Organic Farming Keeps Toxic Pesticides Off Our Plates

It’s not unusual for residues of toxic pesticides to be found on our food. Organic offers a safer option.
Pesticide residues found in nonorganic milk and not in organic milk
Credit: The Organic Center, 2019, based on data from J. Welsh et al., Production Related Contaminants (pesticides, antibiotics and hormones) in organic and conventionally produced milk samples sold in the USA. Public Health Nutrition, 1-9. doi:10.1017/S136898001900106X

We already have enough worries on our plates; dangerous chemicals on the food we eat shouldn’t be one of them. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for residues of toxic pesticides to be found on fruits, vegetables, and other foods at the center of a healthy diet.

In fact, many foods are contaminated with multiple pesticides, sometimes at levels that exceed established safety thresholds. For example:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that in 2017, the agency found 30 different pesticides on samples of kale, and more than half the samples tested positive for at least one pesticide. Several individual kale samples contained residues of 17 different pesticides! Applesauce, a favorite food for many kids, tested positive for pesticide residues in more than 3 out of every 4 samples.
  • Recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sampling, which focuses on the worst offenders, found that of the domestic produce tested, about 50% of vegetables and over 75% of fruits carried pesticide residues.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that residues of the brain-toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos may be found in our food supply at levels up to 140 times higher than “safe” limits.
  • Residues from the herbicide glyphosate (marketed as Roundup and other brands) show up in popular cereals, likely because corn, wheat, barley, and oats are frequently sprayed with glyphosate just before harvest to speed up the drying process. 

We still know very little about the long-term impacts of small real-world exposures to the cocktail of pesticides routinely used in the modern food system. How these combinations of pesticides—which include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides used on our food crops—interact with each other and in our bodies is a complete black box, as EPA does not assess the risks posed by mixtures of pesticides found on food. For example, NRDC is suing EPA to reconsider its approval of the herbicide product Enlist Duo, a mix of 2,4-D and glyphosate, for failing to consider the impact of the chemicals in combination, and for failing to consider their cancer risks.

Nonetheless, the evidence of serious health risks from pesticide exposure is mounting. Numerous studies, including from EPA itself, show that chlorpyrifos is linked to learning disabilities in children (and yet the Trump administration is continuing to fight to keep it on the market). The state of California lists glyphosate as a chemical known to cause cancer, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic to humans. In a series of lawsuits based on evidence that Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) long knew about the health harms of its glyphosate-based products, jury after jury has also concluded that glyphosate contributed to specific cases of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The list goes on.

Farmworkers and their families—70% to 80% of whom are Latino—are especially at risk because these chemicals are used on a regular basis so close to where they live, work, and go to school. This means farming communities face exposure not only on the food they eat, but in the air they breathe, and the water they drink. The fact that this health burden falls disproportionately on Latinos should alarm everyone.

Fortunately, there is a safer option: certified organic foods carry few or no pesticide residues. That’s because most synthetic pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates, glyphosate, and neonicotinoids (which kill butterflies and bees) are strictly prohibited from use in organic agriculture. Organic farmers also have to take measures to protect crops from pesticides that may drift from neighboring farms. New organic farmers must show that no prohibited materials have been applied to their land for at least three years before they label their products “organic.”

These practices translate to measurable differences. For example, a recent study comparing organic milk and nonorganic milk, published in Public Health Nutrition, found several common pesticides in many of the nonorganic milk samples, but not in the organic samples.

And the good news is that studies also show organic diets result in dramatically decreased levels of pesticides in our bodies. A 2019 peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Research showed that on average, detected pesticide levels dropped by 60.5% after study participants ate an all-organic diet for just six days. The families who participated in the study tell their story in the Friends of the Earth video below:

In another study, when kids switched to an organic diet for just five days, chlorpyrifos indicators measured in their urine dropped a whopping 76%—to undetectable levels (this effect reversed when the kids switched back to their normal diets).

A comprehensive French study also identified a link between eating more organic food and significantly lower cancer risks. People who consumed high levels of organic food had a 25% drop in overall cancer risk, compared with people who ate little or no organic food. The authors noted their findings are likely due to differences in pesticide residue:

"[T]he prohibition of synthetic pesticides in organic farming leads to a lower frequency or an absence of contamination in organic foods compared with conventional foods and results in significant reductions in pesticide levels in urine."

As agriculture expert Dr. Chuck Benbrook has pointed out, if an organic diet is associated with even modest changes in health risks, going organic could potentially spare thousands of lives each year.

Until our leaders kick chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, and other toxic pesticides out of the fields, organic food is the best way to avoid potentially dangerous pesticide residues. That’s why we need strong public policies that ensure organic foods are affordable and available to everyone. The organic programs in the federal Farm Bill that make organic farming more cost-competitive offer a good start. But truly mainstreaming organic will take a lot more: we need to dramatically shift our public investments in agriculture from supporting destructive, chemical-heavy monocultures to researching and promoting a holistic, regenerative approach to farming that prioritizes soil building, protection of natural resources, and public health.

Everyone deserves affordable, healthy food produced without toxic pesticides. Here at NRDC, we will continue advocating to make organic the default, and to ultimately get these dangerous chemicals out of our food supply.

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