason to worry. For Captan, the synthetic pesticide most commonly found on conventionally grown strawberries, Americans are exposed to 8,180 times less of the chemical per day than the EPA’s limit. Overall, Winter and his colleagues reported that the EPA’s exposure limits were more than 1000 times higher than the daily exposure estimates for 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable comparisons they made.

Granted, we’re exposed to pesticides through other means, too, and some pesticides may have cumulative effects—but Winter says that even so, Americans won’t be ingesting anything close to the EPA’s limits for any of the pesticides used in U.S. agriculture. (And if you ever did ingest a pesticide at or above the EPA’s limit, you wouldn’t suddenly keel over and die. The agency sets pesticide limits at least 100 times lower than the lowest dose that caused any sign of harm, however minimal, to animals when they were fed that amount every day for most of their lives.) “We have a tremendous amount of data showing that what we’re exposed to in the diet for pesticides is very, very low, and certainly much lower than what would be required to have any even minimal health concern,” Winter says. And by the way, in none of these studies were the fruits and vegetables rinsed with tap water before they were tested, yet researchsuggests that doing so can reduce pesticide exposures significantly. Rubbing the food during rinsing helps, too.

Well, there you go.  And I presume I’m not the only one who regularly rinses (and rubs while doing so) my fruits and vegetables.  And, finally, I love the results of this study:

 Onereview concluded that the quartile of Americans who eat the most fruits and vegetables, organic or not, are about half as likely to develop cancer compared to the quartile who eat the least. Fruits and veggies may also prevent heart disease anddiabetes. A fascinating 2012 study used research-based models to predict what would happen if half of all Americans increased their (conventional) fruit and vegetable intake by a single serving each day; it predicted that doing so would prevent 20,000 cases of cancer a year. When the authors modeled whether this increased intake might pose risks due to the greater pesticide exposure, they concluded that yes, there might be 10 additional cases of cancer every year in the U.S. Put another way, the benefits far, far outweigh the risks.

In short, eat more pesticides, because that means you are eating more fruits and vegetables.  And that is way healthier for you than the negatie of low levels of pesticides.

And, I’d be remiss for not weighing in on apples here.  Personally, the local-grown, non-organic, NC apples I buy at the NC Farmer’s Market are awesome and blow away any others in taste.  I’m missing apples season.  After that, the organics I buy at Whole Foods are generally a cut above taste-wise than the conventional Braeburns and Jazz I buy at Food Lion.  I buy apples from all three sources, but I buy based on taste and convenience and will certainly continue doing so.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Eat more pesticides!

  1. John F. says:

    When it comes to the consumption of anything, organic or otherwise, that is not a part of the natural food chain, I believe that we should have a risk aversion approach and a healthy dose of skepticism for the limitations of science. There have been many cases of things that were previously thought to be safe having a whole host of unintended consequences that were absolutely detrimental to the health of human beings and other flora and fauna. Extensive long-term studies with a focus upon those unintended and under-considered consequences should be conducted when considering adding anything to our food supply.

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