Straight Answers

Educating the public on the safety of the American food supply

Published online: May 30, 2019 News Luther Markwart, Executive Vice President, ASGA
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This article appears in the June/July 2019 issue of Sugar Producer.

Mid-summer is the period when plant and animal pests attack our beloved crops. There are over 30,000 weed species, nearly 15,000 types of insects, and thousands of microbial organisms that threaten crop health during the growing season. Farmers are on sprayers crisscrossing the landscape applying a variety of pesticides to protect plants from these varied and specific threats. Whether farmers are using conventional, biotech or organic techniques, they need to have a broad array of effective pesticides at their disposal to survive economically.

Yet activists attack biotechnology and gene editing, litigate against pesticides, raise alarms over pesticide residue, and urge everyone to go “organic”—and while you’re at it, become more sustainable. Unfortunately, many food companies are using or implying fear or superiority to differentiate their products (the “Non-GMO” and “No Glyphosate” labels), improve market share and increase profits. In the process, they stigmatize new technologies and safe products in an effort to push consumers to choose organic foods. Why do people pay more for organic foods? The answers from consumers are, Pesticides have not been applied, so it’s safer and healthier for my family, and it’s better for the environment. All of these perceived beliefs are not necessarily true. Consumers are being misled and farmers are unfairly threatened through the loss of important technology and production tools.

Having witnessed the evolution of these attacks and misconceptions over the years, we wanted greater clarity on these issues. We asked two incredibly knowledgeable people to sort all this out in a thoughtful, respectful, transparent and simple way. We asked them to do a comparative analysis of conventional, genetically modified (GM) crops and organic farming practices and the role of pesticides in each.

Robert Ehn has a long and distinguished history in the crop protection business with global experience. He works primarily in California. Jennifer Ryder Fox is the former dean of a college of agriculture in the California State University system and is the recipient of several awards with respect to crop protection products. Each has impeccable credentials and experience working in complex regulatory environments like California.

Here is the essence of their 48-page review:

  1. Organic foods are generally not healthier for you than conventional or GM crops. None of the production methods is healthier than the other all of the time, and they are generally equivalent.
  2. Pesticide residues on food: With respect to pesticides, your food is safe, regardless of what method of farming produced it. Consumers should feel free to choose foods from conventional, GM or organic without social stigma or health concerns. Testing shows 99 percent of food had residues below EPA benchmark levels. The mere presence of a residue does not equate to a risk. The Environmental Working Group each year lists strawberries as part of their “Dirty Dozen” foods with pesticide residues. Residues are so minuscule, a teen could consume 1,743 servings of strawberries in one day without any harm from the pesticide.
  3. Pesticides are highly regulated and subject to strict scrutiny by a connected network of government agencies (EPA, FDA and USDA).
  4. Generally, more tests are required to bring a new pesticide to market than to bring a pharmaceutical drug to market. It takes 10 to 11 years and $300 million dollars to bring a new pesticide to market.
  5. Conventional and biotech farmers have approximately 13,600 synthetic pesticide products to choose from and organic producers have 1,385 pesticides to use.
  6. Synthetic vs. organic pesticides: Synthetic pesticides are effective much longer than organic pesticides. For example, the natural insecticide pyrethrin (derived from the chrysanthemum plant) is used to control worms in organic plants. Its half-life is 12 hours with less than 3 percent remaining on the plant after five days. A synthetic pyrethrin product has a half-life of three to five days. For every one application of synthetic pyrethroid, four to five applications of an organic pyrethrin would have to be made to achieve the same control.
  7. Most newer synthetic pesticides are no more harmful than table salt or vinegar and other consumer cleaning products under your kitchen sink.
  8. Organic farming isn’t generally better for the environment than GM or conventional farming. Each production method offers environmental advantages and drawbacks. Organic production is not unconditionally better for the environment and typically requires more land to produce an equivalent amount of food as do conventional or GM cropping methods. 

These eight points are surprising to most people and are great discussion topics.

These are the kinds of answers family, friends and townspeople need to hear and know more about. I encourage you to look at the entire study that can be found at www.americansugarbeet.org and be prepared to engage and educate people about the tools we use to survive and succeed.