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Federal Funding Awarded to Group Pushing Pesticide Industry Agenda

(Beyond Pesticides, September 27, 2010) The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has awarded $180,000 in federal funds to a trade associated group that will “correct the misconception that some fresh produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues.” The group, Alliance for Food and Farming, specifically says in its abstract on CDFA’s press release that it will use the grant to counter “claims by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides… and “change public perception about the safety of produce when it comes to pesticide residues.”

Marilyn Dolan, the executive director of the Alliance told California Watch “We really want to emphasize that we are not about discouraging information. …We are about encouraging consumption of all fruits and vegetables – both organic and conventional.”

However, the Alliance has criticized the “Dirty Dozen” project by the organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), contending that there is “no scientific evidence” that a small amount of pesticide residue on food “represents any health risk.” Last July, the Alliance even set up a web site and press webinar claiming that the “Dirty Dozen” list is dangerous to the public health. Food residues are only a small part of the problem with conventional farming, however, and the Alliance completely misses the mark when it comes to pesticide residues and health effects, and fails to address the fact that there is extensive scientific evidence on the dangers of pesticides; perhaps not in the form of residues on food, but definitely from drift, water contamination and other routes of exposure that the conventional agricultural industry supports.

Specifically, the Alliance claims that:

• The list is misleading to consumers because it doesn’t discuss the toxicity of pesticides present in the diet. Because of this, they say that the list does not provide a basis to assess risk.

Though EWG’s list doesn’t talk about the specific toxicity of the pesticide residues on the food, Beyond Pesticides’ new database, Eating with a Conscience, has thoroughly examined this. Beyond Pesticides looked at all of the pesticides that have allowable tolerances in the production of the 49 most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables. From this list, we have analyzed the toxic effects of each pesticide, linking it to farmworker poisonings, water contamination, wildlife poisoning, ability to drift, and other chronic health effects that have been associated with each chemical.

• The U.S. EPA’s current process for evaluating the potential risks of pesticides on food is rigorous and health-protective. The EPA’s testing requirements for pesticides used on food are more extensive than for chemicals used in any other category, and include testing targeted specifically to assess the potential risks to fetuses, infants and children.

Beyond Pesticides holds that the vast majority of all pesticide products registered for use by EPA and state governments has never been fully tested for the full range of exposure scenaries, such as mixtures and syntergistic effects, and endpoints such as endocrine disruption. Indeed, pesticides can be registered even when they have been shown to cause adverse health effects. Due to the numerous pesticide formulations on the market, the lack of disclosure requirements, insufficient data requirements, and inadequate testing, it is impossible to accurately estimate the hazards of pesticide products, much less lifetime exposure or risk. There is no way to predict the effects in children solely based on toxicity testing in adult or even adolescent laboratory animals, which is EPA’s procedure for evaluating adverse effects.

• Given the widespread media attention devoted to the list, it is disconcerting that EWG has not shared its algorithm with the scientific community or the public, nor has the EWG subjected it to an outside peer review — something it often demands of the regulatory agencies whose activities it tracks.

The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide clearly describes the methodology for which the “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” were created on its website. EWG itself purports that it is “not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure and gives shoppers’ confidence that when they follow the guide they are buying foods with consistently lower overall levels of pesticide contamination.”

• The currently available scientific data does not provide a convincing argument to conclude that there is a significant difference between the nutritional quality of organically grown food and food grown with conventional agricultural methods.

The health benefits of organic food need to be approached on a broader level than just individual nutritional quality of each food item. When considering strawberries, the “healthier” choice seems clear given that conventional strawberry production is notoriously dangerous for farmworker health and the environment, and that the California government is currently considering approval of methyl iodide, a chemical so carcinogenic it is actually used in the lab to induce cancer. In addition, a recent study found that organic strawberries have higher antioxidant activity, longer shelf life, and fared better in taste tests. Soils on the organic farms are also found to be healthier with higher organic matter concentration, and greater microbial biodiversity.

“This grant is a slap in the face of California’s rapidly-advancing organic agriculture sector,” said Ken Cook, president and founder of EWG in a press release by the organization. “The state should think twice about using U.S. taxpayers’ money to attempt to give chemical-dependent industrial farming a competitive edge over organics.”

The California block grants were just a piece of more than $55 million the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded nationwide. California received the biggest chunk of award money at $17.2 million dollars.

As organic agriculture continues to grow and evolve, hopefully efforts like this will not impede the progress that researchers are making finding new evidence of the benefits of choosing organic foods. The benefits of organic agriculture are by no means limited to consumers. On conventional farms, dangerous pesticide use is a hazard to farmworkers, wildlife including endangered animals, as well as the water supply, and people, especially children living in the area. For more information about why organic is the right choice see our Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience guide.


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