Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Irrational fear 1: Pesticides

About three months ago I wrote a post on natural foods and the highly exaggerated danger associated with pesticides. I cited research done by Bruce Ames (see picture), Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley. In this very interesting interview, Bruce Ames gives his view on organic foods. In the following excerpt from this interview Ames explains that the reason why he is against spending more resources on natural foods is not that it contains more carcinogens but rather that the production and in consequence also the products is more expensive. More expensive fruits and vegetables means less consumption which will result in more cancers:

Ames: Yes. I'm much more interested in preventing cancer. Then we have to get out to the public what's important. If you tell them about trivia all the time, they get completely confused, and it's counterproductive. I just think all this business of organic food is nonsense basically. We should be eating more fruits and vegetables, so the main way to do that is to make them cheaper. Anything that makes fruits and vegetables more expensive may increase cancer.

When I cite this information people often ask where Bruce Ames gets his money from. Is he really trustworthy? This is a fair question when you take into account the fact that the food industry is a big industry, and if organic foods would suddenly become the public choice it would certainly be rather detrimental to many companies. What many people seem to forget though is that producers of organic foods also have money waiting for them, should they manage to sway the public opinion. Unless it is suggested that organic food producers have a superior morality, immune to economic incentives, this is not a valid argument, after all the economic incentive is there for both sides. Maybe those the people who tell us that organic is the way to go do so because they would get rich if people followed their advice?

I feel quite confident that Bruce Ames is not bought by the food industry. Why? Partially, I believe Ames is a good guy because of what my intuition tells me. When I read the interview (referenced above) with this scientist he just doesn't strike me as a man who has sold his soul to the devil, quite the contrary in fact. However, the main reason why I don't think Ames is bought by the food industry is that he is also the man who first proved that many synthetic pesticides are carcinogenic. For quite a while he was a hero to all the natural food proponents.

Bruce Ames showed that indeed many man made chemicals are carcinogenic, but what reason do we have to assume that natural pesticides aren't also carcinogenic? Ames did not make this assumption and when he tested natural pesticides, which are created by the plants themselves as a protection, he found that pretty much the same proportion of natural pesticides was carcinogenic. Furthermore, Ames discovered that plants which are not treated with synthetic pesticides (i.e. natural foods) contain more potent carcinogens than plants which have been treated with pesticides. (Things can be more or less carcinogenic; for example, even though mushrooms contain 50% carcinogens they are very weak and therefore doesn't do a lot of damage whereas coffee contains much stronger carcinogens.) Read my previous post if you want to understand why. Add to this that 99.9% of the pesticides that we ingest are natural pesticides and you will understand why this post is about irrational fear.

Here we are worrying about 0.1% of the pesticides we ingest which according to the data are, if anything, less mutagenic than the other 99.9%. That is what I would call irrational fear…


Z said...

He's right about the fruit and the vegetables.
I seem to shed lots of hair when i don't eat fruit. I notice while cleaning the bathroom.

Sometimes i eat c-vitamin pills, but somehow, it's not the same thing.

Anonymous Coward said...

I think more importantly, we could not feed the world using organic techniques. We owe much to the green revolution. and there is a lot of hype about organic farming, i would choose locally grown crops over organic crops from the other side of the earth.

We talked a bit about that on my podcast:

btw You have some real quality posts here. Would you like to exchange blog links?

Best regards!

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you anonymous coward :)
I took a look at your blog to and I would gladly switch links with you. Keep up the good work.

Also, I agree with you that the main problem with organic farming is the lower productivity. Decrease in supply usually means higher prices which lead to lower consumption which leads to more deaths in cancer. I can imagine that if organic farming spread globally it could lead to food deficiencies, and that would certainly be a problem of a different dimension. Do you have any data to support that view?

john said...

Well thats easy if you dont have cancer, and have not had an exposure:

I am writing, because I have a Rare cancer, and "Coincidentally" an ex-roomate was diagnosed with the same rare cancer. We later found out that our Cancer, Sarcoma was caused by PCBs and Dioxin - and sure enough later we found we lived over a Landfill with - guess what - PCB, OrganoChlorines and Dioxin like materials.

It turns out that breast cancer is caused by some of the same Chemicals.

I would like to get involved with helping pass laws that require less use of chemicals and regulation to limit "residual" exposures.

I have a new website that I am trying to get off the ground:

If you have a chance, please look at the website and article on enviromental cancers.

As you know there are thousands of Toxicologists that have articles and research showing clearly the link between certain chemicals and cancers. Thanks and best regards to you.


rasmussenanders said...

Thank you John for your comment. I sincerely hope that you will recover from your cancer.

I think that you actually brought up one problem with industrially produced chemicals (not just pesticides), which I have not discussed in my post. Because they are often much more concentrated, being limited to perhaps a few buildings, there is a risk that people will get an overdose if something goes wrong.

Should we ban pesticides because of the risk of leakage? I think that the benefits associated with the use of pesticides is too great to do that. I think that the proper approach is to make sure that the industries are safe and that they take responsibility.

More or less any substance, if you get it in a large enough dosis, will make you sick or kill you. That doesn't mean that we should not use them, because they can be very beneficial in small quantities.

I personally deal with extremely carcinogenic substances on a daily basis (e.g. formaldehyde). I am sure that on occassions someone accidentaly spills this substance all over themselves, which could possibly cause cancer. Yet, I think this risk is worth taking because of the other qualities of formaldehyde...

Let me know what you think

John said...

Methinks you should do some more homework on this topic. This site would be a good place to start: it researches the research


The green "revolution was/is a crock. This site provides access to proven alternatives.


Anders: you should also do some more real homework on this issue.

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the comment John,

I have taken a brief look at the pages you referred to and I find them of limited significance in the discussion.

The first page even states that the main intake of synthetic chemicals is not dietary. I have never stated that I think synthetic chemicals are harmless in general, quite the contrary, I know that there are many usefull chemicals which are also extremely dangerous.

My argument was simply that in the foods that we eat there is no difference, and I don't see that the references changes that conclusion.

Furthermore, the fact that there are no references makes it hard to analyze their statements of truth.

It would be good if you could come up with some general arguments and present them here in the comments section. That way I don't have to go and find the information on the pages...

Thank you though for your comments, I think that the websites were interesting.

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