Will “Organic” Food Protect My Baby and Me from Pesticides?

The short answer is no, it will not. However, pesticide exposure is not something that ought to worry you anyway, as long as you don’t work on a farm or in a factory that produces pesticides or anything of that nature. Along with certain other terms, such as “chemicals” and “GMOs”, “pesticide” is a term that you see food sellers and marketers throwing around. Usually, the term is followed by “-free”, or preceded by “Non-“, implying that whatever product they are selling contains none of it, whereas the corresponding product that lacks such a chemical-free, non-GMO, pesticide-free, or other such label, contains something that will harm you and/or your children. Although the so-called “organic” farming began with good intentions as a movement to produce crops with increased sustainability, sadly the opposite has happened; because the organic movement has increasingly rejected genetic engineering technologies, synthetic herbicides and fertilizers, and other modern food advances, organic farms produce less food per acre than conventional farms and contribute more toward greenhouse warming of Earth per amount of food produced.

Furthermore, organic food does not contain lower levels of pesticides compared with conventional foods; it merely contains different pesticides, and worse, because those pesticides are not classified as synthetic, we cannot get accurate information regarding the amounts of these substances in food that is certified as “organic”. And yet, in our culture, a great number of people actually seek out “organic” food on the basis that is assumed to be safer. This is happening, not because of science, but often in direct conflict with science. Rather, it happens because of money. Big food manufacturers and chains of so-called “health food” stores benefit from circulation of health myths, and so they help to promote and amplify the myths. They succeed, because large numbers of consumers lack an understanding of basic concepts in chemistry and biology, are easily intimidated and impressed with terminology that sounds scientific, when the usage is inappropriate to the topic. This is a prime feature of pseudoscience, the phenomenon in which a myth is made to sound credible and scientific through the misapplication of scientific terminology and illusions of a scientific process.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, when it comes to certain pseudoscience –namely pseudoscience connected with food and with vaccines – apparently, the higher your income, the more vulnerable you are to falling for the marketing trick. A fairly recent study conducted by the Michigan State University AgBio research unit found that while food science illiteracy is common across the population, those earning more income tend to believe that they are well-informed about food issues when they are actually ignorant of the topic. This is why food companies can easily convince well-to-do consumers to spend significantly more money to purchase “organic” food, rather than the corresponding “conventional” food, even in cases when the conventional food item appears better.

For more perspective on organic food, consider that in 2014 a brand of European organic almonds sold in Whole Foods Market was recalled. Why? Because of levels of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) within the nuts that potentially could have killed people. HCN is the poison that sometimes you see characters take in spy movies, when a spy is about to be captured and wants to die quickly to avoid being questioned or tortured by the enemy. It works quickly, as it disrupts electron transport within mitochondria, the power plant organelles in your cells. When you eat conventionally farmed almonds, you don’t need to worry about cyanide poisoning, because those nuts are treated chemically to prevent such a situation. But if you get almonds from food suppliers whose business plan depends on bragging about how they don’t use “chemicals”, well, then the danger is greater. While the danger level is not as extreme in connection with pesticides as it is with HCN, the pesticide issue is based on the same underlying fallacy –namely that, somehow, less tampering by human industrial processes leads to better food. This is wrong for a whole bunch of reasons.

First of all, everything is a chemical. You are made of chemicals, as is everyone and everything around you. Water is a chemical. Oxygen is a chemical. Your muscles, bones, intestines, and brain all are made of chemicals. Yes, the marketers of so-called organic or natural food have particular types of chemicals in mind when they tell consumers that something is chemical-free, particularly agents that are known by their chemical name. Copper sulfate, for example, is known by its chemical name, signified by the formula CuSO4. It’s the pretty-looking blue crystals that your high school chemistry teacher warned you to handle with care, because it’s toxic if you consume it. On the other hand though, it’s natural, meaning it occurs in nature. Thus, organic farmers use CuSO4 as an agent to kill fungus, algae, and other pests such as snails, and, since it’s a naturally-occurring inorganic chemical, they can sprinkle however much seems like a good amount without jeopardizing their “organic” certification. In contrast, with synthetic agents (which ironically tend to be organic chemicals, meaning carbon-based, using the term organic in the scientific rather than the marketing sense), strict regulations mean that we know the amounts that are used, and the amounts that end up in food. Consequently, the toxicity can be managed with synthetic agents, whereas farming done with naturally occurring chemicals leaves a big unknown. That’s the case with CuSO4 and also with rotenone, which is organic in the scientific sense and also in the marketing sense, because it is naturally-occurring – a naturally occurring insecticide that is, which is to say a type of pesticide (insecticides and herbicides both are categories of pesticides). Is it less toxic than many synthetic pesticides? Yes, rotenone can be less toxic per a given amount compared with certain synthetic pesticides, but it is also not as effective per given amount in killing pests, so organic farmers use more of it than conventional farmers use of the comparable synthetic pesticide. From the perspective of the organic farmer, rotenone and CuSO4 are acceptable and you can use as much as you want. From the perspective of the organic marketing industry, you don’t even have to mention that this practice results in unknown quantities of pesticides in the organic food. The problem is not that such pesticides in organic food are harmful. The food is safe for you and your baby. The problem is that the situation and the high level of food science illiteracy allows the organic industry to mislead and misconstrue to the point that it is very common for consumers to believe that pesticides in conventionally farmed food are harmful and that organic food is pesticide free.

For perspective, keep in mind that pesticides are part of nature. Over millions of years, plants have evolved their own pesticides as part of a biological arms race to protect themselves against insects and other creatures that would otherwise harm them. Also, keep in mind that they are pesticides –agents that kill pests. They are not homicides –agents that kill humans. Not everything that kills one type of organism harms other organisms, and actually there are some pesticides that we humans want to ingest. Caffeine, for instance, is an insecticide. It paralyzes and kills invertebrate creatures. But it keeps us awake. If you want to avoid pesticides, stop drinking coffee and eating chocolate. It’s loaded with pesticides.

Now, very often you will hear the complaints about insecticides and other pesticides voiced in connection with complaints about “genetically modified organisms (GMOs)” –an absolutely ridiculous term, because everything that you eat, apart from water and salt, is genetically modified. We, and all living things around us, are genetically modified. We are constantly being genetically modified. Our genes are constantly changing, along with the proportions of different genes in our populations. We have been genetically modifying agricultural crops since agriculture began more than 10,000 years ago, but with modern genetic engineering we can do it in a more deliberate, safer way. The “GMO” known as Bt corn provides a wonderful example that connects directly with insecticides. Bt is short for the name of a bacterial species, Bacillus thuringiensis, that organic farmers used to spray all over corn and certain other crops dozens of times per season, because the Bt produces an insecticide protein that kills a tiny little worm-like animal that otherwise eats through and destroys the corn. The protein works by attaching to special receptors in the worm’s digestive tract, so the digestive tract ruptures. We humans don’t have those receptors, so if we consume the Bt protein we simply digest it with our various enzyme chemicals into the amino acid building blocks of which it’s made. However, nobody wants to spray crops over and over so many times per season, so a few decades ago a scientist figured out how to get a bacterial gene working in the genome of a corn plant. This was a big technical challenge, but eventually it worked, leading to Bt corn, which makes its own Bt protein, its own insecticide to kill the little worm. Extremely tiny amounts of the Bt insecticide are created within the corn, yet it works better at killing the little worm compared with spraying on the bacteria in massive amounts.

What does this mean in terms of the amount of the insecticide in Bt corn versus the amount in the “non-GMO” corn that is fairly difficult to find in North American, although people do seek it out? It means that the amount of the particular insecticide –Bt protein– is orders of magnitude higher in the non-GMO or the organic corn compared with the Bt corn, which has the Bt bacterial gene engineered into it. Let me say that again, just to emphasize that you did not read this backward. The Bt insecticide, about which anti-GMO activists and marketers of so-called non-GMO food are spreading fear because it is engineered into GMO corn, is present in hundreds to thousands of times higher doses in non-GMO (and in corn that is marketed as organic, since organic currently is required to be non-GMO.

Therefore, do not be intimidated by the organic industry, the anti-GMO activists, and others who spread the myth about pesticides and other food myths. It is utter con-artistry, and does you and your baby a great disservice.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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