Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Oct

Is Organic a Scam? – Fetal and Child Development and Antibiotic Resistance

OrganicA few weeks ago in Weekend Link Love, I mentioned the great big much-ballyhooed study that appeared to show organic produce was no more healthy than conventional produce. Many people with an axe to grind championed its findings, with some proclaiming the undeniable ringing of the final death knell of organic farming. Science Based Medicine wasted no time in weighing in on the current state of organic food, which they said “represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.” Strong words, words that seem to be – at first glance – supported by the study in question. But are they? Are you falling for marketing hype when you buy organic? Is it worth it?

Today, I’m going to discuss the impact of organic and conventional food on two aspects of wellness: fetal health and development and antibiotic resistance. I’ll follow this post up with more articles in coming weeks on the differences between organic and conventional food, and give my opinions on their impact on your health so that you can make an informed decision for yourself. Consider this Part 1 in a series.

Fetal Health and Development

It may be that humans are able to withstand chronic, low-level pesticide exposure without any glaringly negative health effects arising. Heck, maybe the occasional shot of organophosphate pesticide provides a hormetic, net-beneficial effect (I wouldn’t bet on it)! But what about the kids, the tots, the fetuses, the embryos? Might it be possible that what bounces off the thick manly hide of a fully-developed adult human with nary a flick of the eye could throw a wrench in the gears of fetal development? Perhaps the unabashed skeptic who instead of rinsing pesticides off his peach with water rinses water off his peach with pesticides can get away with it, while the pregnant woman craving peaches and Greek yogurt would be better off going organic. I suspect it might.

Earlier this year, a guy named David Bellinger also suspected it might, and so he looked at several studies which examined the relationship between prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides (in addition to other environmental pollutants) and cognitive development:

In one study, a ten-fold increase in DAP urine metabolites of pregnant women (the more organophosphates you take in, the more DAP urine metabolites you produce) meant a 4.25 point loss in IQ of their children.

Another study found that the same increase was associated with a loss of 1.39 points.

And in 2007, researchers found that “prenatal levels of organophosphate pesticide metabolites are associated with anomalies in primitive reflexes [in the children], which are a critical marker of neurologic integrity.”

Bellinger didn’t cover them all, though. There’s considerable evidence that chlorpyrifos, a pesticide often used on apple crops, causes brain abnormalities – thinning in some areas, enlargements in others – in children with significant prenatal exposure. Fetal organophosphate exposure has also been linked to ADHD (especially in boys).

Of course, these studies can’t establish causality, and it would be unethical and highly illegal to conduct controlled trials in which pregnant mothers were dosed with pesticides and fungicides to see how their offspring were affected, but we can look at animal studies to get an idea. Although the results are a bit mixed, this review (PDF) generally concludes that the older studies on organophosphate pesticides found them to be “safe,” while the more recent animal studies find evidence of mutagenic and teratogenic effects, particularly on the fetus.

So, does eating organic food reduce exposure to these organophosphates? After all, detractors love to tell us how organic farmers still use organic pesticides – a fair point. That said, as told in a 2006 Pediatrics study, an organic diet significantly reduces a child’s exposure to organophosphate pesticides as measured by the same DAP urine metabolites mentioned in the studies above. In fact, after just a few days of the organic diet, children in the study had virtually eliminated traces of urine metabolites. A 2008 study by the same author reached the same conclusions: switching to an organic diet can drastically reduce pesticide metabolites in kids.

It seems pretty cut and dry to me. DAP urine metabolites correlate strongly with deficits in cognitive development. In controlled studies using animal models, dosing rodents with organophosphate pesticides impairs fetal development. In controlled studies using human children, organic diets essentially eliminate DAP urine metabolites. Is there a smoking gun? No, I suppose not, but I do detect the distinct odor of burnt gunpowder. What about you?

Antibiotic Resistance

As I mentioned in a post from last year, microbes are living, evolving things; when antibiotics are employed to get rid of them, they’ll often develop antibiotic resistance by two primary methods. First, basic natural selection: those microbes that can survive the antibiotic will reproduce, thereby passing on their fitter genes. And then there’s antibiotic resistance by horizontal gene transfer: once a microbe has gained resistance to an antibiotic, the gene that codes for that resistance can be horizontally transferred to other species of microbes. To get rid of the new and improved microbes, novel antibiotics – and more of them – will be administered, but even if this works, the microbes eventually become resistant to the new stuff, too, and the escalation of the situation continues.

Unless you’re talking about organic. Organic livestock never receive antibiotics (if they do, they must be shipped off to slaughter as conventional food, or sold to a conventional producer), whereas conventional farming often employs antibiotics to stimulate weight gain in otherwise healthy livestock. A recent study found antibiotic-resistant bacteria on half of US grocery store beef, chicken, pork, and turkey that were conventionally-raised. And in 2011, a study found that pigs fed antibiotics soon developed a drastically altered intestinal microbiota that converted feed into energy more efficiently (it made them fatter), had a greater proportion of resident E. coli, and showed evidence of increased antibiotic resistance – even to antibiotics that were never administered! Meanwhile, organic meat shows up with far less antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and one recent study even showed that converting a conventional poultry farm into an organic poultry farm began reversing antibiotic resistance within a single year.

Now, it’s true that as long as you cook your meat well and avoid ground meat that you don’t trust (well-done steaks and no more hamburgers – sounds great, doesn’t it?), you probably don’t have to worry about any personal, immediate health risks from consuming conventional meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But what about the long game? What about the fact that otherwise harmless bacteria who’ve learned to resist antibiotics might pass their knowledge onto virulent bacteria? What about the fact that many officials are calling drug-resistant bacteria the next major global health threat?

I hope I’ve given you some (organic) food for thought. For now, ruminate on this post, but don’t make any rash decisions. Don’t freak out, no matter how scary the data might seem. Next week, I’ll explore the widely held claim that organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional produce to see if it holds up.

Take care, folks. Thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This is just my 2cents. I buy some organic produce and some regular. Mostly, the organic is lettuces and celery. There isn’t much of a price difference if any at my local store. I choose to buy the organic because honestly it tastes better. It also lasts longer, which I found odd. If I had the money I would fully commit to organic, but I don’t.

    Sarah wrote on October 3rd, 2012
  2. I don’t buy organic because it has more vitamins, I buy organic because I don’t want to ingest pesticides. I’ve never met anyone who buys organic because they think it has more nutrients in it.

    Here are some excerpts from the abstract of the study and my thoughts:

    1. “17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods met inclusion criteria. Only 3 of the human studies examined clinical outcomes, finding no significant differences between populations by food type for allergic outcomes (eczema, wheeze, atopic sensitization) or symptomatic Campylobacter infection.”

    Only 3/17 studies examined clinical outcomes. They only concluded that there is no difference in terms of allergic response or infection from a certain bacteria. Well, there are more than 2 diseases in the world. What about the impact on cancer, digestive disorders, mental health, etc.?

    2. “The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce (risk difference, 30% [CI, −37% to −23%]), but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small.”

    Interesting point about the negligible risk in exceeding maximum allowed limits of pesticides. May consider buying conventional produce if the difference in ingested pesticide is so small. But what about GMOs? Evidence suggests GMOs are detrimental to health and certified organic means the item isn’t genetically modified or hasn’t eaten anything that’s modified. How can I be sure I’m not buying modified foods or meats fed with modified foods?

    3. “Conclusion: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

    Yes, I never thought organic had more nutrients. And yes, I would prefer to consume less pesticides and resistant bacteria.

    Gorden wrote on October 3rd, 2012
  3. I do not ever buy local produce. The growers in my area regularly use pesticides but they deny it. In fact when I asked one Asian grower if he used pesticides, he pretended he didn’t understand what I was saying.

    Victoria wrote on October 3rd, 2012
  4. Remember people, read up on Colloidal silver. We use it for every infection, and virus we have. It cures eye infections. There is no virus or bacteria that can survive exposure to silver. Learn to make it, and get past any health threat the doctors can create.

    andrew wrote on October 3rd, 2012
  5. More food for thought: in the same way that overuse of antibiotics is leading to greater antibiotic resistance in bacteria, overuse of pesticides is leading to an escalation of “superweeds”, which in turn requires more pesticides… p

    Suzan wrote on October 4th, 2012
  6. “Organic” should always be coupled with “Local”. I don’t want organic from Mexico, I want it from my local farmer!

    BG wrote on October 4th, 2012
  7. The anti-organic, pro-chemical crowd will make a meal of this, but as far as I can tell, both sides are missing part of the issue.

    The dangers of spraying poison on our food and eating it is only half the problem. The other half is the type of farming that we started using in the 20th century. We no longer use natural interventions like crop rotation to produce nutrient dense food. This was proven many decades ago in Britain, where the nutrient content of produce were compared over time. Even as far back as the 1930s, the research showed that the nutrient content was steadily declining.

    So it still comes down to spraying our crops with chemicals.

    Joe Carbup wrote on October 4th, 2012
  8. I’m a little surprised and disheartened that so much time and thought is being given in these comments to arguing the validity of a study conducted by a university department which is supported by the Freeman Spogli Institute. Guess who funds THEM heavily? (Hint: One of the biggest rhymes with ‘Consanto’, and I believe there’s one that rhymes with ‘Bargill’, among others…) Especially after just last night seeing a “No on 37” ad featuring one Henry I. Miller, MD of that very same university (who also happens to be a great proponent of re-introducing DDT to the US (remember who makes THAT?)

    Joe wrote on October 4th, 2012
  9. I’d like to also thank Mark for sort of calling out the Orwellianly named “Science Based Medicine”. These hypocritical phonies are anything but science based, as science does not include hand-picked data that is convenient and ignore data that is not. I’ve tangled with many of these people of varying intelligence levels (they like to call themselves “skeptics”) and the responses range from frustrated ad hominem attacks to entreaties for my science, which they will then ignore.

    Anything that does not conform to the AMA-Pharma axis must ONLY use random, double-blind testing, ignoring the fact that valid scientific testing includes a wide range of test types, and ignoring the fact that their own medical industry uses very little of that form of testing (how would you use randomized, double-blind testing for surgical procedures?). The nail in their coffin at this point is the fact that the British Medical Journal (itself a proponent of “evidence-based medicine) set out to study the efficacy of standard western medical interventions. After studying the outcomes of 2,500 interventions, they found that 52% of them (that’s right: FIFTY TWO percent) had no efficacy, unknown efficacy, or poor efficacy. Are these the result of randomized double-blind testing? Every single time I point that out to these people the result has been [crickets].

    Add to that the onslaught of fallacies and hypocrisy and you see that “Science Based Medicine” and “Evidence Based Medicine” are, for the most part, just dogmatic instruments of propaganda.

    Joe Carbup wrote on October 4th, 2012
  10. Since I have actually BEEN to some of these 3rd world countries where organic fruits are grown, I know for a fact that the organic stuff grows right along side the non-organic and they are treated exactly the same (nothing is done at all in most cases. the fruit is just left to grow. think pineapples, bananas etc.

    As to meats, you might want to check out Hallal or kosher because HGH etc. are forbidden.

    but what do I know…my family has been eating like this for years and our life span on the low side is 90 (unlike paleo which is ~45 if you read and believe studies)

    andy wrote on October 5th, 2012
    • I’m not sure how your family’s lifespan vs ‘the paleo lifespan’ is relevant here, particularly since the ‘cavemen only had an average lifespan of 30 years’ topic has been beaten to death here, and also… What are you trying to say about organic vs non? It’s better, the same, no different? And how has your family been eating? Paleo? SAD? Other?

      Joe wrote on October 5th, 2012
  11. Organics is the only issue I really disagree with Mark on. While the foods you can get at the farmers markets may be better for you, those “organic” produce you get in supermarkets isn’t going to be any better than regular food. People mistakenly believe that “organic” means no pesticides, instead it actually means no artificial pesticides. This is simply the naturalistic fallacy that if its from nature its fine, if its artificial its bad. Natural pesticides aren’t any healthier than artificial.

    A wrote on October 5th, 2012
  12. I don’t care what anyone says, I’m not giving pesticide coated produce and antibiotic/ammonia soaked meat to my 30 and 40 lb babies. I realize I can’t be perfect, the 2 year old still manages to chew the finish off furniture and toys, but if I’ve got a choice, I’ll voice my values with my wallet. I’d far rather trade in the iPhone and new clothes than compromise the health of my family. Ain’t no study going to convince me otherwise.

    Anna Bauer wrote on October 6th, 2012
  13. Organic food has no GMO. That is the true value of it.

    STOP GMO in our food source. Fish DNA is in our tomatoes, only to benefit large agri-busisness corperations. When fish cells are added to tomatoes, they stay fresh longer during shipping.

    Where are the long term effect studies of what GMO food will do to us and our children? Wake up America We deserve better.

    Laurel wrote on October 7th, 2012
  14. There are well informed people on this blog.

    We all MUST keep putting the word out.

    NO No GMO!!!

    Our children and their children deserve better.

    Laurel wrote on October 7th, 2012
  15. I have a local grower who says his food is “organic equivalent.” when I asked him what this meant he said that here in the US, the process of becoming organically certified would have taken his farm way too long to accomplish, he would have had to halt production for several of the required “tests”, and he also would have had to pay enough regulatory fees that it would have effected his ability to pay his employees. I mean, the guy has to continue to produce product and pay his employees to make a living!

    So in his case, “organic equivalent” being that he farms using completely 100% certified organic farming methods (I’ve been to his farm), but can’t actually get the US Government’s seal of “organics” is good enough for me to trust his products. Know your sources folks, keep in mind that just because they can’t call themselves organic doesn’t mean they aren’t a reputable and completely trustworthy source of produce, meat, and other products that are essentially “organic equivilant.”

    Drumroll wrote on October 21st, 2012
  16. I was under the impression that all seeds are soaked in pesticides including organic produce. The difference in organic was the soil pesticides are natural and less spray is used on the plants.

    B. West wrote on August 13th, 2013
  17. The organic food movement along with the anti-GMO, anti-circumcision, and anti-vaccine movements are all anti-science hoaxes. Before you fall for Dr. Mercola’s scare tactics and purchase his expensive snake oil, perhaps you should rethink and reanalyze things for yourself instead of blindly listening to gurus:

    Simon wrote on November 29th, 2014

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