Food, science

Persistent Food Myths

We live in a time when the concept of famine is distant. It happens to someone else, far away, and we collect pennies at school to help the poor starving children we can’t quite identify with. I am an American, and my culture is one of plenty. The cornucopia of what is available to me at my local market is literally mind-boggling when I step into my Great-grandmother’s shoes and backwards in time not even a hundred years ago. With plenty, comes pickiness. Now that we have more food than we can eat – enough that piles of it are spilled out and wasted because it would cost more to send it to market than it is worth – we have gotten choosier about what we consume. The problem is that our food myths are based on smoke and mirrors, and we readily propagate falsehoods and hysteria which ripple out to affect the entire world, and all the pennies collected in classrooms are swamped by the suburban mommies who worry about Roundup and chemicals.

The result of these concerns is regulation – some would say over-regulation – of farming, reduced production of foodstuffs, and slowed development of more efficient crops. I’m not talking about the pampered woman shopping at a farmstand and recoiling in horror from the worm on her sweet corn. I’m talking about the devotion of fields to organic crops with lower yields, because what does yield and make it to market, sells for 35% – 177% markup from ‘normal’ crops. Organic foods may not be treated with synthetic pesticides and herbicides, but they are still treated with ‘natural’ chemicals to prevent crop loss to weeds and insects. They may in fact be less healthy for the consumer, due to the higher presence of bacterial contamination and fungus, and the shorter shelf-life makes for higher waste.

“I won’t eat RoundUp or chemicals!” 

RoundUp, first of all, is an herbicide, with the active ingredient of glyphosate, not an insecticide. The intended purpose is to disrupt the growing process of certain kinds of plants: not animals, and certainly not vertebrates (our consumer exemplar is a vertebrate, demonstrably possessing a spine). Secondly, it is probably one of the most-studied substances currently in use, because of the concerns that come up about it. In 2000, a safety evaluation study was done, with the authors being an international selection from the USA, Netherlands, and Canada.  “Therefore, it is concluded that the use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals. For purposes of risk assessment, no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOAELs) were identified for all subchronic, chronic, developmental, and reproduction studies with glyphosate, AMPA, and POEA. Margins-of-exposure for chronic risk were calculated for each compound by dividing the lowest applicable NOAEL by worst-case estimates of chronic exposure. Acute risks were assessed by comparison of oral LD50 values to estimated maximum acute human exposure. It was concluded that, under present and expected conditions of use, Roundup herbicide does not pose a health risk to humans.”  Follow-on studies continued to be conducted, including one in Thailand in 2013 that tried to draw a connection between glyphosate and breast cancer, and wound up concluding that the possible connection was related to soybeans (which are normally treated with glyphosate) and the estrogen compounds they produce. A 2011 study in the USA, with a broad base of case studies, showed no causal relationship between cancer and glyphosate.

‘Chemicals’ is far too broad for me to address in this article. Usually, it is being used as a shorthand for anything applied to food during the growing process (I’m leaving animals aside for another time, if there is interest). To wit: pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. I do not think it necessary to discuss the need for added soil nutrients as plants draw from the ground they grow in, one must assume that this is a necessary part of farming and is replaced by both ‘natural’ farms and those who use synthetic replacements. The benefit of synthetics is, of course, that they can be made cheaply, efficiently, and applied much more precisely, particularly as technology has advanced in recent years. Natural fertilizers, which include animal and even human wastes, are not nearly as precise in their percentage of necessary nutrients, and have the added drawback of containing contamination of pathogens and contaminants which can be excluded from the synthetic processes.

To address pesticides, I turn to the regulatory agency for their use in the USA, the Food Quality Protection Act of the EPA. Leaving aside theories of possible corruption and bureaucratic excesses, the regulations are in place to study, restrict, and protect the safety of the food we eat every day. Due to increasing concerns over the relationship of pesticides and health, the EPA has systemically been re-studying and reducing or eliminating the use of suspect pesticides. In addition, the USDA has been making it’s data public in the form of the Pesticide Data Program (PDP) which allows consumers the freedom to see how much of what is in their foodstuffs. In 2015, the testing was conducted on fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, and on peanut butter. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it is not that our food is overlooked and ignored, it is rather inspected, tested, and approved before it ever reaches our dinner tables. In other nations, the consumers do not have that luxury, and the impact on their health can be measured when they are forced to use fecally contaminated foods due to lack of access to safer, less natural methods.

So why not eliminate pesticides entirely? As our consumer exemplar showed above, surely a little worm in your sweet corn never hurt anyone. Just cut off the tip of the corn, give it a good boil, and all is well. The problem with that idea is that it’s never just one worm. There are many, where there is one. Millions, billions even, of invertebrates compete with each one of us vertebrates for nutrients. That’s not an exaggerated number – one of the most persistent food pests is the microscopic nematode, which alone is responsible for 15% of crop losses annually. So how much of our food do we lose to pests annually? The Encyclopedia of Pest Management (2002) put it around 10-90% for each crop. Averaged out, that’s a third of everything grown that is lost before harvest (or after, but before consumption) due to pests and disease. With modern chemicals, we still lose that much. Famine has always stalked civilization. We can’t see the specter, gaunt and hungry, but it lurks in the far corners of the globe, cutting down humans in vast swaths, leaving even those it spares with hampered development and lowered intelligence scores due to lack of nutrition. One little worm isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

7 thoughts on “Persistent Food Myths

  1. A coworker once stated that we should eliminate all “chemicals” and good back to farming the old way.
    I opened my mouth ask how many people he thought would die in the world wide famine, then I wised up, shut my mouth and walked away.

    1. Yeah, the quote I used in the article is from a discussion I was part of (on facebook, where else?) and she really did say chemicals, and she really did use the example of the worm in her sweet corn. I pointed out I was sitting at my keyboard enjoying a nice glass of dihydrogen monoxide with added ions (electrolytes) since I’d been dehydrated. Chemicals is far too broad a term and mostly misused when it comes to food.

  2. “…, but they are still treated with ‘natural’ chemicals to prevent crop loss to weeds and insects. They may in fact be less healthy for the consumer, due to the higher presence of bacterial contamination and fungus, and the shorter shelf-life makes for higher waste.”

    One of the reasons I don’t buy “Organic”

    1. Look up the problems Chipotle has had, since they decided they wanted to use ‘organic’ but didn’t step up their safety procedures. I have people telling me to take extra care washing my produce, etc, since I don’t bother buying organic. Which makes me wonder if they think that their organic produce doesn’t need that sort of care… and this is how we get E.coli, people!

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