I think everyone would agree that it would not be a good idea to put pesticides in a saltshaker and add them to our food at the table. But there is little agreement when it comes to their use in agriculture. How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health? On the environment? Is there a safer alternative?
Where should we look to find science-based answers to those questions? One place we should not look is books written by biased non-scientists to advance their personal agendas. A friend recently sent me a prime example of such a book: Myths of Safe Pesticides, by André Leu, an organic farmer whose opinions preceded his research and whose bias is revealed in the very title.
The foreword and introduction: A bad first impression
The Foreword is by Dr. Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist who blames Monsanto’s GMO seeds and pesticides for causing 284,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide since 1995, a claim that is almost certainly false. She says pesticides don’t even work in the first place: Roundup is failing to control weeds and is creating superweeds, and “pesticides create pests.” She is an alarmist who cites the Bhopal tragedy and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She says Leu’s book synthesizes the scientific evidence of pesticides’ harm to public health and provides evidence that pesticide-free alternatives are more productive. He does collect a lot of evidence for the harms of pesticides, but he doesn’t balance it with other evidence of benefits and safety. And his evidence for pesticide-free alternatives is far from convincing.
His introduction begins with his personal observation of “so much illness in our communities, especially cancers, behavioral disorders, and degenerative diseases” and with his personal testimonial of getting sick every spraying season even though no sprays are used on his farm. He set out to find evidence to validate his belief that pesticides were responsible. Predictably, confirmation bias kicked right in and had a field day.
His bias even interferes with his reading comprehension. He says the US President’s Cancer Panel report of 2010“clearly states that environmental toxins, including chemicals used in farming, are the main cause of cancers.”[emphasis added] It states no such thing! It says “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated [at 6%],” and even that statement has been challenged by the American Cancer Society, whose representative said the panel restated hypotheses as facts and its conclusion does not represent scientific consensus. Tobacco causes 30% of all US cancer deaths and another 30% are attributed to diet, obesity, and lack of physical activity; and there are many other causes of cancer including alcohol, sun exposure, radon, medical radiation, infections, and occupational exposures. Pesticides are low on the list.
The five “myths”
After finding such obvious errors in the Foreword and Introduction I was tempted to drop the book in the wastepaper basket, but I persevered. Leu proceeds to address five “myths” in five chapters:
- All agricultural poisons are scientifically tested to ensure safe use.
- The residues are too low to cause any problems.
- Modern pesticides rapidly degrade.
- Regulatory authorities are reliable and trustworthy.
- Pesticides are essential to farming.
Myth 1: All agricultural poisons are scientifically tested to ensure safe use.
Note the inflammatory choice of words: “poisons” rather than pesticides. It is true that many chemicals in use in the US have not been adequately tested for safety, but even he himself admits that pesticides have been studied more than most. He cites several of those studies. For instance, one study found 232 chemicals in the cord blood of newborns; some of those chemicals can harm brain development and the nervous system, but they have never been found to do so in the amounts detected. He criticizes current scientific testing methods as unsound, and he points out that the developing fetus may have special needs. Pesticide exposure has been linked to a number of health problems in children, including lower IQs, autism, ADHD, lack of physical coordination, loss of temper, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, and depression. These are reported correlations, not proven causations. He cites birth defects and gene alterations in mice exposed to pesticides, but there is no comparable evidence for humans. I agree that these studies are cause for concern and further research, but I think it is premature to draw firm conclusions or use that evidence to guide public policy.
Myth 2: The residues are too low to cause any problems.
He says the lowest doses of some chemicals can be more toxic because they begin to act as hormones at those low levels. Several of us have written about endocrine disruptors on SBM here, here, here, and here. Leu reproduces graphs showing increasing rates of diabetes, obesity, and thyroid cancer, and implies that endocrine disruptors are a major cause. He has a whole section on cell receptors that doesn’t make sense; he tries to tell us that “key” molecules can only fit into the “lock” receptors when they are present in small numbers (!?) Yes, there are legitimate concerns about hormone disruption, but so far it’s all hypotheses and no reliable conclusions; and if there is any effect, it is small in magnitude.
Myth 3: Modern pesticides rapidly degrade.
Dioxins are very persistent in the environment, and they can contaminate food. Pesticides can degrade into other chemical compounds that are harmful. Testing is not done on every possible pesticide and metabolite. Washing and peeling produce can reduce pesticide residues, but can’t eliminate them. He says the bulk of pesticides are inside the food, but that is only true for systemic pesticides; other pesticides only affect the surface and can be washed off. For that matter, 99.99% of all the pesticides in our diet are natural components of the food, pesticides that plants produce naturally to protect themselves and that can’t be eliminated. Any synthetic pesticide residue is a drop in the bucket compared to the much larger concentrations of natural plant pesticides.
Myth 4: Regulatory authorities are reliable and trustworthy
He doesn’t trust authorities. He says, “History shows that regulatory authorities have consistently failed to prevent the contamination of the environment and human health by products previously designated safe, such as asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins, PCBs, DDT, dieldrin, and other persistent organic pollutants.”
That’s horribly one-sided and unfair. He could have cited some of the many, many successes of government regulation in protecting public health and the environment; some of those successes involve the very contaminants he lists. He faults the government for continuing to allow mercury in fillings and vaccines, not acknowledging that mercury is no longer used in any vaccine but the multidose injectable flu vaccine, and that there has never been any evidence of danger from the use of mercury in vaccines or fillings. He points out variations in regulations between different countries, and his simplistic explanation is “politics.” I think it is more complicated than that.
He particularly targets glyphosate (Roundup). He shows nine graphs with correlations between glyphosate, GMOs, and everything from diabetes to intestinal infection. He omits that now-famous graph showing an almost perfect correlation between autism and organic food.
Myth 5: Pesticides are essential to farming
He cites a number of studies where organic farming practices produced greater yields than conventional methods. He shows evidence that organic crops are more resilient in adverse conditions like droughts, and that good-practice organic systems produce higher yields in traditional smallholder farm settings.
Recent advances in organic farming techniques are very encouraging, and anything that reduces the need for pesticides sounds like a good idea. But it remains to be seen whether the techniques can be implemented everywhere, whether “industrialized” large-scale organic farming can adopt them, and whether they are really the most practical way to increase yields and improve safety. It may be possible for farmers to eschew pesticides; but is it feasible on a large scale, and is it really preferable to judicious use of pesticides following best practices and evidence-based guidelines? Those are questions that science will be able to answer, but the necessary studies have not been done yet.
Some facts and balances
How much pesticide residue is actually present on our foods? The Pesticide Data Program of the USDA has been asking that question for 22 years now. In 2012 they sampled nearly 12,000 foods, and found that residues were below EPA tolerance levels in over 99%. You can read the details here. They concluded that “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health (i.e., are safe according to EPA).” The World Health Organization and other organizations around the world are also monitoring pesticide residues and establishing tolerance levels, and there are international databases.
The obvious next question is how are safe levels determined. Here’s how. The details are here. They don’t just make stuff up, they go by evidence and expert reasoning. Levels change as new evidence warrants. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s reasonably good. A perfect system would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible to carry out to Leu’s satisfaction.
One activist organization reports that 86 pesticides were found on cucumbers. That might sound scary, but what does it really mean? Modern analysis can find tiny trace amounts of lots of things, but remember the old adage “The poison is in the dose.” We know, for instance, that organophosphate pesticides are toxic and workers must take precautions; but we also know that ingesting one single molecule of even the most deadly poison will not result in any detectable harm. There is a legitimate concern that ingesting multiple chemicals at safe levels might add up to unsafe cumulative effects, and that infants and pregnant women might be at higher risk. This doesn’t mean we should reject all pesticides on the precautionary principle; it only means more studies should be done.
It’s important to put the harms of artificial pesticides into context. As Bruce Ames has pointed out:
Carrots, celery, parsley, parsnips, mushrooms, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, mustard, basil, fennel, orange and grapefruit juices, pepper, cauliflower, broccoli, raspberry, and pineapple contain natural pesticides that cause cancer in rats or mice and that are present at levels ranging from 70ppb (parts per billion) to 4 million ppb–levels that are enormously higher than the amounts of man-made pesticide residues in plant foods.
Any discussion of harms from pesticides should weigh the harms against the benefits. There certainly are benefits: pesticides have increased crop yields and helped humans in other ways:
- Pesticides are the only effective means of controlling disease organisms, weeds, or insect pests in many circumstances.
- Consumers receive direct benefits from pesticides through wider selections and lower prices for food and clothing.
- Pesticides protect private, public, and commercial dwellings from structural damage associated with termite infestations.
- Pesticides contribute to enhanced human health by preventing disease outbreaks through the control of rodent and insect populations.
- Pesticides are used to sanitize our drinking and recreational water.
- Pesticides are used to disinfect indoor areas (e.g., kitchens, operating rooms, nursing homes) as well as dental and surgical instruments.
- The pesticide industry also provides benefits to society. For instance, local communities and state governments may be partially dependent upon the jobs and tax bases that pesticide manufacturers, distributors, dealers, commercial applicators, and farmers provide.
Incidentally, when plants are not exposed to artificial pesticides, they tend to increase their production of natural pesticides. This phenomenon has not been well studied. And the “natural” pesticides allowed in organic farming have not been studied anywhere near as thoroughly as the artificial ones. It is a fallacy to assume they are safer because they are natural.
The news about health effects of pesticides is not all bad. This study concluded:
When compared to the general population total mortality has been found to be consistently lower among pesticide manufacturers as well as among other groups of workers. This observation has been mostly attributed to the ‘healthy worker effect’ or, in the case of agricultural workers, to the healthier lifestyle of farm families. With the exception of deaths by accidental causes, non- cancer causes of death (mainly represented by cardiovascular diseases), were generally found to be less frequent than expected among manufacturers or users of pesticides, in particular among farmers. No consistent evidence of global cancer mortality different from that of the general population has been reported among pesticide manufacturers or applicators. On the other hand, the papers examined have been strikingly consistent in reporting a low overall cancer risk among agricultural workers; life-style, clean air, low prevalence of smoking have been hypothesized so as to explain this observation.
Pesticides are meant to harm weeds and insects, but are they also harming us? Leu demonizes pesticides as “poisons” and argues that the precautionary principle should make us eliminate their use entirely. I think he exaggerates the dangers, especially considering that evolution has equipped the human body to thrive while eating foods with levels of natural pesticides several orders of magnitude greater than the levels of artificial pesticides in today’s foods. I certainly agree with him that there is a need for more research. He says safe pesticides are a myth, but I have to wonder if any evidence of safety would ever satisfy him; he seems to be demanding “perfect” safety like some anti-vaccine activists do. There is a danger to invoking the precautionary principle before ensuring that the alternatives are not worse.
This is what typically happens when a layman with an ax to grind ventures into the scientific arena looking for evidence to support his prior beliefs. A good scientist would look just as carefully for any evidence that might prove his hypothesis wrong. Leu’s book stands in stark contrast to another book by a layman, Matt Fitzgerald. Unusually for a layman, Fitzgerald approached his subject without bias and got it right. I reviewed that book here.
Leu’s book is useful, but only as a handy compilation of things we ought to be thinking about. Things that scientists are already addressing.
Addendum: This article originally called Carson’s Silent Spring “a book that has been discredited for raising fears based on ‘gross misrepresentations and atrocious scholarship’.” It has been pointed out to me that the discrediting has itself been discredited, so I have removed that reference, since it was not important for the point I was trying to make.
Letters to the editor:
For “Myth” 3 in her article ”Pesticides: Just How Bad Are They?” (May/June 2015) Hall states, “…99.99 percent of all the pesticides in our diet are natural components of the food….” (by volume? by weight? by molecular count? by list entry count?) “Any synthetic pesticide residue is a drop in the bucket compared to the much larger concentrations of natural plant pesticides.” And yet the agriculture industry finds this 0.01 percent essential for maximizing crop yields? How about we argue that since they’re only 0.01 percent, we just leave them out altogether?
Farther on, Hall cites a study claiming “…total mortality has been found to be consistently lower among pesticide manufacturers….” (This reminds me of the arguments in favor of attending church regularly.) What are we to conclude from this? Could the safety precautions imposed in the workplace to limit exposure to the pesticides be so frightening to the workers that they insist on organic foods at home? “Further study is indicated.”
Then, “…evolution has equipped the human body to thrive while eating foods with levels of natural pesticides several orders of magnitude greater than the levels of artificial pesticides in today’s foods.” Fine. I’ll cast my lot with the natural pesticides that evolution has conditioned my body to handle.
The May/June 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer read like an advertisement for the chemical industry. As an environmental chemist, I have seen numerous cases of real, quantifiable problems caused by the misuse of chemistry, damaging people and the environment. On the other hand, I’ve also had to confront people’s unfounded fear and misbelief. Skeptics and their opponents, true believers, exist in an equilibrium. There is a psychological equivalent to Chatlier’s principle, where a system in chemical equilibrium, when disturbed from that equilibrium, pushes back to re-establish the equilibrium. Skeptics, when confronted with misbelief, often over-react to that misbelief. The complete skeptic needs to be skeptical of the biases inherent in skepticism.
Dr. Hall responds:
Orlicki asks about the 99.99% of pesticides in our diet that are natural. He could have answered his own question by consulting the reference provided in the article. The 99.99% figure is by weight. The synthetic pesticide residue of 0.01 percent in our food doesn’t mean we can “just leave them out altogether.” It says nothing about the usefulness of pesticides in agriculture, where they obviously increase crop yields by far more than 0.01 percent. The quotation from the study about the health of workers exposed to pesticides explains that it is likely due to the “healthy worker effect” and is seen worldwide. The point is that if pesticides were as bad as Leu thinks they are, we would expect to see a higher mortality among workers, and we don’t.
Evolution made us adaptable. It equipped our bodies to defend themselves not just against the natural pesticides our ancestors had already been exposed to, but against new ones not previously encountered. Defense mechanisms are not targeted to one specific toxin; and the distinction between natural and artificial is a meaningless one. I’ll cast my lot with my body’s ability to protect against toxins in general, especially considering that pesticide residues in food are 1000 times less than the lowest levels ever shown to have a harmful effect in humans.
I certainly agree with Weber that chemicals can cause harm and that over-concern and under-concern are both to be avoided. But I would argue that skeptics and true believers don’t “exist in equilibrium,” because positions based on evidence and positions based on belief can never be weighed on the same scale. I don’t think there are any “biases inherent in skepticism.” Good skeptics and good scientists are “biased” only in favor of scientific evidence, reality, and critical thinking. There is no bias involved in asking for adequate evidence before accepting a claim.