Swedes show how eating organic eliminates a family's pesticide load

swedes-show-how-eating-organic-eliminates-pesticide-load
CC BY-SA 3.0 Zabdiel

The Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) was commissioned by Coop, Sweden's largest grocery store cooperative, to find out whether switching to an all-organic diet could reduce the level of pesticides found in people's bodies. IVL found a Swedish family of five who were not organic food eaters. They had them eat regularly for a week (i.e. conventionally) while testing their urine daily; then for two weeks the family ate only organic while being tested daily.

The results were fairly astonishing, especially in the kids. On average the pesticide loads in the family's bodies dropped by a factor of 9.5. In some cases, undetectable levels of some of the chemicals occurred after just a day or so. IVL tried to control the experiment as much as possible by asking the family to use only organic personal hygiene products and detergents, and not to buy any new textiles during the two weeks of organic consumption. They even found a brand of organic chewing tobacco (snus) for the father of the family.

Here's a list of the pesticides (or plant protectors as they are sometimes referred to in the report) that were found in the family's bodies:
MPCA (herbicide)
Ethylenebisdithiocarbamates (fungicide)
Atrazine (herbicide)
Chlorpyrifos (insecticide)
Thiabendazole, iprodione, diuron, vinclozolin (fungicides)
Boscalid (fungacide)
2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (herbicides)
Pyrethroids, such as cypermethrin and esfenvalerate (insecticides)
Propamocarb (fungicide)
Chlormequat chloride (CCC) and mepequat (growth inhibitors)
Note: in some cases the testing was on metabolites of the original chemical compound.

It's clear from the experiment that eating organic significantly reduces the load of pesticides carried in your body.

But should you care?

Well, according to the writer of a 2012 Scientific American article, maybe you shouldn't. While reducing pesticide load is the number one reason people buy organic food, the Scientific American writer Christie Wilcox concludes that science doesn't support organic (with its "natural" i.e. non synthetic chemical pesticides) as being better for you than non organic (with its chemical pesticides).

Even IVL in its summary of the experiment of conventional vs. organic food and pesticide exposure admitted that the

"levels that we found in urine during the period of conventionally grown food are well within acceptable levels, which means that it is unlikely that a single substance would pose any risk to humans."

IVL is also careful to note, however, that assessing these chemicals one at a time is one thing; the science for assessing the long term effects of the "combination effect" or the "cocktail effect" is not clear. In other words, the possibility that the different chemical pesticides reacting together give a stronger or weaker negative or positive effect has not been sufficiently explored in scientific testing. It's very hard to design tests that study the cocktail effect and especially over the long term.

But as IVL notes, this might be an instance where we want to employ the precautionary principle, and find safer agricultural methods if possible for growing our food.

"Given how little we currently know about the combination effects of all the different chemical substances that people are exposed to in their day-to-day lives, it may be wise to apply a principle of caution in this regard." - IVL report

It is hard not to react emotionally to the video, especially when the pesticide levels shown for the children fall so dramatically after they begin eating organically.

So you can go with what some scientists say, that the effect of individual chemical pesticides on the human body does not likely pose a significant risk, even though the negative effects of having a bunch of these different chemicals in the body is unclear.

Or you can go with the mom of the family, Anette Palmberg, who after the experiment says simply:

"Overall, you think about the kids. There were a whole number of chemicals removed from my kids' bodies. And I don't want them back."

Tags: Food Safety | Organic Agriculture | Sweden

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