I know this post is going to make a lot of people cringe. My intent is not to bash organic farming. I buy organic and will continue to do so, confident that the choices organic farmers make are better for the earth, my body and the animals they raise. However, I’d like to dispel the myth that organic means “pesticide-free” and I also want to look at the question, “Are botanical, natural pesticides safe for humans?”
How Much Pesticide is in Organic Foods?
Consumers Union, an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves studied food.
Our analysis shows convincingly that organically grown foods have fewer and generally lower pesticide residues than conventionally grown foods. This pattern was consistent across all three independent data sets. Organic foods typically contain pesticide residues only one-third as often as conventionally grown foods do. Foods marketed with an IPM or NDR claim fall in between organic and conventional foods in both the frequency of residues and residue levels. Organic samples are also far less likely to contain multiple residues than conventional or IPM/NDR foods are.
Source: Study at Consumersunion.com.
Plants That Create Their Own Insecticides vs. Synthetics
Plants have developed their own chemical defenses against bugs. We extract these chemicals and call them “botanicals”. They tend to break down quickly -a few hours or days- and are considered “green”, “organic” and “eco-friendly” and thought safer than synthetic insecticides. However, they can be deadly to fish and toxic to mammals.
Are Natural Pesticides Safer for Humans? Consumers Union’s study puts things into a bit of perspective:
We examined that issue and conclude that there is no objective evidence to support the assertion that natural pesticide residues pose a hazard. None of the test programs from which we obtained data include data on natural pesticide residues; in fact, there are few analytical methods available to detect these substances. The botanical insecticides tend to break down rapidly in the environment, are comparatively non-toxic, and are used by a relatively small fraction of growers, ordinarily only as a last resort. Consequently, these substances are not expected to leave residues in foods. They are therefore exempt from tolerances (residue limits) as set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and no agency routinely tests for them.
The possible risks posed by natural pesticides is an interesting question that should be pursued with both better residue data and more extensive toxicity testing of some of the natural substances. However, there is currently no objective evidence of a problem with residues of natural pesticides, whereas the health risks associated with conventional pesticide residues in foods are well-established and substantial and subject to intensive regulatory efforts aimed at reducing exposure.
So, we’re going on the assumption that reduced pesticide residue=safe for humans. What about low level exposures? It’s like I’ve heard this before! Are we getting a false sense of security because they come from nature? I say these botanicals need to be tested and in the interim, treated with caution, just as the synthetics. They’re both poisons and just because they’re natural, doesn’t mean we should regard them as non-toxic. Sensitive people need to be very cautious.
Pyrethrins, for example, from the crysanthemum flower, are said to have low toxicity on humans. What about those who can’t metabolize well? What about chronic low level exposures? Since they degrade and need to be applied more often than synthetics, are they still less toxic after multiple applications? Pet owners need to be especially careful with this natural insecticide, as it can be toxic to them, too.
While many of us love using natural medicines, we have to also realize that there are natural poisons.
So do you consider botanicals to be safe? What are your reasons?
More on this topic:
“Safe” Pesticides Now First in Poisonings
Center Unveils New Report Based on Internal EPA Data
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 31, 2008 — According to a new Center investigation, Perils of the New Pesticides, pyrethrins and pyrethroids were responsible for more than 26 percent of all major and moderate human incidents involving pesticides in the United States in 2007, up from just 15 percent in 1998 — a 67 percent increase. This is based on an analysis of adverse reaction reports filed with the Environmental Protection Agency by pesticide manufacturers.
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Copyright Lynn Argent, 2009