With the passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and the focus on food-borne diseases often associated with conventional, chemical-intensive food production, it is a good time to remind ourselves about the importance of organic food production and another aspect of food safety not addressed by the Act –pesticide use.
The scientific literature on pesticides and major preventable diseases afflicting us in the 21st century (asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and numerous types of cancer) suggests that one of the nation's public health priorities must be an all-out effort to stop the use of hazardous pesticides. Beyond Pesticides launched the Pesticide-Induced Diseases (PID) Database in 2010 to elevate an ongoing effort that maintains a comprehensive listing (in one place) of the epidemiologic, or disease factor and incidence, studies that link exposure to diseases and supports the need to effect a major shift to organic practices.
The database challenges the failure of "risk assessment" under toxics policy to adequately prevent common public health diseases—it is a process with deficient exposure assumptions, incomplete science, inattention to individuals' disease vulnerabilities, chemical mixtures and synergistic effects, and other limitations. Under risk assessment, we constantly play with "mitigation measures" that the PID database tells us over and over is a failed human experiment. Alternatively, the database supports a transformational approach to regulation that defaults to no pesticides, only allowing the exception when essentiality is established (or when alternative practices and products do not exist) and when health and the environment are not threatened (from production through disposal). These, by the way, are the same standards that govern allowable inputs in organic production under the Organic Foods Production Act. This framework for decision making embraces the idea of an "alternatives assessment," creates a regulatory trigger to adopt safer organic alternatives, and drives the market to go green.
We need to use the science that links pesticides with major diseases to end pesticide dependency in the management of land as well as buildings. If we continue on the current regulatory road, instead of the exponential growth of organic that is needed, we will continue to find hazardous pesticides in the umbilical cords of newborns, as a recent Johns Hopkins University study has shown. Worse, we will continue to debate for decades whether that exposure is linked to one of the major diseases. Meanwhile, we will have missed the opportunity to act on a rather simple question: "Is there another practice that would make these toxic substances unnecessary?"
For those who criticize organic as imperfect, I say there's room for improvement, so let's continue to improve it. It is already light years ahead of the chemical-intensive, conventional side where thousands of synthetic chemical pesticides are registered and inadequately evaluated. This compares with approximately 27 pesticides (including soap-based insecticides, pheromones and sticky traps) allowed in organic production. Moreover, the organic regulatory process is more transparent and open to greater public input than any other governmental decision making process. Central to the process, certified organic farmers are required to adopt an organic systems plan (subject to recordkeeping requirements, inspection and certification), which incorporates strategies that include compost, crop rotation, cultural practices, and beneficial species. As a last resort, the organic systems plan may allow for the use of natural and approved synthetic chemicals on the "National List," which is subject to organic compatibility standards, public oversight, and a review by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). This in depth process includes a detailed checklist of possible health, environmental and biodiversity impacts, from production of the substance to its use and disposal, and considers the essentiality of the chemical. In contrast, EPA's pesticide registration review does not evaluate the "cradle-to-grave" impacts of the chemical, nor the need for it–in light of the availability of alternative less and non-toxic management practices and substances.
The PID database serves as additional support to going organic in our decisions, practices and policies. To do less allows the continuation of unnecessary risks to the health of our bodies, our families and our planet. For more information about pesticides and to access the PID Database, visit www.beyondpesticides.org.
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Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, has a 30-year history of working with communities nationwide on toxics and organic policies, and agricultural practices that maintain ecological balance, biodiversity and avoid reliance on toxic chemicals. Jay has served on EPA advisory panels, spoken to groups across the country and worldwide, contributed to the development of federal policy advancing chemical restrictions and green technologies, and was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture in 2009 to a five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board.