One week of eating organic can dramatically reduce pesticide levels in the body, according to a recent study conducted by the Health Research Institute, Commonweal Institute, and Friends of the Earth.
The group of researchers tracked the pesticide levels of four families across the United States. They took measurements after six days on a non-organic diet and again after six days on an organic diet.
The study, and a companion study published last year, found 16 different kinds of pesticides and chemicals in every participant. But after six days of organic eating, these compounds decreased an average of 60.5 percent—and some as much as 95 percent. Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and the most used pesticide in the world, dropped an average of 70 percent.
A study by agricultural economist Charles Benbrook finds that the use of glyphosate has spiked 15-fold globally since genetically modified, “Roundup Ready” crops were introduced in 1996. The percentage of Americans with traceable levels of glyphosate in their bodies rose from 12 percent in 1972 to 70 percent by 2014, according to researchers at the University of California San Diego.
Glyphosate exposure has been associated with a wide range of health problems. Researchers have flagged glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, and the chemical has been linked to kidney disease, reproductive issues, DNA damage, hormone and digestion disruptions, fatty liver disease, and more.
The recent study poses organic eating as a straightforward way to avoid glyphosate. But the authors also recognize that organic food isn’t always accessible.
To improve the availability of organic foods in the United States, the team calls for top-down policy changes—like stricter regulations on pesticide use, more federal research into the effects of pesticides, and aid for farmers as they transition to organic farming.
“Our federal pesticide policy system is broken, and we need people shouting about that,” Dr. Kendra Klein, a co-author of the study and Senior Staff Scientist at Friends of the Earth, tells Food Tank. “Companies like Bayer, Syngenta, and Dow are spending millions lobbying, and they’re also spending tens of millions of dollars to shape the narrative and perpetuate myths, like the myth that we need pesticides to feed the world.”
Klein points out that just 1 percent of U.S. federal agricultural research dollars go towards ecological farming, and pesticide regulations are few and far between. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has loosened some pesticide restrictions in recent years. Between 1993 and 2008, the EPA raised the threshold for glyphosate residues on oats from 0.1 ppm to 30 ppm.
Larry Bohlen, Chief Operating Officer at HRI Labs and another co-author of the study, also emphasizes a lack of resources for farmers who want to transition to organic farming. He explains that universities and government training programs have taught farmers how to use pesticides for decades. “If they placed models of successful organic farming side-by-side with the synthetic chemical models, farmers would have choices instead of just one option,” Bohlen tells Food Tank.
Stringent pesticide regulations might seem like a lofty goal in the U.S., says Klein, but change is already underway abroad. Earlier this year, the European Union announced plans to halve the use of “high risk” pesticides by 2030 and make at least 25 percent of farmland organic.
To spur change in the U.S., Bohlen urges consumers to vote with their wallets, if they’re able. “Each person’s purchase is a small vote that, when considered collectively, sends a signal back to the grocer and the farmer about what type of food is desired. It’s your purchase that has one of the biggest effects on land, farmer, and consumer health.”