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Converting to Organic Produce Reduces Dietary Pesticide Risk

(Beyond Pesticides, March 25, 2008) According to a new study, Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation: The Organic Option, converting the nation’s eight million acres of produce farms to organic would reduce pesticide dietary risks significantly. The report provides the first-ever quantitative estimate of the degree to which pesticide risks from food can be eliminated through adoption of organic farming methods says report author Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., the Organic Center’s chief scientist. Less than three percent of the nation’s cropland produces fruits and vegetables. Yet, according to the report, these crops account for most of the pesticide risks from dietary exposure in domestically produced foods. If converting domestic cropland of organic is coupled with consumers choosing only imported produce that is certified organic, dietary pesticide exposure is reduced by 97 percent.Other findings in the report include:

  • An analysis of the significantly greater pesticide risks linked to consumption of imported conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables, as compared to domestically-grown produce.
  • Rankings of dietary risk levels in select conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables, arranged to help guide consumers seeking to minimize pesticide risks.
  • Suggestions on how to meet dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake in the winter, while also reducing pesticide exposures.
  • An overview of pesticide residues found in milk.

The estimates are based on up-to-date pesticide residue data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current methods for estimating pesticide dietary risks.

Reducing dietary pesticide exposure through the conversion of organic produce is extremely important, however there are other factors to consider when making choices about food and other agricultural products. Beyond Pesticides advocates choosing local, fairly traded organic goods whenever possible. In addition to protecting your own body, this decision positively impacts the health and well-being of workers, reduces environmental contamination and reduces exposure people who live, work and attend schools near agricultural fields – including the vast majority of our farm fields, which do not grow produce.

Driving all pesticide risks downward is important because recent science has established strong links between exposure to pesticides at critical stages of prenatal development and throughout childhood, and heightened risk of pre-term, underweight babies, developmental abnormalities impacting the brain and nervous system, as well as diabetes and cancer.

“With surprising frequency, all Americans, including infants and children, are exposed to pesticides via their diet and drinking water,” said Dr. Benbrook. In fact, he noted, recent USDA pesticide residue and food consumption surveys show that most people consume three to four residues daily just through fruits and vegetables. “Accounting for residues in conventional milk, tap water and other foods, the average American exposes him or herself to ten to 13 pesticide residues daily,” Dr. Benbrook added.

The frequency of multiple pesticide residues in conventional produce contributes significantly to each person’s daily dose. Multiple residues are eight-times more likely in conventional produce than in organic produce.

The report bases its 97 percent risk reduction estimate upon a “Dietary Risk Index” (DRI), developed by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The EPA-OIG used the index in a 2006 appraisal of the impacts of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) on pesticide dietary risks. The report authors applied the same DRI to estimate the changes that would occur in risk levels if all produce were grown using organic methods. They concluded that a 100 percent reduction in risk is unattainable because of the widespread use of pesticides on conventional farms, and the movement of pesticides in the air and water onto organic farm fields.

“While it will take years to convert most American fruit and vegetable farms to organic methods, the process is well underway and accelerating fast, especially in the Western U.S.,” Dr. Benbrook noted. Already, organic produce accounts for nearly ten percent of retail sales of fresh fruits and vegetables. Several major fresh produce grower-shippers have recently announced aggressive timetables to convert all or most of their fruit and vegetable acreage to organic, assuming consumer demand continues to grow. The report points out that a substantial reduction in pesticide exposure will remove, or markedly lesson, an important risk factor for several serious public health problems.

For more information on organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides Organic Food pages.


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