Mission Organic 2010: Healthy People, Healthy Planet
By Carol M. Bareuther, RD
Vol. 10 No. 4 P. 30
It’s what back-to-earth and Birkenstock-clad consumers have been doing for years. And today, a bushel of compelling and credible scientific evidence suggests that everyone should eat more organically grown and produced foods.
“Eating organic is the best way to reduce exposure to toxic agrichemicals, especially in vulnerable populations,” says Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Phoenix and author of 10 books, including Healthy Aging. “Of course, there are many other benefits to organic, such as a higher nutrient and antioxidant content in foods and sustainability for the earth.”
Mission Organic 2010
In 2002, a group of professionals from many walks of science came together and founded The Organic Center. The group’s aim is to collect credible, peer-reviewed scientific information about the benefits of organic farming and to communicate these facts to the public.
Four years after its founding, the center’s chief scientist, Charles Benbrook, PhD, the former director of the board on agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences, says, “We knew we had to launch an aggressive communications and education effort in order to get the scientific benefits behind organic out to the masses.”
Enter Mission Organic 2010.
Weil, a proponent of the campaign, explains that “the goal of Mission Organic 2010 is to bring organic consumption to 10% of the American market share by 2010. Currently, organic consumption is only about 3%. If it keeps growing at its current pace, it will only be 5% by 2010. In order to get to the 10%, consumers need to make it happen. It’s becoming clear that organic is better both for individuals as well as for the earth. If we can reach 10%, that will be the tipping point persuading farmers, manufacturers, distributors, and stores to convert.”
Why Eat Organic?
By definition, organic foods are not treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and animals raised organically are not given hormones or drugs to promote more rapid growth. Also, genetically modified organisms are not used on any organic farms. As a result, research has indicated that organically produced foods are safer, more nutritious, and earth friendly.
Scientific evidence backing the need to significantly reduce pesticide levels in the food supply has mounted since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. Many believe, however, that progress over the past decade has fallen short. The EPA received a thumbs up for having eliminated most residential uses of organophosphate insecticides, but the agency’s efforts to reduce dietary exposures to high-risk organophosphate pesticides received a thumbs down for being few and far between.1
This point hit home for Alan Greene, MD, a pediatrician, chairman of the board of The Organic Center, and author of Raising Baby Green, when he participated in a study that analyzed the umbilical cord blood of 10 infants born in August and September 2004 in U.S. hospitals. “Of the 287 [industrial] chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests,” according to the study.2
Potentially harmful pesticides have also been found in older children, according to results of the study “Dietary Intake and Its Contribution to Longitudinal Organophosphorus Pesticide Exposure in Urban/Suburban Children” published in the January issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta tested the urine of 23 children aged 3 to 11 living in Seattle who consumed only conventional diets except when organic fruits and vegetables were substituted for five-day sampling periods during the summer and fall. Results revealed that urinary metabolite concentrations for target pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) were reduced to nondetectable levels when the children ate organic produce. Interestingly, pesticide levels in the children’s urine samples were higher in the winter months when children consumed more imported fruits and vegetables.
This study didn’t link pesticide levels to specific fruits and vegetables. However, the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Environmental Working Group has analyzed the results of nearly 51,000 tests for pesticides in domestically grown and imported produce conducted by the USDA and FDA between 2000 and 2005, ranked them, and published the information in its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The 10 most contaminated fruits and vegetables were (ranked from most to least): peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, and pears. The bottom 10 on this list of 45 items were (ranked from least to most): onions, avocados, frozen sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, bananas, and cabbage.
Infants, children, and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure because it is at these life stages and ages when critical windows of development occur, some with serious lifelong consequences.
For example, a study published in the October 2007 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, “Maternal Residence Near Agricultural Pesticide Applications and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Among Children in the California Central Valley,” was the first to link children with ASD to mothers who lived near fields treated with pesticides. The study focused on 465 children with ASD born between 1996 and 1998. Maternal pesticide exposures were compared for these children and 6,975 controls (children without ASD living in the same area). Mothers exposed to the organochlorine insecticides dicofol and endosulfan during weeks one through eight of pregnancy (the critical “developmental window” when the central nervous system is first formed) had more than a sixfold higher chance of bearing children with ASD compared with women living away from pesticide applications during pregnancy. The risk of ASD increased with the pounds of pesticides applied near maternal residence and decreased the farther the residence was from fields receiving routine pesticide treatments.
“Endosulfan (Thiodan) remains a widely used insecticide in the U.S. and is found by the USDA in a significant percentage of several fresh fruits and vegetables. It is even more heavily used overseas and often is found in imported foods at levels well above those typically present in domestic produce,” says Benbrook.3
Other well-documented health risks associated with pesticide exposure include cancer (particularly of the brain and prostate), birth defects, spontaneous abortion, premature birth, gestational diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and neurodevelopmental disorders (learning disabilities). Past childhood, chronic neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia have increased. According to the work of Philip Landrigan, MD, director of Mount Sinai’s Center for Children’s Health and the Environment in New York, this raises the possibility that pesticide exposures in early life act as triggers of later illness, perhaps by reducing the number of cells in essential regions of the brain to below the level needed to maintain function in the face of advancing age.4,5
Nutritious and Delicious
The building blocks of a healthful diet are a variety of nutrient-dense foods. According to a September 2007 report by The Organic Center, “Still No Free Lunch,” a large body of research shows that organically grown foods can contain, on average, from a low percent to more than 20% of certain minerals and 30% or more of antioxidants compared with foods grown by conventional agricultural practices.
Researchers at the University of California-Davis were among the most recent to show the superior phytonutrient content of organically grown produce. In the article “Soil Quality From Long-Term Organic Management Nearly Doubles Flavonoids in Organic Tomatoes,” published in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists compared archived dried samples of tomatoes from conventional and organic production systems. Ten-year mean levels of two flavonoids, quercetin and kaempferol aglycones, were 79% and 97% higher, respectively, in organic tomatoes when compared with conventional tomatoes. This is the first study of its kind to demonstrate well-quantified changes in nutrients of tomatoes grown organically over a number of years.
However, Donald G. Davis, Jr, PhD, a former professor at the University of Texas at Austin, showed a well-documented decline in the nutrient content of 43 conventionally grown garden crops over a 50-year period. His landmark article “Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999,” published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, revealed statistically significant declines in six nutrients: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and ascorbic acid.
Davis, in an interview shortly after his work was published, explained: “We concluded that the most likely explanation was changes in cultivated varieties in use today compared to 50 years ago. In the last half century, there have been intensive efforts to breed new varieties that have greater yield, or resistance to pests, or adaptability to different climates. But the dominant effort is for higher yields. Emerging evidence suggests that when you select for yield, crops grow bigger and faster, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to make or uptake nutrients at the same, faster rate.”
The emphasis on yield and size creates a dilutional effect and plants suffer from a “diabeteslike syndrome,” says Benbrook, who first shared this concept via a Webcast for the Institute of Food Technologists on November 29, 2007. “That is, plant crops which are proportionally larger and contain more sugars but fewer nutrients, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. This is a profoundly important new insight. In other words, dietitians should start thinking in a nutrient per calorie basis rather than nutrient per cup or other measure,” he says.
The dilutional effect of crops grown by the conventional high-yield system can take a toll on taste. According to The Organic Center’s State of Science Review, “Do Organic Fruits and Vegetables Taste Better than Conventional Fruits and Vegetables?” published in December 2006, there have been limited studies published comparing the taste and organoleptic quality of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables such as apples, strawberries, and tomatoes. However, those studies that have been published show that organic produce is often judged to be tastier and more pleasing than conventional produce. This finding appears to be linked to the lower level of nitrates that is usually found in organic produce.
“If organic produce tastes better, consumers will eat more and that’s a plus,” says Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, a Houston-based food and nutrition consultant and member of The Organic Center’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.
The nutritional and health benefits of organic also extend to dairy products. Over the last decade, studies from Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have shown substantially higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid in organic cow’s milk compared with conventional milk. Conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid found in beef and dairy fats that cannot be produced in the human body, has shown potential anticarcinogenic, antidiabetic, antiobesity, antiatherogenic, and immunomodulatory functions in experimental animals.6-9
In August 2007, British scientists reported in the British Journal of Nutrition that consumption of organic dairy products was associated with a lower risk of eczema in the first two years of life. This study, “Consumption of Organic Foods and Risk of Atopic Disease During the First 2 Years of Life in the Netherlands,” concluded that the mechanism by which organic dairy product consumption may protect against the development of eczema is unknown. “We speculate that a high intake of n-3 fatty acids and/or conjugated linoleic acid from organic dairy products by the child is protective against eczema [independent of atopy] and that also the mother’s intake of these fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation contributes to this protection,” the authors wrote.
There’s an urban legend that suggests pesticides are necessary to ensure enough food for the world’s population. Ironically, the opposite may be true. In a study published in the June 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Pesticides Reduce Symbiotic Efficiency of Nitrogen-Fixing Rhizobia and Host Plants,” scientists at the University of Oregon found that a subset of “organochlorine pesticides, agrichemicals, and environmental contaminants induces a symbiotic phenotype of inhibited or delayed recruitment of rhizobia bacteria to host plant roots, fewer root nodules produced, lower rates of nitrogenase activity, and a reduction in overall plant yield at time of harvest.” Thus, these authors concluded, “The environmental consequences of synthetic chemicals compromising symbiotic nitrogen fixation are increased dependence on synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer, reduced soil fertility, and unsustainable long-term crop yields.”
Furthermore, the paper “Organic Agriculture and Food Security,” presented at the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security in May 2007 in Rome, Italy, states, “…organic agriculture has the potential to secure a global food supply, just as conventional agriculture is today, but with reduced environmental impact.”
The Bottom Line
Consumers should expand their consumption of organic fresh and processed foods for optimal health. This is especially true for target populations such as infants, children, and pregnant women.
McCullum-Gomez summarizes the following practical suggestions:
• If you can’t afford to buy all organic fruits and vegetables, do so for those that are the most contaminated. See the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
• Buy in-season, locally grown organic produce, which is often comparable in price to conventional produce. Farmers’ markets carry competitively priced organic (and nonorganic) foods. Organic producers are more likely than conventional producers to market their products through farm shops and farmers’ markets. To find a farmers’ market in your area, visit www.localharvest.org.
• Grow your own organically produced fruits and vegetables. You can freeze and/or can what you harvest for later use (especially in the winter).
• Avoid buying nonorganic imported produce. Organic frozen, canned, and dried fruits make good choices in the winter when there may be a limited selection of domestically grown fresh produce.
Clients who want to learn more about eating organic can register online and download a complimentary Mission Organic 2010 starter kit, which includes information about the program’s goal, how to read an organic food label, a pocket guide reference for the 12 most and least contaminated foods, recipes, and a three-point plan outlining how to eat more organics. This plan calls for consumers to purchase one organic food item out of every 10 food items they put in their shopping cart, make one organic meal out of every 10 meals consumed, and ask 10 friends to do the same.
— Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a U.S. Virgin Islands-based dietitian and a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, Caribbean Travel and Life, and Shape, as well as in numerous guidebooks. She has also published two books: Sports Fishing in the Virgin Islands and Virgin Islands Cooking.
What Will Increasing U.S. Organic Food Sales to 10% by 2010 Accomplish?
• Eliminate pesticides from 98 million daily U.S. servings of drinking water.
• Ensure 20 million daily servings of milk that are produced without antibiotics or genetically modified growth hormones.
• Ensure 53 million daily servings of pesticide-free fruit and vegetables (enough for 10 million kids to have five daily servings).
• Eliminate the use of growth hormones, genetically engineered drugs and feeds, and 2.5 million pounds of antibiotics used on livestock annually (more than twice the amount of antibiotics used to treat human infections).
• Ensure that 915 million animals are treated more humanely.
• Fight climate change by capturing an additional 6.5 billion pounds of carbon in soil. (That’s the equivalent of taking 2 million cars, each averaging 12,000 miles per year, off the road.)
• Eliminate 2.9 billion barrels of imported oil annually (equal to 406,000 Olympic eight-lane competition pools).
• Restore 25,800 square miles of degraded soils to rich, highly productive cropland (an amount of land equal to the size of West Virginia).
Increasing U.S. organic food sales to 10% by 2010 can improve our personal health by:
• Lowering the incidence of neurodevelopmental problems in children, perhaps including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism. Abnormal neurodevelopment in children can be caused or worsened by prenatal and early life exposures to pesticides and chemicals that contaminate our food.
• Lowering the number of preterm deliveries each year, which are a leading cause of developmental problems and death in babies.
• Virtually eliminating dietary exposures to insecticides known to be developmental neurotoxins, based on findings reported in two University of Washington studies involving school-age children.
• Reducing unwanted interference with our sex hormones, which should reduce the prevalence of erectile dysfunction, estrogen-related health problems, and the number of people suffering from loss of sexual drive.
— Source: The Organic Center
1. Benbrook C, Greene A, Landigan P, Lu C. Joint statement on pesticides, infants and children. February 19, 2006. Available at: http://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/Pesticide_Sym_Joint_Statement.pdf
2. Environmental Working Group. Body burden: The pollution in newborns. July 14, 2005. Available at: http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/execsumm.php
3. Greene A, Lu C, Benbrook C, Landrigan P. Successes and lost opportunities to reduce children's exposure to pesticides since the mid-1990s August 2006. Available at: http://www.organic-center.org/science.pest.php?action=view&report_id=55
4. Landrigan PJ. Pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): An analysis of the evidence that impair children's neurobehaviorial development. Mol Genet Metab. 2001:73(1):11-17.
5. Landrigan PJ, Sonawane B, Butler RN, et al. Early environmental origins of neurodegenerative disease in later life. Environ Health Perspect. 2005;113(9):1230-1233.
6. Jahreis G, Fritsche, J, Steinhart H. Conjugated linoleic acid in milk fat: high variation depending on production system. Nutr Res. 1997;17(9):1479-1484.
7. Bergamo P, Fedele E, Iannibelli I, Marzillo G. Fat-soluble vitamin contents and fatty acid composition in organic and conventional Italian dairy products. Food Chem. 2003;82(4):625-631.
8. Rist L, Mueller A, Barthel C, et al. Influence of organic diet on the amount of conjugated linoleic acids in breast milk of lactating women in the Netherlands. Br J Nutr. 2007;97(4):735-743.
9. Adriaansen-Tennekes R, Bloksma J, Huber MAS, et al. Organic products and health. Results of milk research. Publication GVV06. Driebergen, the Netherlands:Louis Bolk Institut; 2005.