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Five Myths of 'Safe' Pesticides

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Editor’s note: IFOAM President André Leu has used a wealth of respected scientific journals to present peer-reviewed evidence refuting the claims of chemical companies and pesticide regulators. In his book, The Myths of Safe Pesticides, Leu outlines the many serious deficiencies in the regulation of toxic chemicals used in our food supply. Much of the criteria used to support the current regulations, says Leu, are based on out-of-date, data-free assumptions rather than on the latest published science. These assumptions, says Leu, are a series of mythologies.

1.    The ‘Rigorously Tested’ Myth.

Most pesticide formulations sold on the market are deemed safe on the basis of testing only one of the active ingredients, rather than the whole formulation. Yet limited scientific testing of formulated pesticide products shows that they can be hundreds of times more toxic to humans than the pure single active ingredient.

The human fetus, the newborn and the growing child are at special risk due to their smaller body mass and rapid physical development, both of which increase their vulnerability to known or suspected carcinogens, according to a report by the United States President’s Cancer Panel (USPCP).  Yet currently the pesticide testing used in the regulatory approval processes do not specifically test for the risks particular to these age groups.

2.    The ‘Very Small Amount’ Myth.

Chemical regulations are based on the assumption that the higher the does, the greater the harm. But hundreds of studies now show that this isn’t true for chemicals that are associated with endocrine disruption. In fact, endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be more toxic in lower doses. Yet when regulators set their Average Daily Intake (ADI) allowances, they calculate the allowance by extrapolating it from testing done at higher, not lower, doses.     

The only way to ensure that the allowed ADI is safe, and that a chemical won’t act as an endocrine disrupter at lower doses, is to test the actual residue levels that are set for the ADI.

3.    The ‘Breakdown’ Myth.

One of the biggest myths about pesticides is the assumption that once a chemical degrades it disappears and becomes harmless. Most agricultural poisons leave residues of metabolites (products of the chemical’s breakdown). Limited testing shows that some of these metabolites left by agricultural pesticides cause reproductive problems in humans, and many are more toxic than the pesticide itself. Yet testing of metabolites remains inadequate.

4.    The ‘Reliable Regulatory Authority’ Myth.
Regulatory authorities are ignoring a large body of peer-reviewed science showing the harm caused by pesticides and they are making decisions on data-free assumptions. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found a cocktail of many toxic chemicals in the blood and urine of most Americans. A 2007 study by the Environmental Working Group found up to 232 chemicals in the placental cord of newborns in the U.S.  Many of these chemicals, such as mercury and polychlorinated byphenyls, are known to harm brain development and the nervous system. These studies show the inaccuracies of the regulatory authorities’ assumption that because each of the chemicals is present at a low level in commercial products, they will cause no health issue. This assumption clearly has no basis in science. The scientific credibility of pesticide regulatory authorities has to be seriously questioned when they are approving the use of pesticides on the basis of data-free assumptions.

5.    The ‘Pesticides Are Essential to Farming’ Myth.

Organic farming can feed the world without the use of toxic synthetic pesticides. There are many examples (some included in The Myths of Pesticides) of organic systems producing yields that are equal to, or higher than, yields achieved by conventional farming. The bulk of agricultural research should be based on further improving and scaling up these high-yielding organic systems rather than on toxic chemicals and GMOs.

André Leu is a longtime Australian farmer and president of International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), the world umbrella body for the organic sector. His book, The Myths of Pesticides, is available through AcresUSA and Amazon.