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Beware the Fog of Pesticide Confusion

Like an annual movie franchise that turns a B-movie slasher film like Saw into not just the improbable Saw II, but also Saw III, Saw IV through VI and Saw 3D and Legacy, the perrenial Pesticide Action Network returns year after year to reprise its frightening story of poisonous pesticides lurking in your produce section.

Whether lobbying local governments to convert their weed-control practices to pesticide-free or petitioning federal regulators—here and abroad—to ban common insecticides, the $2.4 million California non-governmental organization urges citizens to repeat the information provided by its website and other materials as often as possible, to frighten friends, family members, co-workers and even church brethren about the horrors of pesticide use. Here's how a typical example goes:

…on our food, even after washing;
…in our bodies, for years;
…& in our environment, traveling many miles on wind, water and dust. The question is complicated, so we built a "decoder ring" for your food to help you understand the risks, according to the health issues that are of most concern to you: cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, neurotoxity or hormone disruption. Our website links pesticide food residue data from the USDA with toxicological profiles for each chemical, making this information easily searchable.

The end result is a litany of common pesticides, most showing up as residues on any of 93 different foods listed, ranging in incidence from none at all to as high as nearly 90 percent. But in all the facts and figures, Pesticide Action Network fails to enter the most important discussion of all: Does it matter?

As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned in the past: The Network’s data on incidence of pesticides has to be correctly decoded. Only then does it form a more accurate picture of the real issue: exposure. We found that in all cases, the amount of produce necessary for adults and children to eat daily, according to the minimum safety standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are far beyond the physical capability, let alone the desire to do so.

That kind of fast-and-loose interpretation of pesticide danger is precisely what led to a blistering indictment of the "pesticide-free" tendancies of organic marketing released last year, accusing the organic-food industry of building its 3,400-percent increase in sales over the last quarter century only by using deceptive marketing practices, a deception that involved the willing participation of the U.S. government through its U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 16-page research review studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims--both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. And the results are not pretty for anyone offering up the organic experience to shoppers.

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal."

"This review of published research, documented organic and natural produce industry practices, and advocacy collaborations shows widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities, both transparent and covert, disparaging competing conventional foods and agriculture practices." Those concerted efforts between product marketers and "independent" nongovernmental organizations advocating for organics, the Review article said, "...have contributed to false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions influencing food purchase decisions [which have]...generated hundreds of billions in revenues."

But really. Where's the harm in an abundance of precaution when it comes to our health and environment? The key term there is “abundance;” not over-abundance. Our technology should be regulated based on the best science we have, science that carefully but calmly investigates the real risk of using technology. But it must be careful not to allow the passion of politics to enter that decision-making process and hold technology hostage to demands for zero risk. To do so takes us down the path of Europe, where science has taken a back seat to social outcome, willingly rejecting technologies considered safe by the rest of the world simply because the loudest voices were those most in opposition to their use.

Are hormones turning our children into Amazons?

Numerous media outlets picked up news of a 2012 study published by the venerable medical journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics' official journal. It reported U.S. boys seem to be maturing on average 6 months to 2 years earlier than commonly used norms. Analyzing the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics and testicular enlargement among more than 4,000 boys at their well-child pediatric visits, the research team concluded male maturity is mimicking the pattern reported by other studies for U.S. girls.

Although the scientists reporting the news were quick to caution the possible causes of the apparent trend warranted "further exploration," and that their data did not allow them to even guess at a cause, many reports repeated the popular theory that food was to blame.

The online Digital Journal, for instance, headlined "Early puberty in boys may be linked to American food supply." It claimed environmental factors and obesity were identified as possible causes, including "the past...use of hormones in the food supply." Today, that hormone phobia continues to pervade the Internet, typically culminating in advice to buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce exposure to added hormones.

Although it's understandable to assume the implantable growth hormones containing minute doses of naturally occurring hormones farmers use in beef cattle to increase their growth rate, to improve the efficiency of the feed they eat, and to change the ratio of muscle to fat might cause similar results in people who eat the meat, any real danger is a non-starter, according to the science.

The fact is, the natural proteins in both plant-based and animal-based foods form hundreds, if not thousands, of naturally occurring steroid hormones in almost all foods. And all are broken down by the process of digestion in the stomach, which means by the time they enter the bloodstream, they will have been so reduced to their component parts that they will have lost any ability to render biological activity that could affect the human reproductive system.

In fact, most scientists who understand the biological mechanics of the early puberty question agree that youth today, particulary young women, may be maturing earlier than their ancestors because, ironically, their diets are better than they've ever been. Girls in particular must achieve a certain body mass for puberty to begin. Today's relatively better nutrition—and, yes, today's increase in obesity—means modern girls reach that critical mass at an earlier age than their mothers and grandmothers, which is the likely reason they are entering puberty sooner.

So why the beef with the beef?

The gnawing anxiety that hidden hormones in food are turning children into precocious monstors fits several of the motifs suggested by statistician Maia Szalavitz in Psychology Today for why people today tend to fear their food. Among several factors she cites, the more dramatic a factor is, the more it tends to elicit fear in people. Factual odds aside, Szalavitz writes, if an event or effect is large, spectacular and freakish, it tends to lead to greater fear. Like the "flesh-eating bacteria" linked to farm antibiotics, the idea of children growing breasts because of their food is enough of an oddity to provoke strong emotion. In addition, Szalavitz theorizes, people's underlying values also impact how much they fear something, oftentimes in the face of contradictory factual evidence. That tendancy to fear something that challenges our moral values could help explain why people are so willing to believe some easy explanation, beyond their control, must exist for their children becoming sexualized at a socially unacceptable age.

Fear not the needle nor antibiotics

Like refugees hitchhiking out of a weekend slaughter at Camp Crystal Lake, so many spooked food marketers have now huddled together on the "raised without antibiotics" bandwagon that its inevitability as a food fait-accompli has even come to be accepted by some makers of farm antibiotics themselves.

But what if it's all just an empty mask?

Despite vocal arguments to the contrary, no scientific evidence supports the claim that antibiotic use in animals has caused human diseases that spread from the farm through food to become untreatable. Opponents of farm antibiotic use are instead mixing their metaphors: They correctly recognize that some human diseases are growing increasingly resistant to human antibiotics. But they incorrectly claim it's farm antibiotic use that is the root cause. Even the most ardent critics of farm antibiotic use, if they're honest, will grant that science has not yet found that smoking gun. Instead, they talk in terms of likelihood and probability that farm antibiotics could be the contributor.

Arguments that focus the blame for failing human antibiotics on farmers ignore the reality that, according to experts, from at least 95 percent to as much as 99 percent of the drug-resistance problem can easily be laid at the door of human antibiotic over-use and abuse.

Meanwhile, the claim that 70 percent to 80 percent of all antibiotics are wasted simply making animals grow faster is wrong, based on inflated calculations that include drugs approved years ago but never sold in the United States, that count antibiotics used only in animals and therefore not related to human antibiotic-resistance, and that over-estimate usage by assuming farmers medicate all their animals throughout their lives at the maximum permitted dosage. They don’t.

The truth is farm animals need medications just as people do. Many of those medicines (in fact, all new injectable antibiotics brought to market in the last two decades and, beginning Jan. 1, 2017, nearly all antibiotics given in the feed) can be bought only with a prescription from a veterinarian, who must evaluate the herd before providing the medicine, much as human medical doctors do. Those drugs are regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which tests, approves, licenses, regulates and follows up on complaints about all pharmaceutical products. The extensive process necessary to gain FDA blessing to sell a pharmaceutical is now estimated to take seven to 10 years and $100 million in research and development costs. That process leads some of those antibiotics to now cost upwards of $2,000 for one bottle—an economic reality that on its face contradicts accusations that farmers use them freely and wastefully.

Why then is the public so panicked by this seeming non-problem? Granted, a large portion of the public routinely fed rhetoric by political activists has swallowed the argument that it's a health threat. But to those who understand the true science, antibiotic-free is another social issue trying to disguise itself as a wellness issue. The agenda for those activists reaches far beyond antibiotic use. It typically advocates market regulation, animal rights and radical labor activism. The antibiotic prohibition is a stepping stone to achieve those broader objectives.

GMO! Stands for Gawd, More Obtuseness

This year's new federal law to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs, to be labeled was supposed to quiet the fears surrounding this controversial 30-year-old food technology. Yet the ink had hardly dried on the bill before critics complained it didn't go far enough to guard against the "unknown dangers" of genetic modification. “Consumer concern about [GMOs] is increasing rapidly in the United States and Canada,” says the Non-GMO Project, a group formed nearly 10 years ago by two natural grocery chains to advocate for labeling and promote GMO-free product development. Indeed, 88 percent of respondents to a recent survey said foods containing GMOs should be labeled; more than nine in 10 said people have a right to know if their food contains GMOs. But the same poll found only about 40 percent admitted to anything more than a fair or poor understanding of what GMOs are. Gallup data confirm three out of five Americans say they follow news about biotechnology only rarely or not at all.

Is their fear grounded in reality?  The National Academy of Sciences, the non-profit non-governmental organization that serves as the science advisor to the U.S. government, recently released a nearly 400-page report summarizing years of research on genetically engineered crops. The report concluded that no meaningful evidence has been discovered in any of that research showing the genetically engineered crops now in use are any different from conventionally bred crops. Plus, no evidence has come forward that GMO crops have had a direct negative impact on the environment.

Because of that lack of evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially said there is no need to label GMO products unless the technology substantially changes the nutritional makeup of the food. The safety of biotech products has been likewise officially confirmed by:

  • The American Medical Association
  • The Society of Toxicology
  • The International Life Sciences Institute
  • The National Academy of Sciences in the United States
  • The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
  • The World Health Organization
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • The European Commission

Biotech crops undergo intense regulatory scrutiny covering their growth in the fields to their delivery in the marketplace to ensure they are safe for consumption and do not pose any environmental hazards. Biotech crops and their food products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Testing of biotech crops before they are introduced to market is so extensive, in fact, that it typically takes about six to 12 years and costs between $6 million and $12 million.

Earlier this year, more than 100 Nobel-recognized scientists published a letter reprinted by the Washington Post extolling the benefits of biotechnology, demanding the environmental organization Greenpeace call a halt to its campaign targeting GMOs. The scientists called it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation. “The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."

Why do consumers consider GMOs the product of mad scientists?

Oklahoma State Ag Economist Jayson Lusk, who has studied what's happened to change society's attitudes toward food technology, suggests several possible underlying causes. He believes much of the mistrust of technology like genetic modification stems from people today weighing risks while they're blinded to scientific reality by intuition, guesswork and buzz-words. In addition, because technology has become so complex, people now tend to substitute emotion, belief and guesswork for science-based fact. Finally, the symbolism surrounding lab-based food makes even benign technology suspect because it stands for something bigger and scarier. GMO farming may symbolize the reality that today's urban consumers have little to no control over the supply and source of their food, a frightening vision if you dwell on it for long. Opinion polls notwithstanding, the anti-GMO movement is the result of a small group of passionate activists playing upon those very real consumer fears and uncertainties.

Horrors! High Fructose Corn Syrup

Like the Michael Myers of the food industry, the ghost of High-Fructose Corn Syrup risk keeps resurrecting itself over and over, just when you thought it was buried. Despite last year's settlement in a highly visible lawsuit between the sugar industry and the corn refiners industry over whether HFCS is or isn't as benign as sugar, along with years of research showing no measurable longterm health impact from consuming it, McDonald’s Corp. announced nevertheless in late July it plans to remove high-fructose corn syrup from its buns to "satisfy increasingly conscientious customers." Meanwhile, New York Times best-selling author and Huffington Post blogger Mark Hyman was a bit less measured in his recent warning: "5 Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup Will Kill You."

But the truth about sweeteners is less thrilling: They are all, for the most part, the same. HFCS is biochemically similar to sugar. It has the same caloric density as sugar. A host of scientific experts back that conclusion, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, (certainly no shill for modern, technological farming) the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Medical Association. Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Medical Association are on the record as agreeing that HFCS is no more or less likely to cause diabetes or obesity than cane sugar. Although some studies have suggested some differences may exist in metabolism, no work has demonstrated that HFCS causes any meaningful health problems, compared to sugar.

Why then all the panic?

It appears much of the fright over this corn byproduct boils down to this: Anything that makes it easier and cheaper for the general public to consume more sugar, whether it's cane sugar or corn sugar, represents a danger to their health.

"Many people ask me," Hyman writes in his Huffpost column, “Is high fructose syrup really that bad for you?” And my answer to this question is 'Yes,' mainly for this very reason. In America today, we are eating huge doses of sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup. It is sweeter and cheaper than regular sugar and is in every processed food and sugar-sweetened drink."

Fair enough. But consulting nutritional researcher John S. White, writing in a 2008 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, points out the flaws in Hyman's and others' leap to paint all sweeteners with that same brush:

  • HFCS is composed of the same types of sugar as other “benign” fructose-glucose sweeteners, including sucrose, honey, fruit juice concentrates, even dietary fruits and juices.
  • The rise in the amount of calories Americans consume starting in 1970 was not due to more sugars, including HFCS. It came from increased consumption of all high-calory nutrients, especially fats, flour and cereals.
  • Although HFCS was, at the time of his article, consumed in equal amounts with sucrose in the United States, it was outconsumed by sucrose worldwide more than 10 times over. HFCS is a minor sweetener in the global perspective, and no association exists between HFCS use and worldwide obesity.
  • The body metabolizes fructoce and gluctose through the same physiological pathways, regardless of the form they're consumed in. He grants that pure fructose can cause metabolic upsets at high doses, but such experiments are irrelevant to HFCS, which is not consumed at those high levels and contains glucose to temper the metabolism.
  • Even as per capita consumption of HFCS declined in recent years prior to his study, obesity rates continued to rise.

"No one would disagree that HFCS as a caloric ingredient can lead to weight gain if products sweetened with it are consumed to excess," he wrote. "After all, the same may be said for all caloric ingredients, such as fats, protein, alcohol, and other carbohydrates. But there is absolutely no proof that HFCS acts in any exclusive manner to promote obesity. "


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

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