Is Organic Safer and Healthier?

Is Organic Safer and Healthier?

If healthier means free from bacterial contamination and other harmful organisms, the answer is no. The USDA makes no claims that organic foods are safer to eat than conventional foods. The Organic Trade Association says organic products are as safe as conventionally produced foods. Because certified organic farmers adhere to strict guidelines for safe and hygienic food production and comply with all local, state, and federal health standards, one can infer that their products are grown and handled with care and may be less likely to become contaminated. However, any produce—organic and nonorganic—can become contaminated with harmful bacteria.

The assumption, of course, is that natural pesticides are safer than the synthetic ones. Many of them are, but there are some notable exceptions. Rotenone, a pesticide allowed in organic farming, is far more toxic by weight than many synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming. The U.S EPA sets exposure limits for the amount of a chemical that an individual (including kids) can be exposed to per day without any adverse effects. For Rotenone, the EPA has determined that people should be exposed to no more than 0.004 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. Now when you compare that toxicity to Malathion (a commonly used synthetic pesticide), it is deemed five times more safe than Rotenone. In other words, by weight, the natural pesticide Rotenone is considered five times more harmful than the synthetic pesticide Malathion. The EPA’s recommended exposure limit for Glyphosate, another widely used synthetic pesticide (you might know it as Roundup) is 0.1 milligrams per kilogram per day, which means it’s 25 times less toxic, Captan 32.5 times less toxic and Pyrimethanil is 42.5 times less toxic than Rotenone. Rotenone is also not the only natural pesticide that out-ranks synthetic pesticides in terms of toxicity. The Pyrethrins, a class of pesticides derived from chrysanthemums that are approved for use in organic farming, are more toxic by weight than Roundup, Captan, and Pyrimethanil, too.

It’s only fair to directly compare toxicities if people are being exposed to similar amounts of these synthetic and natural pesticides. Many organic farmers use pesticides as a last resort—so in theory, exposures to natural pesticides should be low. (Conventional growers don’t use pesticides unless they have to, either, though; spraying is expensive.) The problem is that farmers often “have to use twice as much of the natural pesticides because they break down faster,” explains Linda Chalker-Scott, a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Washington State University. “One of the benefits of some of the more traditional synthetic pesticides is that they have been manufactured to be more effective at lower doses, thus not having to use as much.”

Ah, but what about all those studies that suggest that organic fruits and veggies harbor fewer pesticide residues than conventionally farmed produce does? Those studies only tested for synthetic pesticides. In the few studies that have also looked for natural pesticides – the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program tested for them on organic lettuce in 2009. In 2010 the California Department of Pesticide Regulation tested both organic fruits and vegetables for certain natural and synthetic pesticides, then USDA did an analysis of findings and found that between 15 and 43 percent of organic produce harbors measurable traces of either natural or synthetic pesticides or both. So it’s easy to conclude from these findings that, yes, organic produce can be pesticide-tainted, too.

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