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Industry Front Group Gets Taxpayer Money to Convince You to Eat Pesticide-Laden Food

Thanks to the USDA, your hard-earned money has been given to a special interest group representing giant agribusiness and its pesticide company cohorts.
 
 
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Would you pay for a campaign to assure consumers that pesticide residues in their fruits and vegetables pose no harm to their health? Because, whether you want to or not, you just have. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently awarded $180,000 in federal grant funding to an organization called the Alliance for Food and Farming for a project titled "Correcting Misconceptions about Pesticide Residues." The money came from the U.S Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant program, a grant program intended to "enhance the competitiveness" of so-called specialty crops: fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops.

The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) is a front group representing California's large produce growers and marketers and suppliers who sell them pesticides and fertilizer. Some of the member organizations include the California Strawberry Commission, Western Growers, the California Table Grape Commission, Sunkist Growers, the Produce Marketing Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and the California Association of Pest Control Advisers. A look on the pesticides section of AFF's Web site shows headlines such as "US Farmers are Environmentalists Too" and "Everything Doesn't Cause Cancer," as well as produce industry documents refuting a recent study that linked pesticides to ADHD.

According to CDFA's press release, AFF will use its new taxpayer-funded grant, to "generate more balanced media reporting and change public perception about the safety of produce when it comes to pesticide residues," by "utilizing sound science backed by a team of nutrition and toxicological experts." The press release also charges that "claims by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides have been widely reported in the media for many years" and "continued media coverage of this misleading information is damaging to producers of California specialty crops and may also have a negative impact on public health."

As a part of its campaign, AFF commissioned a report by four toxicologists and a nutritionist that critiques the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) "Dirty Dozen" list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. Of the experts who wrote the report, two have links to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a food industry lobby group, including one who served as the executive director of ILSI's Risk Science Institute, and two who serve in university positions endowed by major corporations (Mars, Inc. and Dow Chemical). The report nitpicks EWG's methodology because the dirty dozen list measures which fruits and vegetables typically contain the most pesticide residues but does not assess which pesticides, and thus, which foods, actually carry the most risk of harm to one's health.

The AFF report also takes issue with the assertion that dietary exposure to pesticides can harm one's health. It points out that environmental and occupational exposures to pesticides are often much higher than dietary exposures (i.e. a farmworker who works among fields where pesticides were sprayed is exposed to more pesticides than the average person who eats fruits and vegetables that were grown using pesticides) and that there are relatively few studies in existence that focus specifically on dietary exposure to pesticides.

The AFF report also defends the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of pesticides and the ability of those regulations to keep Americans safe, points out the importance of fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet, and refutes the notion that organic produce is more nutritious than produce grown with pesticides.

Will Allen, author of The War on Bugs, refutes the idea that dietary exposure to pesticides is inconsequential, pointing to a study of school children ages three to 11 who ate diets of conventional food. Their urine and saliva were tested over the course of a year, including during two five-day periods when they switched to diets of organic food. The study found that the levels of organophosphate pesticides chlorpyrifos and malathion corresponded to changes in fresh produce consumption throughout the year. Furthermore, when the children switched to organic food, the levels of organophosphates in their urine and saliva quickly dropped to undetectable or nearly undetectable levels. The study concluded that "dietary intake of OP pesticides represents the major source of exposure in young children."

A look at the CDC's 2009 Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals shows that Americans carry a "body burden" of a number of different pesticides. The study examined the blood and urine of Americans in three different periods (1999-2000, 2001-2002, and 2003-2004) and reported on the pesticide and pesticide metabolites found. Some of the pesticides found in our bodies were clearly due to past use of the chemicals. For example, DDT and its more persistent breakdown product DDE were still found as of 2003-2004 even though DDT was banned in 1972. However, many of the pesticides detected, such as organophosphates and carbamates, both nerve poisons, are still used today.

The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list, under attack by AFF, begins with peaches as the most contaminated fruit, followed by apples, nectarines and strawberries. In his book, Allen breaks down the pesticides used on two of these four fruits. In 2004, California peach growers used 124 separate pesticides on their orchards. Nearly three-quarters of the 468,804 pounds of pesticides used on California peaches that year were accounted for by 12 pesticides: organophosphates phosmet, diazinon, and chlorpyrifos; carbaryl (a carbamate insecticide); herbicides glyphosate, oxyfluorfen, oryzalin, simazine, and the highly toxic paraquat dichloride; fungicides copper oxide and iprodione, and the soil fumigant methyl bromide (a chemical being phased out worldwide).

For strawberries, Allen estimates that an average 335.4 pounds of pesticides were used per acre of strawberries grown in California in 2004. That year, California strawberry growers used 184 different pesticides, but only six accounted for over 80 percent of all pesticides use: soil fumigants chloropicrin, methyl bromide, 1,3-dichloropropene, and metam sodium, and fungicides sulfur and captan. Allen points out that all four fumigants (which he says are "among the most toxic chemicals on earth") are restricted-use pesticides, meaning that they may only be applied by trained and certified applicators due to their toxicity. All four chemicals cause acute toxicity and they are listed as Bad Actor Chemicals by Pesticide Action Network. 1,3-dichloropropene and metam sodium are carcinogens and both methyl bromide and metam sodium are developmental toxins.

Additionally, three of the four fumigants (all except 1,3-dichloropropene) are restricted in California, requiring farmers to obtain special permits from the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) in order to use them. Allen says farmers applied for these permits because of "farm practices of growing carrots and strawberries and potatoes in the same place year after year after year after year, never rotating their crops to break the pest cycle for that crop." He says farmers should listen to the wisdom of generations of farmers before them instead of taking advice from "chemical merchants" so they can retain "the art of rotation and soil nutrient balance, which enables farmers to naturally control pests and disease." Despite their toxicity and restricted status, methyl bromide, metam sodium and chloropicrin account for over 60 percent of all pesticides use on carrots.

But, even if many pesticides are used on fruits and vegetables and the main route of exposure to organophosphates (and perhaps other classes of pesticides) is dietary, do the residues of pesticides in fruits and vegetables actually harm our health? For one thing, there have been recent findings about the link between organophosphates and ADHD. One study published this past May found that each 10-fold increase in urinary concentration of organophosphates was associated with a 55 to 72 percent increase in likelihood that a child ages eight to 15 would have ADHD. Of the 1,139 children in the study, 93.8 percent tested positive for detectable levels of one or more metabolites of common organophosphates. A second study, published in August, linked prenatal exposure to organophosphates to increased levels of ADHD in children once they reached five years old. In this case, each 10-fold increase in a pregnant mother's urinary concentration of organophosphates led to a 500-percent increase that her child would be diagnosed with ADHD at age five.

Pesticide Action Network criticizes the EPA's regulation of pesticides, saying they do not account for additive and synergistic effects. "Since the Environmental Protection Agency regulates most chemicals on a chemical-by-chemical basis, the combined and cumulative effects of a mixture of pesticides are nearly impossible for them to address -- and so they usually don't," says a statement on its Web site. The organization cites human health impacts linked to pesticide exposure including birth defects, cancers, Parkinson's Disease, and a host of developmental and neurological disorders and reproductive and hormonal system disruptions. "Given the complexities of chemical causality and disease-formulation," they ask, why take the chance of consuming even residual levels of pesticides in our food at all?

The President's Cancer Panel report, released this past May, concurs, saying that "approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are used in EPA-registered pesticides now on the market." Noting that the levels of pesticides allowed in food by the EPA have been criticized as inadequate and influenced by industry, the report unequivocally cautions Americans that "exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers... Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications."

Kari Hamerschlag, a senior food and agriculture analyst for Environmental Working Group, criticized AFF's notion that publicizing which fruits and vegetables are the most contaminated with pesticides is dangerous because it decreases fruit and vegetable consumption, citing USDA data showing that consumption of many foods listed in the Dirty Dozen have actually increased in recent years. The Environmental Working Group has not advocated avoiding conventionally grown fruits and vegetables if one cannot find or afford organic. Furthermore, she says, "if AFF's goal is increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, why don't they address the root causes why people do not eat more produce?"

Environmental Working Group, Californians for Pesticide Reform, and 50 other organizations signed a letter calling out CDFA for its misuse in taxpayer dollars in awarding this grant to AFF. The letter reads, in part, "We object to the department's decision to fund an industry communications initiative against legitimate public interest concerns related to pesticide residues on food. The award of this grant strikes a blow to California's expanding organic produce industry and places the department in opposition to the public's interest in reducing pesticide exposure. This action also represents a fundamental failure to implement a fair and balanced grant selection process."

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
 
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