Why I prefer organically grown food
Some time ago I was having dinner with the daughter of my friend. She is a bright and aware young person who has chosen to be vegetarian for all the right reasons, and yet she didn't believe there was any difference between "normally" grown vegetables and organic vegetables.
"But you do believe it is bad to eat animal meat because of the antibiotics they are fed and because of the damage meat production does to the environment?" I asked.
"Yes of course, but vegetables don't have such an influence on my body or the world." she said.
Well... I'm sorry to disagree but really they do! There is a great difference if vegetables are grown organically or not and here are some health reasons why:
Pesticide exposure in conventionally produced food
Not all conventionally produced food is filled with contaminations such as pesticides, just as not all conventionally reared animals suffer in the meat production process - but most animals do suffer and most conventional farming methods use a lot of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. The residue left over from production methods is greatly downplayed, but research shows it is prevalent everywhere. In the production of organically grown food, however, the use of such chemicals is totally forbidden.
Each year various state and private organisations worldwide test food produce for health and safety. In 2018 the US Department of Agriculture found that 70% of conventionally grown fruit and vegetables were contaminated with pesticide residue. The same year an organisation called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that in every sample of oat based cereal and other oat based food marketed to children there was a significant residue of glyphosate, a cancerogenic weed-killer chemical used in conventional farming.
Also, it is not only for our own health that we should be aware of pesticide exposure, but also for our fellow humans who work the land. The population group with the biggest health risks because of pesticide exposure is actually the farmers and their families who produce conventionally farmed food. These are the people who are continually exposed to harmful chemicals not only through direct use of them but also due to pesticide drift and groundwater contamination. Working with chemicals is a hazardous business, and the people most exposed are farmers in developing countries where they don't always have enough information or sometimes even any choice in the matter. In rural areas with high pesticide use the cancer rate is much higher than elsewhere, and this poses an ethical dilemma for anyone who is even a little bit concerned with human rights and welfare issues. By buying organic vegetables and thereby supporting organic farming, we create a demand for produce that is grown in a non-health hazardous way for farming communities.
Health risks of pesticide exposure
Generally, chemicals used in farming are considered safe until proven otherwise. For example the active ingredient glyphosate which is a herbicide used in Roundup, one of the worlds most popular weedkillers, has been in the news for many many years due to controversies surrounding its safety. As the burden of proof is upon the victims, the chemicals manufacturers were able to claim that it was safe until this year when it was finally shown that it increases cancer risk by 41%. The manufacturer Monsanto stands accused of influencing research and researchers in covering up any link, and also of evading responsibility by asking how much is a safe level to use or consume. However, I think that we should ask ourselves if any level at all is safe? As consumers we are becoming more aware of the health implications our daily dietary choices have on our lives. The thing is, we do not yet know the long term implications these choices will have and what levels of pesticide residue in our foods is a safe level. Heavy metals and preservatives for instance tend to stay in the body forever and accumulate over time, and so we need to be critical of these chemicals too.
What about the children?
Presently there are a lot of studies of side effects due to pesticide exposure, with truly scary results, and many of them concern the effect on children. Childhood cancer is one of the most harrowing experiences for families, and the link between cancer and environment is one of the most researched topics. One of the reasons children are more susceptible to environmental factors than adults is because they are still growing and developing, and they are not able to break down or excrete chemicals as well as adults. Indeed, the risk posed to children starts way before they are even born. One study found a link between women not getting pregnant with IVF and the consumption of high amounts of pesticide exposed food. This study concluded that "women who had the highest pesticide exposure were 18% less likely to get pregnant than women with the lowest exposure, and 26% less likely to have a live birth". After birth, the risks of childhood brain tumours increases where the parents have been exposed to pesticides and the risks of indoor use of insecticides raises the risks of leukaemia and lymphomas.
Everyday we are bombarded with health news and new diet fads, and although most of this information is fake news we still need to make choices of how to live our lives and what to eat. I'm not saying that eating clean food will automatically cure all that ails us or prevent us from getting cancer, but at least we can make an informed choice. So many things are out of our control, but deciding to eat organic vegetables is one of the things we can manage.