Three Myths About Organic Food.
Listen to your mother and eat your veggies — organic or not.
Your mom was right when she told you to eat your veggies. Around the world, we are failing to heed this advice, and paying for it — both in our health and in our national pocketbooks. The poor are failing the worst and paying the highest toll.
The statistics are alarming:
- Only 1 in 10 Americans consume the recommended number of daily servings of fruits and vegetables (1.5–2 cups fruit & 2–3 cups veggies for adults) [Source].
- Canadians (my home turf) are only slightly better off, at about 2 out of 10 getting enough fruits and veggies [Source].
The consequences of this shortfall are significant. A 2013 study estimates the economic burden of this low intake to be $4.4 billion in Canada (about 1/10 the US population) and that even modest increases could bring huge health and economic benefits. We can squabble about the exact number because it is based on so many assumptions, but I don’t think anyone would argue that most of us could benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables.
Why aren’t we eating more fruits and veggies?
For many, the answer comes down to access, cost and convenience. We see this play out dramatically in low income areas. Another force at play is fears of toxic pesticides in regular produce — the only affordable option for many families.
Some extreme anti-GMO and pro-organic lobbies claim that ONLY organic fruits and veggies are safe. This fear-based messaging doubly fires me up because 1) it is not rooted in evidence; and 2) it can contribute to lower fruit and veggie intake.
Should those that can’t afford organic avoid all fruits and veggies? No!!!
This article takes a science-based look at this question:
Are organic fruits and veggies safer than conventional fruits and veggies?
Along the way, you may find out some surprising things about organic food.
Before diving in, I want to be clear that I recognize that there more to the organic label than just pesticide use, such as regulations around ecological considerations. This article only speaks to the safety differences between organic and conventional foods, and specifically whether or not this is a reason to choose organic food.
Spoiler alert: Based on my research, I do not seek out the organic label when I buy fruits and veggies (dairy and eggs are a different discussion). I do, however, prioritize produce that is delicious, fresh, and local. I love shopping at Farmer’s markets but do not only visit the organic stands.
Let’s dive in:
Myth 1: Organic food is free of pesticides and herbicides.
Many people choose organic (and GMO-free) because they think it means they are getting food with no herbicides or pesticides. This is absolutely false. Organic farmers also use herbicides and pesticides, but can only those that are “natural” and not manmade / synthetic.
Learn more about: herbicide and pesticide use (types and amounts) by both organic and conventional farmers; synthetic exceptions to the organic ‘natural’ requirement; and US organic requirements;
Myth 2: “Natural” herbicides and pesticides are always safer than manmade (synthetic) alternatives.
Many people believe that “natural” and “safe” go hand in hand. They don’t.
As shown in this toxicity table, many of the most potent toxins on our planet are “natural’ (lower is more toxic — see nicotine, rotenone, vitamin D3, lead …). I’m not suggesting that organic farmers use these specific toxins (though they used to use rotenone), simply that it’s wrong to assume that anything natural is healthy.
It’s equally illogical to assume that anything manmade is bad and harmful. To shun everything made in a lab means to shun most modern medicines, from Tylenol to antibiotics.
In fact, man-made chemicals have a big advantage — they can be “tweaked” for performance. During my years in cancer research, I saw talented teams of chemists and biologists “dial up” desired (on-target) effects, like killing cancer cells, and “dial down” the undesirable (off-target) effects, like harming non-cancer cells.
Myth 3: Only organic produce is “safe” because conventional produce contains glyphosate.
Fear of conventional produce often comes down to a fear of the world’s most popular synthetic weedkiller: Roundup (active ingredient, glyphosate). Organic foods do typically have lower levels of glyphosate than conventional foods. This is unsurprising, since Roundup is a synthetic herbicide, thus organic farmers shouldn’t be using it.
Some readers will be tempted to stop here and say: “I’ve heard enough, only organic is safe”. I encourage you to dig a little deeper.
Key concept: The dose makes the poison
Toxicity is often misunderstood to be a black-and-white concept: a chemical either is or is not toxic. The reality is that toxicity is a continuum. Anything can be toxic if you consume enough of it — salt, baking soda, caffeine, Tylenol, vitamin D (which, by the way, is a great rat poison).
What does this mean for making choices about food safety? I make mine based on how the levels of toxin in my food compare to the safe limits (and how confident we are of those limits). Bringing this back to glyphosate and produce, let’s look at the answers to two questions:
- How much glyphosate is in my conventionally grown food — in a worst case scenario?
- How much glyphosate is safe?
I reasoned that if the worst case amounts of glyphosate are far below the most conservative safety limits set by international agencies, then I am in the clear. (Yes, I do trust the international guidelines, especially the more conservative ones.)
I focused my analysis on soy and corn because they are likely to have the highest levels of glyphosate (notably, the “Roundup Ready’ type).
How much GM soy would I need to eat to get into trouble?
Using the “worst case” samples, here is how much soy I could safely eat every day. This number is for a 60 kg adult and scales with bodyweight. See Appendix for details.
- 600 grams soybeans, or
- 10 cups soy milk, or
- 2 blocks tofu
In other words, even using the “worst case scenario” analysis, the levels of glyphosate in my food are far, far, below the safe levels.
As a second example, let’s look at the Impossible Burger (a leading maker of plant-based “meat 2.0”). The Moms Across America reported (with alarm) that they contain 11 ppb glyphosate (one thousand times lower than worst case above). Using the US EPA cutoff for daily intake, I could safely consume 5,000 patties; whereas the European cutoff would suggest not to fret below 25,000 burger patties per day. I, for one, am not alarmed. You can see my math in this Facebook post — along with the hundreds of reactions it received (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
Before wrapping up, I’d like to address:
Two (sortof) scary truths about glyphosate.
These truths seem scary at first blush but after consideration and research, they DO NOT affect my decision to consume conventionally grown foods.
Truth 1: The courts awarded damages to a California groundskeeper who regularly used Roundup as part of his job.
In 2018, a California jury ruled that there was enough evidence of a potential link between a man’s occupational work with Roundup and his non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The courts ordered the makers of Roundup to pay $289 million in damages.
This concern holds zero weight in my books. The decision was made by jurors, not scientists. It’s as simple as that. I will always defer to the opinion of expert scientific organizations over those of jurors.
An excellent CBC commentary on this case quoted Scott Findlay, a biologist at the University of Ottawa who studies the relationship between science policy and the law.
“By no means should anybody take that to mean that it’s now been demonstrated that those things cause cancer. That’s not what a court is designed to do,”
Truth 2: In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” — class2a . This is the same category as red meat, shift work, and hairdressing. Class 2a is used when there is not enough human data to label a compound as clearly carcinogenic, but strong suggestive animal evidence that it COULD be at some (high) dose.
Sounds scary, right? There are several layers to this issue.
- The first, most important point, is that the IARC’s job, unlike that of regulatory agencies, is to classify chemicals according to HAZARD level— the potential to cause harm at ANY dose, no matter how unrealistic. Assessing actual RISK of that chemical the way that it is used in the real world is beyond its scope. That is where regulatory bodies step in. This may sound like a subtle distinction but it is not.
- Second, IARC is a “lone wolf” in its assessment of cancer risk. Other prominent international agencies disagree with the classification as a “probable carcinogen” and even a mutagen. These latter assessments were based on larger, more robust, more current data sets.
- Third, the major international regulatories agencies, which examine RISK in the real world (as opposed to just hazard, out of context) have deemed glyphosate safe for use within set limits. This includes the US EPA, the European Food Safety Authority, and the Joint FAO/Word Health Orgaization Meeting on Pesticide Residues (see report).
In my case, this deeper understanding of the IARC classification took away the instinct to run away screaming from a drop of glyphosate.
The math is clear: levels of glyphosate in my food are far below the safe limits — by law. Those limits are set based on robust datasets and with large “buffers” built in.
Given all of this, I am happy to take organic versus non-organic out of my buying decision (from a health perspective). I prioritize produce that is fresh, local, and seasonal, hopefully at a reasonable price.
Other may choose to strive for zero-risk, even if they belive that the health risk of real-life glyphosate exposure low. Zero risk is a laudable but unrealistic goal. Don’t forget that organic does not mean pesticide free!
Still wishing glyphosate was banned? Consider these points:
- The vast majority of studies that show the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are done with conventionally grown produce.
- Glyphosate is an average herbicide by most metrics, and less toxic by some. Banning glyphosate would only mean ushering in new herbicides which may or many not be safe. Glyphosate has a long history of safe consumption in our food supply and we understand its safety profile well.
Last but not least, I want to recognize that this article ONLY speaks to the impact of convential versus organic on the health of the consumer. A discussion of other considerations including ecological and social consequences are out of scope for today’s discussion.
Epilogue: Unintended consequences of “organic or bust”.
I have intentionally avoided the highly heated debates on GMOs and organic vs conventional. I recently decided I can no longer stay silent. Here’s my story:
I first dug into glyphosate toxicity in response to questions I received on my article about Soy: To Fear or Not To Fear. Some readers wanted to know whether or not they should limit themselves to GMO-free soy.
I dug in further when the Moms Across America attempted to spread fears of the (non GMO-free) Impossible Burger, reporting that it contained 11 ppb of glyphosate, but without putting this number in the appropriate context. In one of her videos, the founder of Moms of America tells the story her children, whose autism “disappeared” when she switched from conventional to organic produce. I felt compelled to speak up.
The implied message is that anyone who is not willing to pay the substantial premium for organic produce is poisoning their children. This anti-glyphosate (pro-organic) campaign has been so effective that people are afraid to eat regular fruits and vegetables. This is the last message we need to be sending to a country that is falling woefully short of meeting the recommended intakes of fruits and veggies.
Organic produce is a luxury that most of the world cannot afford. A luxury that is not proven to deliver substantial health benefits.
I’ll leave you with few notes about Moms Across America.
- They lobbies against not just GMOs and conventional produce, but also vaccines (they sell a vaccine “fact” pack!).
- They also sell a range of scam health products from detox tablets to hydrogen pills(?) for “healthier” water.
- They are not scientifically literate. Moms of America cited a lone study on the bacteria found in chicken guts as a reason to fear glyphosate levels of 0.1 ppb. Not only is the link highly tenuous, but they didn’t do the math right when they tried to convert between units in the study to ppb. It was actually 75,000 ppb. A moot point but I can’t help mentioning it…
- EU Safety assessment on glyphosate vs IARC
- Great article on caffeine vs glyphosate (toxicology 101!):
- A parallel to Vitamin D3: Is Vitamin D safe?
- More on GMOs (safety and societal issues): SciMoms and Mommy, PhD
- Moms of America’s fear campaign here — article by Science Moms member Kavin Senapathy.
Glyphosate levels in soy
The largest dataset I could find on glyphosate in food was the 2018 US FDA dataset. The single highest soy sample had 10 ppm (10 mg/kg).
- US EPA safe daily limit for glyphosate (re. chronic tox) = 0.1 mg/kg
- My daily max: 0.1 mg/kg x 60 kg = 6 mg
- At 10 mg/kg of soy, it would take 600 grams of soybeans to meet my daily max — this is roughly 80 grams of soy protein
- I converted from soybeans to soymilk by matching grams of soy protein (about 8 grams per cup) so 80 grams = 10 cups of soy milk. Similarly for tofu.
Glyphosate safety regulations