Many people want to lead a healthier lifestyle but aren’t sure where to start. In the realm of diet, in fact, most Americans (52 percent) believe it’s easier to calculate their income taxes than figure out what to eat to stay healthy.1 It shouldn’t feel this hard, which is why I want to give you one tangible step you can take to overhaul your diet, and lifestyle, for the better: Go organic.
A survey by the Organic Trade Association revealed that, in 2017, Americans bought more organic foods and household products than ever, with sales reaching $47 billion in 2016 — an 8 percent increase from 2015.2 Katherine Paul, associate director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), said in a news release, “ … I think you are looking at a better-educated population that is connecting the dots between what they eat and their health.”3
This is true, indeed, and organic products are now available in close to 20,000 natural food stores and 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores in the U.S. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges their staying power in the marketplace, noting “Organic products have shifted from being a lifestyle choice for a small share of consumers to being consumed at least occasionally by a majority of Americans.”4 But despite the gains in popularity, organic sales account for only about 4 percent of total U.S. food sales.5
Avoiding Pesticides Is the No. 1 Reason People Buy Organic
“Polling shows the No. 1 reason people go organic is to avoid pesticides, chemicals and all of those things that are not allowed in organics,” Paul said,6 and this is a primary reason why going organic is so important — for your health and the environment. Not only do these chemicals threaten the Earth as we know it, but they pose a direct risk to human health, including to developing babies.
In research presented at a 2017 Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN) conference in Washington, D.C., it was demonstrated that women exposed to higher glyphosate levels during pregnancy had babies born earlier and with lower adjusted birth weights.7 What’s more, the chemical was detected in more than 90 percent of the mothers in the study.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, has made headlines because it’s the most used agricultural chemical in history and also because the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined it a probable carcinogen. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has revealed that nearly 30 percent of the more than 3,000 foods they tested contain glyphosate.8
This included nearly 37 percent of grain products, 47 percent of bean/pea/lentil products and more than 30 percent of infant food and cereal. Even 7 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables contained the residues. Eating nonorganic genetically engineered (GE) foods (the prime candidates for Roundup spraying) is associated with higher glyphosate levels in your body.9
Pesticides Are Harmful to Children’s Brains, Farmworkers
The European Parliament commissioned a report on the human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture, which was co-written by Harvard Chan School’s Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health.10 A primary message of the report again centered on pesticides and the potential benefits of reducing their usage via organic agriculture.
In a Harvard School of Public Health news release, Grandjean said, “In conventional food, there are pesticide residues that remain in the food even after it’s washed. Organic foods are produced virtually without pesticides.”11 While U.S. regulators insist that set limits on pesticide residues in conventional produce are enough to protect the public’s health, the report found negative health effects may occur in children even at current levels of exposure. According to Grandjean:12
“[T]hose limits are based on animal studies, looking at the effect of one pesticide at a time. The human brain is so much more complex than the rat brain, and our brain development is much more vulnerable because there are so many processes that have to happen at the right time and in the right sequence — you can’t go back and do them over … Three long-term birth cohort studies in the U.S. suggest that pesticides are harming children’s brains.
In these studies, researchers found that women’s exposure to pesticides during pregnancy, measured through urine samples, was associated with negative impacts on their children’s IQ and neurobehavioral development, as well as with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] diagnoses.
Also, one of the studies looked at structural brain growth using magnetic resonance imaging and found that the gray matter was thinner in children the higher their mothers’ exposure to organophosphates, which are used widely in pesticides. I think that’s quite scary.”
One of the studies Grandjean refers to is the CHAMACOS Study, which followed hundreds of pregnant women living in Salinas Valley, California, an agricultural mecca that has had up to a half-million pounds of organophosphates sprayed in the region per year. The children were followed through age 12 to assess what impact the pesticides had on their development.13 It turns out the impact was quite dramatic, and mothers' exposure to organophosphates during pregnancy was associated with:14
Shorter duration of pregnancy
Poorer neonatal reflexes
Lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning in children
Increased risk of attention problems in children
Farmworkers who are exposed to agricultural pesticides on a near-daily basis also suffer, as do their families. Up to 20,000 farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides each year, although the actual number is likely far higher, as many of the workers may not seek medical care or may be misdiagnosed if they do seek treatment.
There is also no coordinated national incident reporting system to track such exposures. Despite this, pesticide exposures cause farmworkers more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce nationwide.15 So when you choose organic, you’re helping to protect farmworkers as well as your own family.