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Organic food, the brain, and an EU report


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The European Union recently published a report claiming that organic food is better for your brain:




Inasmuch as some of the European Union's scientific findings have been politicized (e.g., its ban on genetic foods, without evidence), I wanted to get a second opinion on the subject. A Scientific American blog is excellent for this purpose:




My present take is that much more research is called for -- fine-grained research regarding specific pesticides, their application levels at the farm, and the relative facility of consumers flushing them away with running water.

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The European report could be accurate and it still might not apply to the US since our organic standards differ.


I like the Scientific American article and think it does a good job of discussing the limitations of the organic label in the US.  The article is a few years old and I expect it is even more relevant today as the availability of organic increases and the pricing premium decreases - probably driven by an increase of industrial scale organic farming.

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My present take is that much more research is called for -- fine-grained research regarding specific pesticides, their application levels at the farm, and the relative facility of consumers flushing them away with running water.


I agree strongly that more research is called for; in particular, the fine-grained research you want to see would be incredibly useful. The politicization of the topic means (as with so many other matters these days) that a whole category of phenomena is painting either with an "Evil" brush or a "Good" brush. Each pesticide is different, may pose different risks from others, may have a risk profile that depends on means or timing of application, etc.



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We know that it is virtually impossible to wash off all pesticide residues (based on extensive USDA testing), and we know that the pesticides in a large dose are extremely harmful to human health (Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce in the nation).  So the findings don't surprise me.  But we also know that eating even pesticide treated produce benefits health including lowering cancer risk, compared to not eating produce at all or eating very little produce.  Dr. G did a video showing the biggest exposures to pesticide residues may actually come from meat though, not produce.  And then there's this:




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There's always the issue of dosage of exposure. Sure, large doses are indisputably harmful, as seen in farm workers. But what of lower doses? Depending on the pesticide in question, perhaps it might be possible that there is even a hormetic effect. That could result in conventional F&V being *more* healthy than organic. What we need are studies. Rules of thumb and speculation can get us only so far.

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GMO's,  insecticides, neonics, poisoned habitats:



Slugging it out with a new contender in the GMO debate

By Nathanael Johnson on Jun 6, 2017

Over the last few decades, farmers have been using more of a type of insecticide called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. These relatives of nicotine deliver insects a lethal high. (Maybe not such a bad way to go?)


Neonics are mostly used as seed coatings. They’re one part in a cocktail of fungicides, insecticides, and beneficial microbes swaddling nearly every seed that modern farmers stick in the ground — GMO seeds and non-GMO alike. But,[ entomologist John Tooke] argues that the increase in genetically modified crops is what’s really causing the use of neonics to skyrocket, to the point that just about every kernel of field corn planted in the United States is coated with this class of insecticides.


The reaction to the widespread use of neonics, like so much in agriculture today, has been polarized and divisive. Farmers love them. “We’ve gone from using pesticides with a skull and crossbones on the label,” Iowa farmer Mark Jackson told me. “I used to lay down a seven-inch band of granular insecticide on the ground over my seeds.”


Those ground treatments and sprays kill beneficial insects along with the pests. But a tiny drop of neonics applied right to the seed casing gets sucked into the plant as it grows. Bugs that chomp down on the neonic-infused leaves get a killer dose of the chemical. What’s not to love?


Environmentalists, by contrast, see neonics as a catastrophe that is wiping out valuable pollinators and other beneficial insects along with their target pets. Greens point to studies that suggest farmers gain little to no economic benefit from seed treatments. There’s some evidence — in Europe, at least — of a marked decline in many insect populations, although data on what’s causing this remains scant. (I go deeper here, if you want more background on the bee crisis and its possible causes.)

The fascination with GMOs and neonics got its claws into Tooker at a breakfast meeting with farmers. As part of his job at the ag extension service, he visits with farmers across Pennsylvania to provide advice and learn what about their challenges.


When he walked through the doors of Ard’s Farm Restaurant in Lewisburg, a small town on the Susquehanna river, eight years ago, he was expecting maybe five people to show up. Instead, some 30 farmers looked up from their coffees. Tooker ordered fried eggs and scrapple and asked what had brought everyone out.


[Scrapple, also known by the Pennsylvania Dutch name Pannhaas or "pan rabbit", is traditionally a mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and wheat flour, often buckwheat flour, and spices. The mush is formed into a semi-solid congealed loaf, and slices of the scrapple are then pan-fried before serving. --Wikipedia]


The answer: slugs. Thousands of eraser-sized grey slugs were appearing in fields at dusk and gnawing through the stems of the sprouting crop, killing plants en masse.This was weird. Slugs are usually controlled by insects — including a couple species of ground beetles common to Pennsylvania. To figure out what was going on, Tooker and Margaret Douglas, then a grad student, began setting up little terrariums — clear plastic half-pint cartons (like for your potato salad) with a little dirt in the bottom.These were tiny coliseums for a clash of mortal foes — slugs versus beetles. Douglas called the containers “arenas.” “It’s like something you’d see on YouTube,” Douglas says. “Spider versus wasp!”


Slugs are hard to kill. There are a few molluscicides out there, but they’re expensive. And even their born predators, the ground beetles, have trouble taking them down. “They produce a protective slime,” Douglas said, “so when they are attacked, that slime gets all up in the predator’s mouthparts, and it’s pretty disgusting, though there are some predators that can deal with that.”


Still, when the beetles got hungry, they chowed down on the slugs — slime be damned. To add a touch of farmland verisimilitude, and to see how well beetles might protect a crop from ravenous slugs, Douglas germinated a few seeds that had been sitting in the lab refrigerator and placed a few sprouts in each arena. Then she went home.


The next day, she found the seedlings shredded, and every beetle dead. The slugs were snoozing, their bellies full.


Tooker and Douglas quickly realized that the seeds Douglas had used were coated with a mix of chemicals, including a neonic insecticide. As they sucked up water in the germinating tray, the sprouts had also absorbed the neonics, which bind tightly to water molecules and hitch a ride into plant cells. The slugs ate the plants, and the insecticide had spread through the molluscs without harming them. When the beetles attacked the slugs, they got a mouthful of poison and keeled over.

If you are worried about toxicity to humans, things are improving. But if you care about insects, the ubiquity of neonics may very well mean we’re looking at an increasing threat. Measured in acres treated, it looks like we’ve reached an all-time high in the use of neonic seed treatments. Now they’re spread over 90 percent of corn fields and a little under half of soy fields, Tooker said.


That’s when it finally clicked for me: Tooker studies insects that live on farmland. The bugs he cares about are experiencing a massive increase in poisoned habitat. 


For people who care about bugs, neonics have a trio of troubling attributes: They can persist in soil for years; they bind to water molecules, so they’re liable to wash into creeks; and they are lethal to insects at microscopic doses


Scott Black is one of those people who cares. He is the executive director of the Xerces Society, a conservation nonprofit for bugs. Black isn’t an anti-neonic crusader. He knows that if neonics were banned, farmers could replace them with other insecticides. He understands that habitat loss, climate change, and many types of pesticides are ganging up on bugs.


Nonetheless, he thinks neonics deserve special attention. At this point, he said, they are the most widely used insecticides in the world.

[...]the ag giant Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robert Fraley, says that technical advancements — like down-to-the-meter mapping of fields — are making it easier for farmers to adopt this method of dealing with pests. Savvy farmers will soon be tricking out their seed planters to place insecticide-treated seeds in one spot, anti-nematode seeds in another, and a high-yielding hybrid in another, Fraley told me.


“Planters used to be like inkjet printers,” he said. “Today’s planter, you have to think of as being a 3D printer.”


To reduce the use of neonic-coated seeds, though, first you’ll have to convince farmers that there’s a problem with them. Even the enlightened ones I talked to who already use integrated pest management don’t see any harm.


But Tooker’s findings (along with those of many other scientists) suggest that there’s an underappreciated danger in routinely applying tiny amounts of insecticide over huge areas. If farmers could see things from the perspective of their allies, the slug-chomping beetles, it might plant an important seed of understanding.





Seeds coated with chemicals.

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