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…