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The Real Science of Organic Farming

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Enter The Organic Center which opened in 2002 as an independent affiliate of the Organic Trade Association. The mission of the Massachusetts based Organic Center is to share science-based organic produce benefits for human health with the public to promote awareness and usage of organic products. A secondary mission is to help farms convert from conventional agriculture to organic methods.

Organic Authority spoke with The Organic Center’s chief scientist Charles Benbrook. Benbrook has had a solid career in agriculture. He worked for the executive office during the Carter administration, ran a congressional committee and worked for the academy of sciences running the Board on Agriculture. Benbrook’s work focused on food safety, pesticide use, resource conservation, water quality and the impact of conventional agriculture on all of them. In retrospect, Benbrook’s career seems to have been heavily dominated by pesticide study and pesticide restitution.

According to Benbrook, a look at the history of pesticides explains a lot. “The organic phosphates or OP class of pesticides were first developed by the NAZIS in Germany for chemical warfare during World War Two. They were developed as poisons to kill people, chemical warfare agents. Some of them were used in the gas chambers during the holocaust,” Benbrook said. “The scientists that developed them inadvertently discovered their insecticidal ability when insects in the lab that were exposed to them would die. So that’s how they got interested in their utility after the war.”

This concern over the use of pesticides and they’re effect on humans rose over 30 years ago, when a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service marine biologist Rachel Carson issued a warning in her book Silent Spring in which she outlined the dangers of synthetic chemicals particularly pesticides. "They have immense power," wrote Carson, "not merely to poison, but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in often deadly ways."

A growing number of scientists including Benbrook believe that the dangers Carson predicted in Silent Spring are here. Far from the farm, in the cold waters of the Puget Sound bordering WashingtonState and British Columbia live the Orcas, better known as Killer Whales. With a natural life span longer than any mammals other than humans, 90 years on average, a large number of second generation Orca calves are not living past seven years. Scientists cite a toxic load containing pesticides as causing the premature deaths of orca calves. Farms pesticides runoff into the Puget Sound.

In the Great Lakes, many aquatic birds are born sterile or with male and female sexual organs. For humans, the consequences are equally dire. Children with mothers who were exposed to toxic chemicals while their babies were in vitro have developed neurological problems and reproductive deformities. The fertility of men worldwide has dropped dramatically.

Benbrook recalls when research first began on pesticides and their harmful effects. “Our scientists documented the effects of pesticides on alligators. In 1980, a pesticide spill in Lake Apopka, Florida resulted in second generation alligators born with both male and female sex organs. It really began to raise questions in the scientific community. Might the low levels of pesticides and exposure in foods be causing the same types of developmental problems in human babies?” Benbrook said, “That was really what I recognize as the start of pesticide’s harmful human effects research.”

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From the Organic Authority Files

Benbrook explained that pesticide exposure is greatest at the top of the food chain with the predators. Benbrook also mentioned that humans reign at the top of the food chain right alongside the world’s top predators.

“Any of your top predators will have the maximum exposure to pesticides. This occurs because of a process called bioaccumulation. Bioaccumulation means that the concentration of toxins in the environment tends to be increased in the tissues of carnivores at each level of the food chain as the size and complexity of the mammals’ increases,” Benbrook said. “The higher levels suffer from the toxins of all the lower levels that they’ve consumed.”

So much for being the top of the food chain.

According to Benbrook, the actual impact of pesticides on the human body depends entirely on the pesticide’s chemical makeup and its toxicological properties. “Science has shown that exposure to even very low levels of several pesticides can disrupt the formation of the egg, damage the sperm and cause mutations in the sperm in ways that when the child is conceived, there are some genetic problems built into the coupling of the sperm and the egg,” Benbrook said. “A child with pesticides in their genetic makeup, this child faces problems later in life because their immune system, their neurological systems and in some cases their reproductive systems don’t develop in a fully healthy way. We know that the incidence of these developmental problems is increasing, in particular, those involving the reproductive system and neurological development. This is one of the things no doubt behind the big increase in ADHD attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and also, autism. These behavioral problems in a lot of kids today are likely to reach back, for some of the kids, to what their parents ate and what they were fed as young children.”

In order for consumers to safeguard their health and that of their families, Benbrook addresses the issue of pesticide residue on consumer produce head on. “First and foremost, seek out organic foods, fruits and vegetables. Initially, parents need to understand that the most vulnerable periods for a child happen before they are even conceived. What a mother and father consume and what they are exposed to in the months before conception can have a very important impact on the outcome of a pregnancy,” Benbrook said. “Its really important for parents to make a conscious commitment to as clean a lifestyle as possible in the year before they become pregnant to limit the chances that their bodies will contain toxins that affect the sperm and the egg and could trigger a genetic problem in the child. That’s really the most important thing parents can do to get their children off to a good start.”

Generally, Benbrook suggests that parents encourage schools, daycare centers and care providers, all the people and places that play a role in a child’s upbringing to serve them clean organic food and avoid foods that are high in added salt, sugar and fats.

For those interested in growing organic produce, a major issue with pesticides revolves around how long they stay in the soil after the last spraying. “Depending on the pesticide use, some residues from pesticides can remain in the soil for a long while. For example, insecticide applications from the 1970s’ and 80s’ would probably still be detectable in the soil at low levels. This happens because pesticides have a half life, similar to radiation,” Benbrook said. “What this means is that years after a pesticide application only half of it will be gone. They have one half life in soil; a different half life in water and another different half life in plant tissues. The half life of chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT in the soil is 20 or 30 years. What this means is that 30 years after it’s sprayed on the crops and soil only half of it is gone. Sixty years after application, three quarters of it will be gone.The op’s, organic phosphates, have a much shorter half life in soil, plants and water. That was one of their big advantages compared to the chlorohydrocarbons but the ops’ are also much more toxic.”

The US has excelled at increasing the quantity of food harvested just as we succeeded in building the largest SUV. But have we improved the quality of our lives, our food?” Benbrook concluded, “I don’t think so.”

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