Read the original article by Jenny Splitter at forbes.com here.
A new study claims an organic diet can significantly reduce pesticide levels, but the research doesn’t hold up. Published February 12 in the journal Environmental Research, the authors of the study tested pesticide levels in the urine of 16 study participants, before and after switching to an organic diet, and found pesticide levels decreased after the switch. But there’s more to the story.
The study primarily tested for the kinds of pesticides allowed in conventional agriculture, and not the pesticides allowed on organic farms. So what the study actually shows is fairly obvious: people won’t flush out what they aren’t eating.
The study also doesn’t say anything about whether there’s a health risk associated with conventional pesticide residues, since the mere presence of a chemical in urine isn’t necessarily an unhealthy or dangerous sign.
This study might be problematic, but it isn’t the first of its kind. In 2015, a Swedish organic grocery co-op sponsored a similar study with even less participants, a family of five who had switched from a diet of conventionally grown food to an all-organic one.
The results were the same: when the participants switched to eating organic, the levels of synthetic pesticides in their urine decreased. But, again, that’s because people who avoid conventionally grown food also consume lower levels of synthetic pesticides.
Much like this most recent study, the Swedish experiment didn’t test for organic-approved pesticides, which means it didn’t show that an organic diet actually decreased overall pesticide levels, only that an organic diet is associated with lower levels of one category of pesticide: synthetic.
It’s no secret that both organic and conventional farmers use pesticides but, for the most part, organic growers use natural pesticides rather than synthetic chemicals. Under federal law, natural pesticides are allowed in the USDA organic program, whereas most synthetic pesticides are not permitted. While many organic growers strive to use fewer pesticides overall, consistent with the guiding principles of organic agriculture, it would be inaccurate to describe organic food as pesticide-free.
Whether organic or conventional, the bottom line is that trace levels of pesticides on food don’t actually pose much of a health risk to eaters. Farm workers and produce packers, on the other hand, do have a higher health risk because they’re exposed to pesticides more frequently and in higher doses.
Farmers have pest control alternatives beyond the organic-conventional divide. Many farmers use a pest prevention strategy called integrated pest management, which calls for using pesticides judiciously and only when necessary.
Not all pesticides are created equal, and the question of whether or not to use a pesticide can be a complicated one, as every chemical (both natural and synthetic) comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. Untreated pests can also cause plenty of damage, including wasted food, which means ‘pesticide-free’ comes with plenty of risks too.
February 16: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that exposures of organic-approved pesticides were higher in samples associated with an organic diet.