Filed Under: Food Scares

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An attempt to promote organic produce through biased scientific research has boomeranged against activists, with the press ignoring their spin and focusing on the real story: Organic foods contain pesticide residue.

A paper on pesticide residues in conventional and organic foods, authored by Charles Benbrook (who has crafted studies published by the anti-biotech Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Genetically Engineered Food Alert) and others, tried to show that organic crops were somehow safer than traditionally grown crops. The study, published in Food Additives and Contaminants, examined already-existing data from three separate sources, collected under different circumstances. Benbrook’s group collected no new data on their own.

Of the 94,227 samples examined, only 1,291 were organically grown — less than 1.3 percent of the whole. The study found 118 of the organic samples testing positive for pesticides (just over nine percent of the organic sample). Of the 92,936 non-organic samples, 58,724 (or 63 percent) tested positive.

But the most important numbers are the sample sizes themselves. Why did Benbrook and company compile more than 70 non-organic samples for each organic one? Who knows what results they might have reached if they had examined 94,000 organics — or just 1,300 non-organics.

And then there’s the bigger matter: What’s the point? In his paper, Benbrook admits something we have known all along — that “the risks to health associated with dietary pesticide residues are still uncertain and subject to debate.”

This echoes conclusions reached time and again by scientists far more objective than Benbrook. Dr. Bruce Ames of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has said: “Scares about tiny traces of synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, are a distraction from important risks. The amounts of pesticide residues ingested are so small, relative to levels that have been shown to have toxicological effects, they are toxicologically implausible as health risks.”

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