The word pesticide is a broadly used term that literally means, that which kills pests. It could be an herbicide (plant killer), insecticide (insect killer), fungicide (fungus killer), rodenticide (rodent killer), or some other “pest” killer. The pesticide could be either synthetic or natural in form.
Natural forms of pesticides may include orange oil, neem oil, diatomaceous earth, potassium bicarbonate, copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, and garlic oil, just to name a few. Some insecticides are used to kill destructive insects, while others merely act as a deterrent. Often times, in organic farming, predator insects such as praying mantis, lacewings, and lady bugs are also used to control plant pests.
There are three general classifications for how food is grown/produced. The classifications are for plants and seeds, as well as for animals and animal products. Conventionally grown/produced food consists of fruits, vegetables, fungi, etc. that may be naturally occurring or hybrids produced by cross breeding of similar species. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides may be used during the life cycle or harvest.
Animals that are raised on a diet that consists of feed products that were conventionally grown/produced would be considered to be conventionally produced. Conventional antibiotics may or may not have been used.
Genetically engineered, or genetically modified (GMO), plants are first produced inside a laboratory, where an unnatural cross of unlike species occurs. When a plant or animal is genetically engineered, genes from two different organisms are split and spliced together to form an entirely different organism. It has been mostly done with plants, but genetically engineered animals are now being produced. There have even been experiments done that cross genes from plants with animals (as in the case of oranges crossed with frog DNA).
Animals may be genetically engineered by combining the DNA of two different animal species, as was done with salmon. Currently available on the market is a fish that has genes of both salmon and eel. The goal was to create a fish that grows twice as big in half the time, and are intended to be strictly farm raised.
Animals may also fall into the genetically engineered category if they are given a genetically engineered growth hormone, such as rBGH or rBST, as in the case of cattle where the hormone is administered to increase milk production.
Plants and animals that are labeled organic are neither conventionally grown nor genetically engineered. The United States Drug Administration (USDA) makes this statement concerning the label ‘organic’: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used”.
Another page on the USDA website says this: “Organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.”
While there is no cut and dried definition of organic, the USDA standards for the label organic are lengthy and provide a good overall picture of how it differs from conventionally grown and genetically engineered. These standards form the regulations for the USDA’s certified organic labeling. There are independent organizations, accredited by the USDA, that test and provide a certification for organic producers, processors, and handlers in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP); these organizations have their own seal which is different than the USDA Certified Organic seal.
Outside of the organic certification program, it is up to the business owner to uphold the standards. When a company is granted the organic certification, the company must ensure that all processors and handlers of the product complies with the standards laid out in the USDA National Organic Program so that the product does not become contaminated and fail to meet the standard before it reaches the consumer.
Other countries around the world have their own organic regulations for certification; some are far more strict than the UDSA NOP. Never-the-less, products entering the United States with an organic label/certification must pass the USDA NOP standards to allow it to keep its organic labelling.
Although the USDA has been around since 1862, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1927, they have had relatively slow progress in creating and implementing programs and guidelines. Unfortunately, both agencies seem to be more on the reactionary side than on the proactive side of issues.
This is where the problem with pesticides comes in. Chemical and research companies are ultimately in the business of making money. The goal is to improve processes, production, and quantity while lowering overall cost to the company.
So, what IS the problem with pesticides? The problem is that pesticides are toxic. Whether talking about herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, or rodenticides, they are designed to kill. The EPA recognizes that fact; that is why they have to set tolerances on how much of a pesticide is allowed in or on food.
Many synthetic pesticides have been shown to be endocrine disrupting, cancer causing, contributing to birth defects, causes brain damage, and abnormal cell growth. Laboratory studies from independent companies show that the level deemed safe by the EPA is too high. Plus, studies show that when certain chemical pesticides come in contact with one another, the damage is amplified, making the combination more potent than simply adding the individual effects together.
Now consider that very rarely do conventional food producers ever use just one pesticide on their crop. Here are some examples of how just how liberal growers are with using pesticides. Strawberries tested for pesticide residue commonly have as many as 36 different pesticides on them. They are considered the most contaminated of all produce because 90 percent of strawberries tested had unsafe levels of pesticides on them.
Raspberries are treated with up to 39 different pesticides, apples and pears 36, and cherries 25. Tomatoes are commonly sprayed with 30 different pesticides, and potatoes 29 different pesticides and fungicides. Spinach has the highest level of contamination of greens with unsafe levels detected 83 percent of the time; it is also sprayed with as many as 36 different pesticides.
While not all natural pesticides approved for use on organic crops are harmless to humans, they are considerably less toxic; and organic food consistently has lower levels of pesticides, making them the safest choice. This is especially true given the fact that genetically modified foods have the toxic pesticides inside them, and cannot be washed off.
Without mandatory GMO labeling, the consumer has no way to know if the food is conventionally grown or genetically modified. Since organic farming allows for neither, it is the safest option for food outside of growing your own organic food.
It is shocking to realize that up until June 22nd, 2016, the list of toxic chemicals in The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 remained virtually untouched. In 1977 the American Chemical Society listed over 4 million toxic chemicals, yet the TSCA of 1976 list remained at 62,000. What’s even more shocking is that those original 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered in to allow them to stay on the market.
When the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed on June 22nd, 2016 by President Barack Obama to update the TSCA of 1976, only 22,000 chemicals were added to the list and only a small fraction of them were ever tested by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
Having said all that, to be fair, you should know that the USDA has The Pesticide Data Program (PDP) where residue levels for pesticides are tested; however, participation in the program is voluntary. The USDA openly states, “PDP is not designed for enforcement of EPA pesticide residue tolerances”. The PDP tests both fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, poultry, and other specialty food items such as honey, corn syrup, infant formula, fish, and nuts.
The regulatory office for the pesticide program is the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) which is part of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention OCSPP) run by the EPA. The OPP sets guidelines for safe levels of pesticides in foods.
The framework for the acceptance of individual pesticides and determining their safe levels seems sound, but the flaw in the methodology is that the guidelines are based on test data and scientific studies provided by the pesticide manufacturer. No testing or scientific data from independent laboratories are required.
Part of what the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act adds to the TSCA is the provision for the EPA to request additional information on the chemical if the safety of it appears questionable.
Something else you need to know is that the EPA does acknowledge that most pesticides are toxic; that is why they set levels for safety for humans and the environment. Over the years, a small number of pesticides have been removed from the market while others had stricter guidelines enforced.
Product testing by independent research companies often find chemicals/products that are, in the very least, questionable as to their safety. A great controversy arises due to the fact that all that is required for the pesticide to be approved for use is laboratory tests that the company itself has done and presented to the EPA.
Even if an independent lab determines that the EPA is not setting the proper guidelines for the chemical, once the pesticide is allowed on the market, it is virtually impossible to get it removed even with overwhelming documentation of their harm. DDT is the most commonly known pesticide that was only removed from the EPA’s approval list after years of scientific tests proving its devastating effects on humans, animals, and the environment. As stated earlier, the EPA has modified its list of approved pesticides, and also the tolerances of others, but not before much litigation has taken place.
The bottom line when it comes to pesticides is this: The fewer and the least toxic pesticides that you consume, the better. Opt for organic whenever possible, and always, always, always wash you produce before consuming. Organic meat and animal products are best because the effects of the pesticides are inside of the product and cannot be removed.
And an extra benefit of choosing organic over conventional and GMO farming is less of a negative impact on nature. Cleaner soil, water and air means a healthier environment for everyone, and a better world for our kids and future generations.
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