crop dusterAlthough pesticide drift means that organic crops raised near conventional ones may bear traces of synthetic chemical pesticides, on the whole, their pesticide load is lower than on conventional crops. As one organic consultant has put it,

When you compare organic versus conventional food, it is absolutely inarguable that organic food reduces dietary exposure to pesticides by 98 percent.

And not only do you get less residue on the foods; you get less in the environment, which benefits us all.

Even so, synthetic pesticides are pervasive, and our exposure to them is greater than ever. According to a paper published last month in JAMA, the number of people exposed to glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – jumped 500% in adults over 50 between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s. And levels of glyphosate soared more than 1200%!

As Time Magazine noted in their coverage of the study,

Exactly what that means for human health isn’t quite clear yet. There are few studies of the chemical and its effects on people, although animal studies raise some concerns. One trial from the UK, in which rats were fed low levels of glyphosate throughout their lives, found that the chemical contributed to a higher risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition in which fat accumulates in the liver and contributes to inflammation and scarring of the tissue. [Paul] Mills [the lead author of the new JAMA study] says that the levels of glyphosate documented in the people in his study were 100-fold greater than those in the rats.

How does it feel to be a human lab rat?

Other recent research has shed light on more potential health effects of pesticide exposure. For instance, one study just published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that “dietary pesticide exposure within the range of typical human exposure may be associated with reproductive consequences.”

More specifically,

The results showed that women who ate more than two servings of high-pesticide-residue fruits and vegetables a day were 18 percent less likely to get pregnant, and 26 percent less likely to give birth, than those who ate less than one serving of high-pesticide-residue fruits and vegetables a day.

The findings held, even after the researchers took into account factors that could affect reproductive health, such as age, body mass index (BMI) and smoking habits, and whether the women said they ate organic fruits and vegetables, which tend to have lower levels of pesticide residues.

Of course, there are two important caveats here, starting with the fact that this was an epidemiological study. It looked only for associations. It doesn’t show cause and effect.

Also, this is one of the first studies to show an association in humans. Though it confirms what was earlier seen in animals, much more research remains to be done to either confirm or negate these findings.

Even so, you’ve nothing to lose and plenty to gain by shifting your diet ever more in the direction of organic and sustainable.

For one, it usually has more flavor. (Doubt it? Taste an organic apple and then a conventionally grown one, and the difference will be obvious.)

There’s some evidence that it packs a greater nutritional punch, as well. For produce, this appears largely due to the fact that industrial farming depletes the soil of nutrients. Organic farmers, on the other hand, will tell you that their job is to create good soil. Take good care of the soil, and the crops will take care of themselves.

And no, eating organic doesn’t have to be more expensive. With a little planning, it can be doable even on a tight budget.


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