Organic Food Grows

Concern over synthetic chemicals in food has more people eating organic

by Scarlett Chidgey

Matter, May 1997

Students at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania may soon be eating organic fruits and vegetables thanks to a few students who were concerned with the pesticides and chemicals in their food. The students were encouraged to seek organic alternatives by an article on the bulletin board in the psychology department. Above the article, Ann Ogle, the department secretary, had written “Why not ask for organic food in the dining halls?”

It started with Ogle’s boyfriend who was very ill with a repressed immune system. A doctor mapped out a new lifestyle for him, but Ogle, 41, also thought a new diet would improve his health.

Ogle had always been interested in organic food and it became more apparent that organically raised vegetables, dairy and meat were the healthier choice for her family. The switch to an all organic diet has helped to improve Ogle’s boyfriend’s health by strengthening his immune system. “Now it’s easy, because there are so many alternatives, we don’t have to shop in a health food store.”

An interest in organic food and eating healthier has widened far beyond Ogle and the Bryn Mawr students. To meet consumer demand, many supermarkets are expanding their selection to include organic foods and other health food products. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic product sales have increased steadily in the past six years, and are expected to top $3 billion this year. One thousand new organic products came into the market in 1996. Consumers can even buy organic microwavable macaroni and cheese. The trend has been occurring throughout the U.S. and abroad. Reports last year from England (where Prince Charles has long been an advocate for organic food) have indicated that to meet the demands of the consumer, many of the major supermarkets have been including a large organic section at prices equal to conventional food.

However, organic food is not attracting everybody. Many consumers are still wondering whether or not organic food is healthier than conventional. In the scientific world there is frequent debate on the safety of pesticides, for example, which are mainly used on fruit and vegetable crops. But for all the protest and concern over pesticides, some experts say reports are exaggerated or even false.

“From a human health perspective, I don’t see any appreciable difference between the safety of organic foods and those produced using pesticides,” says Charles K. Winter, who studies pesticide residues on food and the toxicology of naturally occurring chemicals in food. “For that reason, I don’t hesitate to seek out conventional produce for myself or my family.”

Winter, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Davis, and the director of UCD’s FoodSafe Program, admits that pesticides do enter the food chain, but he says that it is the dose of the pesticide that is important. And while there is no proof that pesticides in food are safe, the health risks from consuming pesticides are relatively insignificant. On the other hand, there are more serious health risks posed by microbiological contamination, such as E. coli and salmonella. Another danger is nutritional imbalance, which occurs when people do not get enough fruits and vegetables in their diet. Other environmental contaminants and naturally occurring toxins, which may exist in higher levels of “organic” produce also present a risk.

Although Winter doesn’t think consumers should worry about the pesticides in food, he says, “I don’t consider the organic movement to be a hoax, either. Pesticides do have problems with them, particularly with respect to worker safety and environmental effects. It is important that scientists continue to seek methods that reduce our dependence on pesticides, and the recent food safety concerns, while misguided, have served to provide incentive for considering new approaches for pest management.”

Regardless of the debate, the public remains concerned. New research has also raised an awareness of possible health and environmental dangers caused by various synthetic chemicals, including pesticides.

Bryn Mawr students were motivated to request organic dining food after Ogle placed a book review of  Our Stolen Future on the bulletin boards in the Bryn Mawr psychology department. The book, a collaborative effort between scientists Theo Colborn, John Peterson Meyers, and Boston Globe science writer Dianne Dumanoski, examines the problem of hormone-disrupting chemicals.

As described in the book, these chemicals are ever-present in our environment and interfere with endocrine systems by mimicking hormones in the body, such as estrogen, or preventing other hormones from getting their message to their cellular receptor. Although most data collected involves animals, evidence suggests that hormone (or endocrine) disruptors are also affecting humans. These disruptors are linked to cancer, reproductive, neurological and immunological problems.

An epidemiological study in Minnesota showed higher birth defects not only in children of farm workers, but also in children that lived in the region, according to Dumanoski in an interview with Matter. “Also, babies conceived in the springtime, when these pesticides are being sprayed, have a higher incidence of birth defects.”

The authors of Our Stolen Future and environmental activists are not the only ones concerned with the possible dangers of hormone disruptors. The U.S. government has taken a strong interest in discovering which chemicals act as endocrine disruptors. The Environmental Protection Agency, under the authorization of the Food Quality Production Act, is entitled to collect further information on whether a pesticide has hormone disruptor effects on humans. Further investigation is being carried out by the EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Research Initiative and the Endocrine Disruptor Working Group, a part of the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

So far, 51 hormone disruptors have been identified, many of which are pesticides.

With the grim vision that Our Stolen Future portrays of pesticides and hormone disruptors, it is hard to know what choices to make. By eating organic fruits and vegetables, one can eliminate ingesting any possible pesticide residues. Minute as they are, they may still build up in the body or react with other hormone disruptors to cause problems for the endocrine system. Supporting organic produce means not supporting pesticides, and if enough people choose organic, then maybe less pesticides will ultimately end up in the environment.

Although the authors of Our Stolen Future recommend buying organic foods to help cut down on the amount of intake of endocrine disruptors, the EPA does not necessarily advocate organic foods as a solution.

Meanwhile, buying organic may not be enough. “There are things that can be done on an individual level, but ultimately, we need to question that we’ve put up to a hundred thousand chemicals into the environment and we continue to add more each year without testing them,” says Dumanoski.

Eradicating the use of pesticides and other chemicals, which are potentially deadly to the environment and the human race, may be the ultimate solution. A consumer can boycott products made with these chemicals, and can advocate governmental action to reduce or eliminate their use. Meanwhile, choosing an organic food diet has been a popular approach to reducing such risks as endocrine disruption.

Shopping for organic food, although it can be more expensive, is becoming easier. As Ogle and other consumers have noticed, organic foods have moved beyond the farm and the traditional health food stores. As more scientific investigation sheds light on possible dangers of pesticides and other chemicals used in conventional farming, and as more consumers learn about these studies, perhaps interest in organic food will become greater. Also, perhaps more demand will continue to increase supply in availability and diversity of products.

The Dining Services administration has been helpful in investigating the possibility of offering organic foods in the dining halls at Bryn Mawr College. Maybe with more trust in organic food, students all over the country could be eating organic in their campus dining halls.

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