In a previous post, What does Organic Mean, I provided some definitions of the term Organic. Most people think of Organic food as being pesticide free. The lack of pesticides is one of the main reasons for paying higher prices.
People also think Organic food tastes better and is higher in nutrition, but both of these claims have been completely disproved. Today I’d like to discuss the issue of lower pesticide levels in organic foods.
Synthetic and Natural Pesticides
Traditional farming uses man-made (synthetic) pesticides and these pesticides do form residues on fruits and vegetables. When you eat an apple you do eat some of these pesticides. If you have read Chemicals in Coffee you will understand that the fact that the apple has pesticides on it is not the only important fact. You also need to know how much of the pesticide you eat. We’ll look at some numbers today.
What is the difference between ‘synthetic’ pesticides and ‘natural’ pesticides? Either type of pesticide can be safe or harmful to life. Synthetics are no more harmful than natural–natural does not mean safe. In fact I would prefer the synthetic ones since we test these and understand them. Most natural pesticides have not even been discovered yet – we don’t know how dangerous they might be.
Natural Pesticides We Consume
The following data comes from Bruce Ames, (ref 1). It is very worth while reading.
In North America we ingest 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticides each day, mostly from the food we eat. That is a relatively small amount, but most people still get very concerned about this problem. In fact it is the reason for the whole organic movement – to eliminate synthetic pesticides from our food.
What about natural pesticides? It turns out we eat 1,500 mg of natural pesticides every day. That is 10,000 times more than the amount of synthetic pesticides. Some of these come from the natural pesticides sprayed onto organic food, but most of them are natural chemicals produced by the plants.
Plants Produce Natural Pesticides
Plants produce many chemicals to defend themselves against insects and other pests. There are thousands of these chemicals in every plant and each time we eat any part of a plant, we ingest these pesticides. On average we eat between 5,000 and 10,000 different natural pesticides, most of which have not been adequately studied by science. We don’t know how dangerous they are. What we do know is that humans have been eating them for generations without significant problems. We don’t need to get alarmed about these numbers.
Unfounded Fears of Synthetic Pesticides
Cooking our food produces 2,000 mg of burnt material, per day, per person (ref 1). This material contains many carcinogens and mutagens. Cooking food is a much bigger problem than synthetic pesticides!
A single cup of coffee contains the same amount of natural carcinogens as a years worth of synthetic pesticides from fruits and vegetables (ref 1). Restated a different way; eliminating a years worth of synthetic pesticides from food is like skipping one cup of coffee. You are far better off buying non-organic food and drinking less coffee – both would save you money.
The organic movement is good for other reasons that we will discuss in future blogs. I am not against organic practices in the garden. However, the main aim of this movement, to eliminate the synthetic pesticides, will at best account for a 0.01% reduction in the pesticides we ingest. 99.99% of the pesticides we ingest are natural and organic farming practices will not reduce these. In fact they just might increase them since plants now have to fend for themselves, producing higher quantities of their own natural pesticides.
Keep in mind that we are still talking about small quantities of chemicals. Humans are very able to handle these in our diet (ref 1).
Chemicals are part of our lives and with few exceptions they are safe in small quantities. We need to learn to accept this fact.
To better understand chemicals you light also enjoy Fear of Chemicals.
1) Natural pesticides consumed on a daily basis: http://www.greenbalance.org/cancer/2-cancer-chemicals.htm