The cost of not going organic — research reveals the toxic effects of ‘harmless’

2013-08-14 00:00

FANS of organic food sometimes find it difficult to convince others of its benefits.

After all, that pricey organic carrot looks just like the one that has been doused in synthetic agricultural chemicals all of its life. Also, scientific research comparing organic products with non-organic counterparts on issues like taste and potential health impacts has frequently been inconclusive or contradictory.

Now there are several new studies that should help persuade you to use organic products whenever possible. They show that the artificial herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, which are used liberally in conventional agriculture, have very detrimental effects on bees and make the farmers who use them depressed.

A paper published in the American Journal of Epidemiology last month revealed that nearly 15% of a sample of several hundred French farmers, ranging in age from 37 to 78, reported having received treatment or hospitalisation for mental health problems.

The study found that agricultural workers exposed to weed killers are nearly two and a half times more prone to depression than those who aren’t.

It also established that those who have worked with pesticides for longer are more likely to experience symptoms of depression than their peers who did so for shorter periods of time.

In April, the European Commission imposed a two-year partial ban on three neonicotinoid insecticides (clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid). Another, fipronil, is set to be added to the list at the end of the year after the European Food Safety Authority declared it to be a “high acute risk” to honey bees.

Now a new study expands the range of agricultural chemicals bee-lovers should be concerned about. The authors identified 35 different pesticides — not only neonicotinoids — as well as high concentrations of fungicides in pollen from United States honey bee hives.

They discovered that bees exposed to this toxic cocktail displayed a notable decline in their ability to resist infection by a gut parasite called Nosema ceranae. This is known to affect the health of honey-bee colonies and can lead to wholesale colony collapse. Bees that consumed pollen tainted by fungicides, which were previously thought to be harmless to them, were found to be three times more prone to infection by the parasite.

And it’s not just bees we should worry about. In June, scientists reported that most of the active ingredients in neonicotinoids enter the soil and groundwater, where they persist for years and are likely to have detrimental impacts on a variety of non-target species — thus threatening a range of ecosystem services.

During the same month, another group demonstrated that regional invertebrate biodiversity declined by 42% in European streams heavily contaminated by pesticides and by 27% in Australian ones. This affected aquatic insects in particular, like dragonflies and mayflies, which play an important role in the food chain as prey for many fish and bird species.

Research also reveals that a widely used herbicide called atrazine is having very disturbing hormonal effects on the reproductive system of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, including possibly humans.

All of this forms part of the ever-mounting scientific evidence that suggests that the widespread and voluminous use of synthetic pesticides in conventional agriculture is increasingly threatening the health and sustainability of whole ecosystems.

Put simply, the way we grow our food is poisoning the planet.

Obviously we need a major revamp of our entire farming system to fix this problem.

But there is a very simple, yet effective, contribution you as a consumer can make right now: choose organic goods that were produced without the use of toxic artificial chemicals whenever you have the option.

• Andreas Späth is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry.

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