Water, Water, Everywhere/Nor Any Drop to Drink (Because it has chemicals in it)

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Rachel Carson and Her Masterpiece

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s popular book pointing out the ubiquity and danger of common chemicals used then, and still used now, in pesticides, herbicides, household cleaners, and fungicides.  While Carson did not argue “…that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she did question the wisdom in their indiscriminate use in commonly used products, particularly since much of the chemicals – DDT, lindane, chlordane, dieldrin – are either endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic, or both.

I thought about this book a lot, particularly after a recent Stanford study that is purported to show that organic produce – produce grown without the use of chemical pesticides and the like – is actually not healthier for you than conventional* produce.  Stanford’s own press release on their School of Medicine website proclaims “Little evidence of health benefits from organic food,” a perspective seemingly adopted also by the NYTimes, NPR, and the Baltimore Sun.  The study seems at first glance to be an excellent tool to criticize the organic food movement.  And, to be sure, there is a lot to critique: organic food is usually more expensive than conventional food, and thus out of the budgetary reach of much of the US population.  Further, some of the proponents can verge on faddism and elitism.  Take this tone-deaf article, for example, which states with a straight face that if “…we can find money for movies, ski trips, and recreational cruises, surely we can find the money to purchase integrity food.”

Choosing Organic Food

But the reasoning of the article raises some unanswered questions.  The study bases its conclusion on these findings: 1) organic food does not have more nutrients than conventional food; 2) organic food has only a 30 percent “risk difference” from conventional food in terms of pesticide chemicals present (although the study itself found that children consuming organic food had significantly lower levels of pesticides in urine); 3) in any case, the pesticide traces of each chemical in conventional food are below levels deemed safe by the EPA.

The first argument seems to me like a strawman.  The purpose of organic food, as far as I knew, wasn’t to provide more nutrients per kilo – it was to avoid the use of toxic chemicals as much as possible, particularly on goods that we consume.  Second, as explained in this article by Mother Jones, Stanford’s calculation of risk from pesticides in conventional food is methodologically suspect.  The finding that conventional food is only 30% more likely to have chemicals than organic food does not make a distinction in levels of chemicals present; in other words, an organic apple with trace amounts of pesticides is counted as equivalent to a conventional apple with multiple, and high-risk pesticides.  Moreover, although the Stanford study argues that the trace amounts of each chemical is at levels deemed safe by the EPA, it does not take into consideration the potentially harmful effect of combining multiple chemicals at once.

The Pesticide-Water Cycle

Third, even if we accept the findings that the chemical levels on the food we consume are safe, agricultural runoff and evaporation means the chemicals used can still enter the water cycle.  In a study by the US Geological Survey, more than half the watersheds and sources near agricultural facilities had levels of pesticides “...greater than water-quality benchmarks for aquatic life and (or) fish-eating wildlife.”

So, the use of the Stanford study to argue against organic food is plausible, only if you’re willing to disregard all of the above.  Personally, since chemicals are everywhere, I’d rather not contribute to the further accumulation of toxic compounds in our ecosystem, and our bodies.

*How hilarious is it that food produced with failing antibiotics, toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides is considered “conventional,” while food produced in the same way that we’ve done for thousands of years is given a special denominator?

About Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.