Tag Archives: Pesticide

Roundup: What It Is (and What It Isn’t)

pesticide appliedI have a neighbor/friend who recently asked me if I knew how to stop our neighborhood landscaping crew from spraying Roundup in the common areas. She didn’t know that I blog about agriculture issues, nor did she know I used to work for Monsanto. I told her my position and asked her why she had concerns.  It boiled down to all the things that people think about Roundup: it’s bad for the environment, and it’s possibly carcinogenic. She suggested we look for an alternative that is unquestionably safe. During this conversation another friend of mine piped up and admitted that, “I don’t really know much about Roundup, I’ve just heard it’s bad.” Then a few weeks later I was helping out in the school garden at my children’s elementary school when I heard one of the adults tell the kids that “pesticides are bad.”

Pesticides are incredibly useful, but that’s not what the public thinks. So today I’m going to talk about the most commonly used herbicide in the world: Roundup. This post is really meant for the lay-person, so if you’re looking for in-depth analysis, you’re probably not going to find it, but I will provide links throughout on where you can find more information.

This is a long post because there’s so much to cover, so I’ll summarize up front. I’m going to talk about

  • What Roundup is: a broad-spectrum herbicide containing glyphosate as its active ingredient.
  • How it’s used: to kill weeds in agricultural, forestry, and industrial settings as well as around the neighborhood.
  • What Roundup Ready is: crops that have been bioengineered to tolerate Roundup so just the weeds die and the crop survives.
  • Why it’s beneficial:  (for crops) reduction in tillage which results in less run-off, better soil, and carbon sequestration.
  • Alternatives to Roundup: more harmful or less effective herbicides or less-efficient, energy intensive options.
  • Is it safe:  yes.
  • Does it cause cancer:  no.
  • Do farmers douse fields: no, or use it too much: it’s complicated, and super weeds: they’re not that super after all.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be concerned about Roundup. If you don’t want to use it in your yard, don’t.  But as far as herbicides go, Roundup has a long, safe history and is a useful tool for farmers. It’s not the end-all-be-all of agriculture, but it’s an extremely valuable agricultural tool.

What is Roundup? (for the non-scientist)

Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is a non-selective, systemic herbicide. Throughout this post I’ll use the two terms interchangeably, but Roundup is a brand name for glyphosate like Tylenol is a brand name for acetaminophen. There are dozens of other herbicide brands that also contain glyphosate, but Roundup is the most well known. An herbicide is something that kills weeds (for clarity: pesticide is the umbrella term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) Non-selective means that it doesn’t just work on one kind of weed (like just broad-leaf weeds or just grasses), it works on virtually all plants. In contrast, selective herbicides (like Dicamba) are likely what you’ve seen advertised to use on your lawn to kill dandelions and clover – it doesn’t kill grass, only broadleaf weeds. Don’t spray a non-selective herbicide like Roundup on your dandelions, it will kill the dandelions but it will also kill your grass. Systemic means that it doesn’t just damage the sprayed leaves of the plant; it gets inside the plant and disrupts the functions that keep it alive. Compare this to vinegar, which is a contact herbicide (non-systemic) and will only damage the part of the plant that gets sprayed with vinegar, but the weed isn’t dead, just damaged and it might come back. Systemic herbicides are very effective because it’s less important that you completely cover the plant, just a little will do the trick.

If you want to know more, there’s plenty of information out there about how glyphosate actually works in the plants (it inhibits specific enzymes only found in plants and blocks the shikimic acid pathway.) Here’s a good video on how glyphosate works. And here’s a good detailed overview of the mode of action (warning: very sciencey).

How is Roundup used?

In non-agricultural settings like your yard and neighborhood, Roundup is really effective in places where you don’t want anything to grow: cracks in pavement, along rock borders, in mulched areas in your flower bed. It’s what landscape crews are probably spraying in hard-to-mow spots like under fences and around trees. It’s also commonly used by state transportation departments to manage roadside vegetation instead of mowing which creates emissions and is labor-intensive.  It is also used by parks departments to get rid of noxious weeds like poison ivy and invasive weeds like blackberry, and along railroads or power line corridors to prevent weeds and trees from causing disruptions.

In agricultural settings, Roundup is used to increase cropping efficiency. Weeds compete with crops for resources like sunlight, water, space and nutrients. Weeds that get a stronghold will out-compete crops by shading them from the sun and stealing valuable nutrients. In the end, not treating for weeds means farmers make less money and get far less production out of every acre, and it means we need more acreage to feed the same number of people and wastes resources like water on something we can’t eat.

It’s important here to point out a very big difference between managing weeds in your yard which is primarily for aesthetic reasons and managing weeds on a farm which is entirely for efficiency reasons. The downside to weeds in your yard is looking at a weedy yard. Yes, it looks untidy and it might even decrease the value of your house and your neighborhood, but it’s not a huge problem. Not managing weeds on a farm is a big deal and not really an option. Even organic farmers who aren’t allowed to use synthetic herbicides have to manage weeds or suffer unsustainable yield losses.

What’s Roundup Ready and Why is it Beneficial?

One of the reasons that Roundup is so popular among farmers (aside from the fact that it’s a highly effective and extremely safe herbicide) is because of the development of Roundup Ready crops. In 1996 Monsanto introduced glyphosate-tolerant “Roundup Ready” soybeans, the first major GM crop that was bioengineered to survive applications of Roundup. Soybeans were quickly followed by Roundup Ready cotton, canola, corn, and later, sugar beets. For farmers this meant that they could go from spraying many different herbicides in an attempt to get effective weed control, to only spraying primarily one herbicide. It offered farmers simplicity and flexibility. Not surprisingly, Roundup Ready crops were rapidly adopted by farmers. In fact, the technology is said to be the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of US agriculture. Today, 90 percent or more of all soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets grown in the US are Roundup Ready.

no tilled pea field

This is what a no-till field looks like. Last season they grew fescue. They harvest the fescue, spray Roundup, and plant peas right into that fescue residue on the field. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Hadley)

Roundup Ready crops (and the use of Roundup in agriculture generally) has also contributed to the adoption of no-till and conservation-till methods which help reduce soil erosion and water runoff and increase organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Importantly, no-till also sequesters carbon in the soil and reduces the amount of fuel consumed because farmers don’t have to drive machinery over their fields as many times, thereby reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint.  It’s estimated that in 2013 alone, biotech crops reduced carbon emissions equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year; no-till and conservation-till methods helped contribute to that figure. The use of herbicides like Roundup allows farmers to kill weeds without tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground to mechanically destroy weeds).  Roundup is perfectly matched to no-till agriculture because it removes essentially all existing weeds before planting, and has no residual toxicity to crops that emerge later. No-till has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, water, and maintains soil structure.

Alternatives to Roundup

Let’s pretend that activists managed to get Roundup banned like they claim it should be. It’s naive to think that farmers would stop using herbicides to manage weeds, because as I already mentioned, weed control is critical to successful crop production. Likely it would mean that conventional farmers would use a different herbicide (or combination of herbicides).  When Roundup was introduced, it displaced other more dangerous herbicides like alachlor which is more toxic than glyphosate, considered to be likely carcinogenic at high doses, and poses potential chronic toxicity concerns or MCPA which is much more toxic than glyphosate.  Because of this and its bioaccumulation issues, MCPA is a restricted use pesticide in the US. Pesticides have come a really long way in the last few decades in terms of safety, which is great news, but as I’ll talk more about below, Roundup is one of those really safe herbicides. Taking it out of the toolbox would not result in the use of less herbicide or the use of a safer alternative.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

“But, Sara, what about an organic approach? I saw on Pinterest that you can use a combination of vinegar, salt and dish soap for a chemical-free and more effective alternative to Roundup!” First of all, who says these mixtures are organic? “Organic” means the USDA program for non-chemical pest control and fertility enhancement. It does not mean you can spray anything you can whip up in your garage. The vinegar / salt / soap mixture is not chemical-free or great for the soil. Vinegar contains the chemical acetic acid, and salt (sodium chloride) sticks around for a really long time in the soil and can make it difficult to grow anything at all for a long time (think salt flats). Soap is also a chemical, and interestingly, commonly used in synthetic pesticides as a surfactant.  Just because you are more familiar with those chemicals, does not make them safer alternatives. Acetic acid is more toxic than glyphosate. Does that make vinegar scary? No. It just means glyphosate is pretty darn safe. Andrew Kniss actually did a great analysis of that home-made herbicide and concluded that, “The acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate mixture. And this doesn’t include the salt.” And, as mentioned, these home-made mixtures are non-systemic and merely destroy sprayed foliage.  In addition, pesticides are regulated and approved by EPA and state authorities, and you may not spray non-approved non-labeled mixtures for pest control on food crops.

What about other organic alternatives? The thing is there aren’t many organic herbicides. There are some (yes, organic farmers DO SPRAY PESTICIDES) like clove oil and citrus oils which are approved in the USDA program, but they are primarily contact herbicides (non-systemic) and require higher doses to be effective. There are other methods like mulches and flooding, and mechanical methods discussed below, but even the organic farmer in Tomorrow’s Table confessed that weeds are really a weak spot in organic farming. Maybe you could make it work on a small organic farm, but it’s just not feasible on a large scale. Not to mention it’s a less efficient use of resources.

What about mowing, hoeing, weed-whipping or just pulling them out by hand? Sure, you can do that to avoid spraying anything at all. Easy peasy. OK, get your gardening gloves on and head out to weed 500 acres, which is a small farm in the Midwest. That’s about 500 football fields worth of mowing or weed whipping with a gas-powered device, all the while consuming fossil fuels and spewing exhaust. Or you could hire a group of people to remove weeds out in the sun (a known carcinogen) using man-power (and possibly contributing to sore backs and arthritis.) In fact, as I’ve discussed before, in 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury and in 2004 California banned hand-weeding to prevent back injury (except organic producers are exempt because without the use of hand-weeding, they’re pretty much at the mercy of weeds). Consider that US farming covers slightly less than 1 billion acres, with perhaps a third of that considered prime crop growing land. The entire US population working all summer could not effectively hand weed US crop production acres. And what fraction would be willing to try?

Now, if you want to avoid spraying anything in your yard or neighborhood, it’s totally doable. Like I said, there’s a big difference between managing weeds in agriculture and managing them in your backyard. All you have to do is not mind looking at weeds and convince all your neighbors they don’t mind either. Or you can try to mobilize a group of neighbors to regularly weed your neighborhood’s common spaces in their free time. Considering that most of my neighborhood relies on hired landscape crews to mow and maintain their own small (less than a quarter acre) lots, I’m doubtful that’ll work. But, you can try.

Safety of Roundup

Roundup less toxic than caffeineRoundup is an extremely safe herbicide. In fact, it’s 25 times less toxic than caffeine (from LD50 levels based on oral ingestion in rats.) Like I said in the very first section, glyphosate only works in plants and bacteria, not in animals. Glyphosate is not well-absorbed in animals, it doesn’t accumulate in tissues and is excreted largely unchanged.  From an environmental perspective, glyphosate binds very tightly to the soil so it doesn’t contaminate ground water and is broken down by microbes in the soil so it doesn’t persist or migrate in the environment.

Glyphosate has been used safely for more than 40 years, and it’s the most widely used and most comprehensively evaluated herbicide.  There are more than 800 studies demonstrating its safety. The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies glyphosate as “practically non-toxic,” and there are a whole slew of regulatory bodies around the world that have come to the same conclusion. I’ve written extensively before on how regulatory bodies determine which pesticides are approved and how much is safe to use, and this blog post concludes that based on those figures you could eat 62 pounds of produce every day and still come in 100 times lower than the no-effect level. Monsanto recently said you could eat 900 pounds of fruits or vegetables every day for the rest of your life without worrying about any health problems from glyphosate residue.

Yes, you can find plenty of stuff on the internet that contradicts what I’ve just said. Activists will point to (debunked) studies that claim glyphosate causes everything from autism to Parkinson’s. The regulatory bodies that make these safety determinations have access to the same studies that you can find on the internet and many more that are proprietary. If the majority of the global scientific community didn’t think those studies were good enough to reverse their conclusions, neither should you.

But, I Read in the News Lately That Roundup Causes Cancer.

Nope, Roundup does not cause cancer. You might think you read that because last March a division of the WHO called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorized Roundup as class 2A, probably carcinogenic.  What does that mean? Well, importantly, IARC does hazard identification, not risk assessment. That means they’re looking for potential, not likelihood; they’re not required to take real-world exposure situations into account. There was no new study done, IARC looked at the same existing body of research that EPA and all other global regulatory bodies have access to, but really only expressly considered publicly available information. After IARC’s announcement, EPA stood by their conclusion, saying the research, “does not provide evidence to show that glyphosate causes cancer, and it does not warrant any change in EPA’s cancer classification for glyphosate.” EPA’s not the only one who disagrees with them, either. Not surprisingly, Monsanto disagrees as do lots of other scientists in the field. Additionally, the European Food Safety Authority just announced earlier this month that they again looked at the evidence and concluded Roundup is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and recommended increasing the safe limit for consumption.

To put IARC’s classification into perspective, other things in the same “probably carcinogenic” 2A category include working as a hairdresser or night-shift worker, acrylamide which shows up in coffee beans and French fries, and red meat. The category one step above, carcinogenic to humans, includes alcoholic beverages, outdoor air pollution, working as a painter, exposure to the sun and wood dust. IARC is also the same organization that just classified processed meat as carcinogenic, indicating that from their cancer-causing perspective, consumption of hot dogs are more dangerous than exposure to Roundup.

Ok, even so, why wouldn’t I want to avoid something that even some scientists think may cause cancer? (I’m going to assume if you feel that way, you’re also going to avoid all the things I listed above, like sun exposure, alcohol, bacon and exhaust fumes: you should be consistent, after all.) I get that, but it’s also important to note that even if we agree IARC’s classification is consistent with the science (of which I’m personally not convinced), the committee themselves noted that the hazard is really for agriculture applicators, not consumers. They’re not talking about residue on your food, or spraying your rock border, they’re talking about farmers who are applying Roundup on a large scale. Even for those farmers the risk is low, because federal regulations mandate how and when to apply, and what precautions should be taken when applying pesticides.

What About Super Weeds and the Increase in Herbicide Use?

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

I hear the term “dousing” used a lot when people refer to farmers and pesticides, particularly Roundup. “They’re just dumping that stuff on we have proof because now all these weeds are resistant to Roundup!”  First, the dousing:  Nurse Loves Farmer did a great post on how inaccurate that term is and pointed out that typically farmers use about the equivalent of a can of soda of Roundup on an acre of crops. Remember, an acre is about the size of a football field.  Additionally, farmers don’t want to spray pesticides if they don’t have to. It’s expensive and a waste of their time. I was blown away at the advanced technology I saw when I rode in a sprayer – it is so precise that the boom (the arm on the machine that sprays the pesticide) uses GPS guidance and will turn off if it passes over a portion of the field it knows has already been sprayed. Would you mow your lawn twice in the same day? No. Farmer’s don’t spray pesticide if they don’t need to.

Next: has the use of herbicide gone up? One of the claims about GMOs is that they would reduce pesticide application. That’s definitely true for insect-resistant crops, but it’s trickier for herbicide-tolerant crops. In reality, the use of Roundup alone has increased as a result of GMOs that are immune to its effects. This is intuitive, and I already touched on it – a farmer who switched from conventional to Roundup Ready corn used to spray three or four different herbicides and now only sprays one. Lots of farmers adopted this approach, and the use of Roundup went up. That’s actually a good thing, because as we already discussed, Roundup is a safer herbicide than many it replaced.  Total use of herbicide is also trending down, but more importantly, the move to safer herbicides means the environmental impact of herbicide use has gone down.

What about super weeds? The term super weed refers to weeds that have become resistant to an herbicide, in the same way that some bacteria are now resistant to antibiotics. This is not new and certainly not unique to Roundup. In fact, there are many other herbicides with greater resistance issues than Roundup (including the ALS-inhibitors used to treat the sunflowers that Chipotle switched to because they claimed Roundup Ready crops created too many superweeds). Roundup is the most widely used herbicide and (according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds) there are seven herbicides with more resistant weed species.

That being said, there are good ways to manage resistant weeds. They’re not super at all; you can still get rid of them with another herbicide, or by physically pulling them up or tillage. Farmers are starting to use combinations of herbicides to prevent resistance, and seed companies like Monsanto are developing crops engineered to withstand multiple herbicides in an effort to help stem resistance. Over-reliance on one particular herbicide leads to resistance because it increases the selection pressure for weeds that have naturally developed resistance.  It’s like always using the same antibiotic over and over to treat an illness. Not using the right amount of an herbicide can also increase the chances of developing resistance, just like when your doctor tells you to use an antibiotic for a whole week but you stop after three days because you feel better.  Roundup resistant weeds have taught us a good lesson about over-reliance and following proper usage rates, but it’s not a fundamental problem with Roundup: it’s more about how the herbicide has been used.

In summary, don’t be afraid of Roundup and don’t sign petitions to ban it because that won’t solve anything. If you don’t like Monsanto, that’s an entirely different issue (Monsanto’s not the only company that sells glyphosate, anyway).  If you want to pull weeds by hand, go for it – I weed my own garden (mostly) by hand because it’s small, I enjoy it, and sometimes I’m too lazy to walk to the garage and get the sprayer. But know the facts: Roundup isn’t evil, it’s a very thoroughly tested, efficient and effective herbicide with a long history of safe use and it’s a tremendous tool that enables farmers to farm sustainably and efficiently.





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Filed under Research light

Hold on honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 3 of 3.

In the first post I covered why bees are important, outlined what’s been happening over the last few years and what might be causing it. Last time I addressed the false idea that pesticides are solely to blame, and discussed why bees are probably not headed for extinction. Now let’s talk about why they’re not headed for extinction – research, possible answers, and what you can do.

What’s Being Done?

bee on finger-1Lots. It seems like everyone is doing research on bees. “The initial government grant money was spent well, spent wisely, served its purpose,” entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron said. “We’re really now at a crossroads. Most of these large government grants will be the seed money. Now it’s time for industry, other funding, including the beekeepers to pick this up.” And the industry definitely seems to be stepping in. Even though Monsanto doesn’t manufacture insecticide, they do sell seeds with insecticide in the seed coating, and they’re clearly vested in agriculture as a whole. They’ve joined and created a number of honey bee coalitions and conferences, and hired Jerry Hayes from the Florida Department of Agriculture to head up Beeologics, an Israeli-based company Monsanto acquired in 2011 that researches and develops biological tools to provide targeted control of pests and diseases. Bayer Crop Science, who does manufacture insecticide, created a Bee Care Program dedicated to promoting bee health and technological solutions and has created two Bee Care Centers that bring together beekeepers, farmers, and researchers interested in bee health. Both Bayer and Monsanto are working with Project Apis m. to provide better forage for bees. The USDA has dedicated $4 million for honey bee habitats and has a number of research projects and programs, one of which provides incentives to encourage farmers to plant more bee-friendly plants on their acreage. Universities across the country have entomology departments dedicated to research on bees, including Oregon State University that also has a Master Beekeeping Program, and some universities (including OSU and Washington State University) are developing sentinel hives that aim to collect crucial data that could provide beekeepers with better guidance on managing bees. President Obama created a Pollinator Health Task Force that is developing a strategy to create new public-private partnerships and increase citizen engagement.  Oregon also created a task force on pollinator health that released a report last November, although it was criticized as not being strong enough. Additionally, programs have been started to increase pollen and nectar sources for bees, one such example is Operation Pollinator that started ten years ago.

There are private local projects as well. Local weather and geography plays an important role in if bees survive the winter or not. Tim Wessels and Glen Andresen at Bridgetown Bees are focusing on breeding better queen bees for the Portland urban environment. The urban backyard beekeepers face different challenges than rural beekeepers: fewer drones (male bees) and less communication about what neighbors might be spraying in their yards.  The team is in their third year of breeding queens that they hope will be hardier in terms of weather, resistance to mites and other factors. Last winter was particularly harsh here and only two out of more than a dozen queens survived. But the goqueen-1od news is that a harsh winter provides heavy selection pressure and the 12 to 15 queens going into this winter should have the characteristics they’re looking for. They’ve made some management changes this year that they hope will give those queens an upper hand, “We’ve enclosed them a little better, left more honey [in the hive], started earlier, and we’ve given them more bees per colony,” Wessels said. “If the hive has a critical mass of bees – for cluster[ing around the queen] – then they can generate enough heat. In much colder environments than Portland, if something is compromising that – like there are fewer bees, they just can’t keep up with the cold.”

Finally, it should be noted that statistics from the USDA, FAO and StatisticsCanada show that worldwide bee populations have actually increased since 2008, rather than decreased. In the US alone, we’ve seen a 13 percent increase in bee population since 2008.

Where’s the Answer?

All six beekeepers I talked to agreed that better communication between beekeepers and farmers could provide some answers to the problem. “Absolutely there should be better communication,” Wessels said, “but we’re stuck in this cycle – who’s going to go first.” He believes there should be stronger rules for pesticide applications, better enforcement when those applications aren’t done correctly.  Commercial beekeeper Mark Johnson believes the beekeepers have to take some of the responsibility, too. “We need to work more closely together instead of adversarialy,” he said. “At bee meetings they start pointing fingers at pesticides. I don’t know a single farmer that wants to spray pesticides – it costs money and time. I would say instead of yelling and screaming and pointing fingers – work more closely together.” Sarah Myers at Bayer says they’re making those recommendations to farmers. “Communicate your practices with local beekeepers,” she said.  “Tell your beekeeping neighbor, can you wait a few days, or cover the hives, move them, all these things simply by having a conversation can eliminate some of the problems.”

There’s another thought on where the answer is coming from.  At a recent Portland Urban Beekeepers meeting, the editor of Bee Culture Magazine predicted during a presentation that it will be a technology answer, and it will come from the very companies that many folks are blaming for the bee demise in the first place. Caron agrees. “I think it’s going to be a technology solution,” Caron said.  “That takes money. I don’t see a lot of that money coming from the public coffers. We need to avoid getting side-tracked by blaming that evil chemical giant. Who’s going to come up with that solution? It’s them! Bayer and Monsanto are going to come up with it.”

bee on berry flower2-1What Can You Do?

The big answer remains to be seen, but in the meantime there are a few things you, as a consumer and homeowner, can do to help mitigate the situation.  I got some good advice from the commercial beekeeper, Johnson. “Encourage those who are politically in power to increase research,” he said. “We have a lot of questions and I think our research is in the neophyte stage.” Wessels and Andresen had other suggestions. “For one, limit your use of pesticide for cosmetic purpose,” Wessels said. “Absolutely don’t use them for cosmetic purposes and when you do use them, do what the label says because that’s the law.” Many people don’t know that it is your legal responsibility to apply pesticides correctly. “Oftentimes the problems are caused by neonics used against the law. In an urban setting we don’t know if people two houses down are spraying their linden trees for aphids, and consumers often don’t peel back the sticky label.” They also recommend having something blooming in your yard year round and planting good pollen plants in groupings instead of single plants (there’s a list of good plants for Oregon on their website, and here’s a more comprehensive list.) You can also put out water – bees need water. “We’ve had three summers where we’ve had about two straight months without rain. A bird bath is great, but dump it out regularly.”  If you’re really adventurous, you can even start your own hive.

Johnson was skeptical about how much impact planting flowers in your yard will actually have, but he agreed it can’t hurt. “On my ten acres I could never plant enough flowers to feed a beehive. They need huge areas to feed a hive. It doesn’t hurt to plant plants in Portland, but even if everyone planted their front yard in clover I don’t think it would feed very many hives. It’s a good start, and it can’t hurt.” He told me that a hive needs five pounds of nectar per day during the summer to feed their brood, and on a good day a hive can bring in up to 15 pounds. For perspective, even if your whole backyard is raspberry bushes it might produce one to two pounds of nectar. Where Johnson thinks we can make a bigger impact is with trees planted by the city and the strips of grass along the roads. “City trees should be nectar producing or pollen producing,” he said. “What really makes sense is the sides of freeways. That’s huge. Outside the central city – from here to Corvallis – you’ve got 75 to 100 feet in the middle of the road and on the side. Those plants would be tremendous.”

The final recommendation? Support local honey. Caron told me that roughly two thirds of the honey used by Americans is imported. And there was some interesting discussion at the Portland Urban Beekeepers meeting I attended about where it’s coming from and what’s actually in that imported honey. So even if you don’t want to change your landscaping, or start a hive, or get involved politically, you can at least spend a few extra pennies and buy local honey.

That’s it, folks. That’s some of the fascinating information I learned about bees. Hopefully you learned something, too. And next time your crazy friend posts something on Facebook about the bees dying and taking us with them, speak up and tell them what’s actually going on. And make sure to send them a link to this article. 🙂

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Hold on Honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 2 of 3.

Last time we talked about why bees are important (they help pollinate a third of our food and contribute considerably to crop values), outlined what’s been happening over the last few years (the difference between Colony Collapse Disorder and increased overwintering loss) and what might be causing it (a perfect storm of parasites, disease, poor nutrition, stress, and pesticides.) Now let’s talk about those pesky pesticides and if you should really be all that worried.

bee frame-2C’mon, It’s the Pesticides, Right?

So now we get to the meat of the hysteria: pesticides can also weaken the bees. And here is where, in my opinion, it gets really tricky. I’m sure most of you who live in Oregon remember hearing about some 50,000 bees that died in a Target parking lot after linden trees were sprayed with a neonicotinoid insecticide which later prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to temporarily restrict the use of neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) on linden trees. The EU also enacted a two-year moratorium on neonics after the European Food Safety Authority identified risks to bees (although there has been some recent controversy on if the scientists involved in that decision skewed the data to make it look worse than it actually is.) As a result of that ban, many canola farmers in the EU are experiencing crop losses this year of 20 percent to 50 percent due to an infestation of flea beetles. And herein lies the problem: farmers are facing an uphill battle to feed an ever-growing population on increasingly less land, and pesticides can help protect those crops. But are these pesticides also harming bees, therefore threatening our food supply? Certainly, there are plenty of groups screaming yes. Whole Foods even has a campaign to encourage consumers to “go organic” as a way to help the bees. Oddly, though, none of the six beekeepers (even the one who is vocally anti-GMO and pro-organic) I talked to support a ban on neonics or even seemed fully convinced that there was enough scientific evidence to say that neonics, when used properly, are definitely harmful. “We’ve gotten very side-tracked with the neonics,” said beekeeper and entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron.  “It is a landmine, but there is not much data to suggest that the real problem is neonics.” Caron explained that even without that evidence, many backyard beekeepers still believe that if they keep their bees away from pesticides, they’ll be ok.  “To say that I don’t let them near neonics so that will keep them happy and healthy is probably not true.”

One of the ways that farmers use neonics is with seed treatments – the farmer buys the seed already coated with a small amount of pesticide to help protect the seed while it’s in the ground and as it germinates and grows out of the soil. The planting process of these seeds can churn up pesticide-laced dust from the coating that can be carried by the wind to where nearby bees might be foraging.  In response to that, last year Bayer Crop Science, the primary manufacturer of neonics, introduced a new lubricant for seed coatings that reduces planting dust by up to 90 percent. I reached out to Sarah Myers at Bayer to get her take on what’s happening with the bees and what role pesticides play in recent bee deaths. Myers is a beekeeper who works in the North American Bee Care Center at Bayer and is the president of the Wake County Beekeepers Association.  “It would be nice if we could say if we eliminate pesticide use honey bee health would increase, but it’s not the silver bullet that many people are looking for,” Myers said. “There is a risk associated with it, but how you mitigate that risk is key.” Myers explained that although neonics are a systematic insecticide they don’t affect the nectar, so for a honey bee or other pollinators, they are very safe. “The science is there,” Myers said, “but getting folks to understand the science versus the emotional drive is the tricky part. A product that kills the insect is easier to identify than how you use the product. Some applications are safer than others – the key is to read the label and think of how you’re using the product.” That label explicitly warns against spraying on a blooming crop that attracts bees, which is exactly what happened in the Target parking lot in Wilsonville.

While there have been some studies that want to claim that neonics are the sole cause of CCD, these studies appear to be flawed and haven’t demonstrated a direct connection or correlation to CCD. What seems to be more likely is that neonics can cause sub-lethal effects in bees – meaning that bees exposed to safe levels of neonics may have an increased susceptibility to pathogens. This brings us back to the perfect storm situation I mentioned earlier – pesticide exposure at safe levels could be one contributing factor (compounded with poor nutrition) that places stress on the bees making it harder for them to overcome viruses, bacteria and pathogens introduced by parasites like the varroa mite. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – there may be ways to mitigate this risk without banning an otherwise very useful and safe insecticide.  “If we were to take neonicotonoids away, which have a safer profile [than some alternatives], and replace them with the older chemistries, that would be going backwards in science” Myers said. “I know a lot of farmers are worried, they need better technology. As a beekeeper, I certainly wouldn’t want us to go backwards in science.”

How Big of a Deal is This, Really?



I asked this question to each of the beekeepers I interviewed because from what you read on the internet, the bees are doomed for extinction. But not one of the beekeepers I interviewed was overly concerned about the honey bee species. Tom Chester, a local beekeeper in his 19th season of keeping bees who also teaches beginning beekeeping courses, told me, “I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. I think there’s a lot of effort going into bees and I’m pleased there’s research going into bees. It’s a good thing, but I’m not overly concerned.” It doesn’t seem like the honey bee is headed for extinction, but even if it were, it’s not the end of the world that many people think it is. Myers obviously cares just as much about keeping the species alive as anyone, she’s been a beekeeper since college and has a small honey business with her dad, but she’s not concerned for our food supply. “Say tomorrow we didn’t have any honey bees,” Myers said, “we would not starve.  Our diets would change – we would eat more grains and cereal, but our native bee species would have to make up the difference.”  Myers told me that in North America we have 4,000 bee species, and honey bees are one of them. If honey bees disappeared tomorrow, those other pollinators would still continue to pollinate the fruits and nuts that are facilitated by honey bees. We would still have some of these things in our diets, but we wouldn’t be able to meet the demand so food prices would go up. “I don’t think that will ever happen, though,” Myers said. “I do think honey bees are improving. Bees have been around a long time, they’ve had ups and downs. I don’t think we’ll get to the point where we have a concern for our food supply.”

Which brings up a good point – we’ve been recording higher overwintering losses for the last nine years.  If this were really impacting food prices, wouldn’t we have already seen that happen? “The short answer is no,” Caron said.  “We have been saying it will cost you more for a bee-pollinated crop but the bee input for apples is 15 percent of the total cost. If bees go up a little bit, say five dollars a colony, but that’s only 10 percent of 15 percent, do you now pay an extra dollar an apple? No. We can’t point to a specific instance where this crop now costs more or now growers are getting out of growing it because of pollination. We cried wolf that would happen, but it hasn’t.” What about honey, though, that must cost more, right? “The price of honey right now is sky high,” Caron said, “but not because there are fewer bees. It’s because we’re changing our honey buying habits.” Caron explained that before World War II there were closer to five million managed bee colonies in the US. Now there are half that many, but that’s not strictly due to CCD or overwintering loss, it’s primarily because we moved to alternative sweeteners like refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and so people got out of beekeeping as the demand dropped. Now there’s a trend to get back to natural foods like honey, so the demand is higher.  “Most of the honey is going into prepared products,” Caron said, “so now the honey we buy to put on our tables is a specialty. We changed our honey-use habits.” Something that needs mentioning here that Myers pointed out to me – even though we’re seeing a 30 percent overwintering loss, that doesn’t mean it’s a compounding decline in population. In the spring, beekeepers either divide their hives (and the bees breed more bees) or they purchase new bees from breeders to make up the difference. We’re not continually losing a third of the bee population every year.

There was one beekeeper I talked to who, when I asked the question of how big of a deal this is, said, “Oh, it’s a very big deal.” Mark Johnson has been a commercial beekeeper for 43 years. Unlike all the other beekeepers I interviewed, he makes a living keeping bees – he provides pollination services to farmers starting with the California almond bloom in February, moving from crop to crop all spring and summer and then he harvests honey in August. “I run about 1200 hives, and my boys have a couple of 100 as well,” Johnson said. “We do both pollination and honey but honey is only about 20 percent. In western Oregon if you tried to keep bees for honey you’d go broke, it’s mainly renting hives to farmers.” Johnson told me he doesn’t really think our food supply is in jeopardy unless commercial beekeepers are unable to make a profitable business. From his perspective, it’s a big deal because of the finances.  “How many businesses can lose 25 percent every year and stay in business? It’s a huge problem for the beekeeper,” Johnson said.  “I have expenses a hobbyist doesn’t have – it’s terribly expensive when a hive dies. And when I tell a farmer I’ll bring him 200 hives and now I only have 140, but he needs 200 to pollinate, I’ve lost good will – I’ve been with some of these farmers for 38 years. If I lose that contract it’s terribly expensive for me. That cuts hugely into any profit.”

bee on berry flower-1The other thing Johnson pointed out to me is that he started seeing this problem not in 2006, but in the late 80s and early 90s when the varroa mite first showed up in Oregon. “It hit me in 1989, but nobody cared until 2005 or 2006. The first year I didn’t think I had a problem, then the next year I had between 80-90 percent die off. In 2005, what happened for the first time ever, there weren’t enough bees for the crop that needs more bees than any other crop in the world – California almonds. For the first time they realized it would cut into agriculture and that made the news.” Now Johnson treats with miticide to control the mites as almost all commercial beekeepers do. Many backyard beekeepers don’t treat for mites because they like the idea of the organic approach, but backyard beekeepers are reporting a higher overwintering loss despite the better diversity of forage that the urban environment provides. Some of the research suggests that the most prominent pesticide in bee colonies is beekeeper applied, but according to Caron, treating for mites can improve survival by 30 to 35 percent. So that’s a personal decision each beekeeper makes. Chester recommends that you at least test for mites, then you can decide what you want to do about them, because as he said, “It’s not about if there are mites, you always have mites. I highly recommend that you test for mites. That gets you thinking about mites, and then you can decide if you want to treat.” For Johnson, the hope on the horizon is the research now going into bees. “Things like the USDA team following 20 commercial beekeepers (who collectively manage about 40 percent of the total bee population) and sampling protein, checking brood, comparing what beekeepers are doing,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had that kind of research until the last year or two. It’s going to be five to ten years until you can look back and see long term results, but it’s very encouraging. And it’s because of politics and the media. Sometimes the media can be our friend.”

In that way, from a commercial beekeeping business perspective, it’s troubling. But as far as the species, it’s not doom and gloom, as Caron told me. “We’re not at a risk of extinction – we’re not at the dire last stand for bees. What we’re seeking to do is to keep it from getting to that point. A rescue takes a lot more money and effort than to try to conserve. So that’s where we’re still at.”

Next time we’ll get into what kind of research is being done, where the solution might come from and what you can do to help.

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Hold on, Honey. What’s this buzz about bees? Part 1 of 3

“Bees are wild animals… Strictly speaking one never ‘keeps’ bees – one comes to terms with their wild nature… The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them. Every year since I’ve known less and less and have accepted the humbling truth that bees know more about making honey than I do.” – Sue Hubbell, “A Book of Bees”

Hubbell wrote “A Book of Bees” in 1988 with fifteen years of beekeeping experience. At that time, the topic of bees had not reached the hysterical level of media coverage that it has today, but her message in the above quote rings true in light of recent research into what’s happening with the bees: it almost feels like the more you know about bees, the less you really know about bees.bee frame-1 Perhaps you’ve seen some of the recent hysteria about bees. (I’d love to use some of the memes here but I’m not sure about copyright infringement, so I won’t.) Pictures of dead bees with captions like, “If we die, we’re taking you with us,” and “Genetically Modified Crops have killed millions of bees” pop up regularly online. Maybe you just have a vague feeling that you read something one time about bees dying off and that it’s bad. Until, of course, a friend on Facebook posts something that paints a pretty terrifying picture: bees are dying off, we’re practically in a Beepocalyspe, and it’s all because of evil Monsanto and their toxic pesticides. If we don’t save the bees, they will all die and no one will have anything to eat. The only answer is to boycott Monsanto and Big Ag, ban GMOs and pesticides, and by all means buy as much organic as you possibly can. Man, that sounds bad, right? I even saw a bumper sticker just the other day while driving on I-5 that said, “Give Bees a Chance, Go Organic.” Right next to it was one that said, “Millions Against Monsanto.”

I’ve been hearing this buzz (ha!) on social media and when I asked my readers on Facebook what I should look into next, the resounding answer was “find out what’s happening with the bees.” Now, almost seven months later, after hours of research, interviews with six beekeepers, reading Sue Hubbell’s book and hearing a talk by the editor of Bee Culture Magazine, I feel I can solidly answer your question: it’s complicated and they don’t really know for sure. (See what I mean? The more you know, the less you know.) And the fact that they don’t really know makes it easy for activist groups to fill in the blank with half-cocked ideas.

This and the next two posts will give you a glimpse into what’s going on and what I learned about bees, but you won’t walk away with a hard and fast answer, because there isn’t one. I know not all of you want to read three long posts on bees, so I’ll give you the bottom line up front: There are a handful of things that are contributing to a higher level of bee losses, but there is no smoking gun, and bees are not on the brink of extinction. Should we be aware of what’s going on and keep looking into solutions? Absolutely. Should we panic, jump to conclusions, ban pesticides and try to scare people into buying organic to save the bees? Absolutely not; the sky is not falling.  The answer is coming, but it will take the cooperation of the beekeeping industry and the agriculture industry, and it will take research and technology (read: money and time). This is not something that is easily summed up in a quick bumper sticker, which is probably why many people are confused about it.

This first post will address why bees are important, what’s actually happening, and what might be the problem. My next two posts will address what role pesticides play in the issue, how big of a deal this is, what’s being done about it, and what you can do to help. Let’s start by talking about what we do know.

Why Are We Even Talking About Bees?

Although you might think honey bees are simply pesky stinging insects that we tolerate so we can have their honey, bees actually help create a third of our diet by pollinating more than 90 different crops and they boost crop value by $15 billion each year.  Almonds in particular are completely dependent on honey bee pollination. In fact, the California almond business requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed IMG_20140724_143428520honey bee colonies in the United States. So, if you’re an almond farmer or if you really like almonds (or almond butter or almond milk), the fact that bees are dying at an unsustainable rate is concerning. Concerning for the farmer because he can’t make a profitable crop without pollination and concerning for the consumer because that means the cost of almonds could go up. Almond farmers in California are already paying around $170 per hive for pollination services. One of the beekeepers I interviewed told me when he started keeping bees 43 years ago it was $11.25 per hive and he saw the price double in 2006 when almond growers started feeling the pinch.

So that’s why bees are important. But what’s actually happening with the bees – what does it mean that they’re “dying off?” There are essentially two things going on – one phenomenon that you’ve probably heard of, called Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) and another that’s less of a phenomenon and more of an exaggeration of normal beekeeping – increased overwintering loss. CCD is characterized by a sudden disappearance of most adult honey bees in the hive. They often leave behind the queen, honey and capped brood (bee larvae) but no dead bee bodies. While this phenomenon is not exactly new (it’s been documented as far back as 1869) it was given the name CCD in 2006 after a large number of beekeepers began reporting exceptional losses. Overwintering loss, on the other hand, is a standard part of beekeeping. Bees are active in the spring, summer and fall when temperatures are above 55 F. They collect pollen and nectar to make honey that they store in the hive to feed themselves over the winter when the cold temperatures and wet weather make it impossible to leave the hive (and there are very few flowering plants in the winter with which to make food.) A typical hive needs roughly 100 pounds of honey to survive the winter. The bees cluster around the queen and use body heat that they produce by consuming honey to stay alive. Because of the nature of this hardship, some of the bees don’t make it to spring. Normally about 10 percent of the bees die before spring – that is a number that is acceptable and standard to beekeepers. What’s new and concerning is that instead of this 10 percent loss, beekeepers have been reporting about a 30 percent loss since around 2006. Often CCD and the increased over-wintering loss are conflated (particularly by the media), but they are not the same thing. Most beekeepers are not reporting CCD anymore; they’re reporting increased overwintering loss.

So when you see or hear people talking about the bees dying, this is what they’re talking about – this increased overwintering loss. The reason it’s so hyped up is because it feels a lot like a canary in the coal mine – the bees are dying at a higher level than is acceptable, so it must be indicative of a bigger problem. The difficult part is that so far, we don’t know exactly what that problem is, so it’s hard to come up with a solution. That makes it easy for activist groups to jump in, start pointing fingers and leverage this emotional concern to push a specific agenda like banning GMOs or pesticides. As one of the beekeepers I interviewed said, honey bees are almost right up there with panda bears and snow leopards in the way that people care about them – they have a certain allure. And unlike trying to save snow leopards, you can actually start a bee hive right in your backyard – which is probably another reason the bees are getting so much attention. They’re about as popular right now as backyard chickens.  So you have a beneficial insect that people are familiar with and emotionally attached to that helps grow one third of our food, and it’s having trouble. That sets us up for the next conversation – what do we actually know about bee health?

 “You Never Can Tell With Bees” – A.A Milne

After the numbers started painting a bleak picture in 2006, money started rolling in to find the problem and fix it. The USDA put together a workshop of scientists and stakeholders to create an action plan. Research was done and studies were published. So far the conclusion has been that there is no single cause for the decline in bee health. I talked with long time beekeeper, Dr. Dewey Caron, who is also an emeritus professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and an affiliate professor in the horticulture department at Oregon State University. He told me that “It’s an evolving issue. I think when we started it, it was our naïve thought as scientists that we could find a cause and affect a solution. We found out that it’s more like an onion, the more you peel, the more layers there are. There is no quick cause or quick fix.”

upside down bee-1What the research has shown so far is that while there is no single cause for the decline in bee health, there are many factors that, working together, create a perfect storm leading to an increase in bee mortality. Some of those contributing factors are higher loads of pathogens and viruses present in bee colonies, presence of parasites like the varroa mite that pass disease to the bees like mosquitos pass malaria to humans, poor nutrition due to lack of diversity of forage, stress on bees from transporting them around the country for pollination, and exposure to pesticides.  When I asked the beekeepers I interviewed to highlight the most impactful of those contributors, almost unanimously, they all pointed to the varroa mite as a carrier for infection. “We just got finished at a conference and it was a unanimous discussion,” said Tim Wessels, president of the Portland Urban Beekeepers Association and co-founder of Bridgetown Bees, a team of beekeepers who are trying to breed hardier queen bees in Portland.  “There are multiple reasons, but we’re in agreement – it boils down to the varroa/virus complex that is probably at the base of all problems.” Wessels explained that it’s similar to when a human’s immune system is weakened for whatever reason (poor nutrition, not enough sleep, etc.) it makes it that much harder to overcome a virus like the common cold.  Bees may be stressed for a variety of reasons and when a parasite like the varroa mite introduces viruses and bacteria the bees are unable to overcome them.

So how are the bees weakened? One of the reasons is poor nutrition. Just like humans, bees need variety in their diet; they should be collecting pollen and nectar from a diverse source of flowers. Unfortunately, that’s not always happening and part of the reason is because we don’t like weeds and agricultural technology has gotten so good that we can almost entirely eliminate weeds (or things that aren’t what we’re trying to grow). “Monoculture is our enemy from a beekeepers perspective,” Caron said.  “Whether it’s an all-grass lawn or a corn field – that’s a green desert to a bee. Corn fields used to have weeds. Now they don’t. I’m not a believer in a monoculture in a lawn any more than I am in agriculture.” Ideally, there would be something continually blooming for the bees. Instead, when farmers take their bees to California for the almond bloom in February, all they get is almond bloom and nothing else (and you also have an abnormally high percentage of the bee population concentrated in one area making it even easier for disease to spread.) When the crop isn’t blooming, there are no weeds in the orchards or in the fields or in the yards or along the roads. Lots of people want to blame GMOs for the decline in bee death, and while there isn’t any research that actually says that genetically modified plants directly impact the bees, you could make an argument that biotechnology has allowed farmers to eliminate diversity from their fields. (I hope you were sitting down because that might be the only time you hear me say anything that can even remotely be taken as negative toward GMOs.) And, because farmers can get such a good price for corn these days, they’re planting it on every single bit of land they have, leaving no room for native plants that contribute to variety in the bees’ diet. We also love our expanses of green grass. Our yards are all grass, the strips along the highways are all grass (or they’re sprayed with herbicides to keep the weeds down), and the city parks are all grass. That’s just one big green desert if you’re a bee.

That’s it for today. Look for my next post that will talk about pesticides and if this is really that big of a deal.

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What Does Local and Organic Mean to You?

I went to the local farmers’ market recently and was a little blown away by the marketing I saw. Signs promising “no spray:  nada, zip, zilch” and pictures depicting farms with a mountain in the background (Mt. Hood?) and happy organic cows with happy organic farmers. The terms “local” and “organic” seem stapled together so strongly that you almost can’t find local without the organic. Interestingly, though, all you have to do is go to the grocery store and you can find plenty of organic without the local. It’s a question I think about a lot: is the perception of local and organic the same as the reality of local and organic?

IMG_20140613_153607760_HDRI think there is a bit of a disconnect between what people like to imagine organic means and what it actually means.  The spirit of the idea is good: people want to believe that organic food comes from small local farms that produce food that is healthier and more environmentally sustainable than conventional agriculture. But that doesn’t line up with what it actually is: not more nutritious and not more sustainable.  They pick up organic produce at the grocery and imagine small-scale local farmers sitting in their front porch rocking chair in their overalls with a piece of straw between their teeth, enjoying an ice tea after a long but fulfilling day of hand weeding and picking bugs off by hand.  The old-school way; the way nature intended; the way my grandfather did it.

There probably are organic farmers that fit that mold. But when you buy organic produce at the grocery store, you are probably not supporting that farmer. In fact, that farmer probably contributes to about four percent or less of the total organic sales. The University of California-Davis came out with a review in 2009 that looked at California’s organic farms by size and sales and the bottom line was that small organic farms contributed to very little of the organic market. The smallest sector (what can be grown on about 0-2 acres) contributed so little that they show up as zero percent in the study. The next sector, which is roughly the 2-20 acre range, contributes to four percent of the organic market.  Most of the organic produce (at least in California, which is a good model of the organic industry) comes from the mere eight percent of farms that likely have around 700 acres. Those farms are not what most folks consider small.

IMG_20140327_105638394Ok, well, if it’s not small-scale, at least it’s local organic food, right? This idea of “local and organic for all” is a bit of a farce. In 2011, the percentage of US acreage that was certified organic was less than one percent. In fact it was 0.64 percent. In Oregon, where one can expect quite a high amount of organic agriculture, roughly two percent of the total acreage is certified organic. Considering more consumers are buying organic, you might wonder from where that organic produce is coming? The Organic Trade Association states that almost three quarters of Americans buy organic at least some of the time.  It seems unlikely that less than one percent of the US acreage is feeding our organic consumption. So that has to mean that a whole lot of it is coming from outside the US. Even if you accept that imported organic food does in fact meet the US organic standards, how exactly does that fit into the local and organic idea? So it’s not small-scale, and a lot of the time it’s not local, either.

The other big fat ugly misconception around organic produce is that it is pesticide-free. The organic industry has done a mind-bogglingly good job at marketing it that way, and so people believe that it is that way. It is not that way. Let me be a little clearer: organic production often uses pesticide. Here is a list of synthetic substances approved for use on organic produce (including copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, paracetic acid, Streptomycin, Tetracycline, magnesium sulfate, selenium, cobalt.) Pesticides approved for use on organic production are approved based on their natural-ness, not based on their safety. Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Cyanide, nicotine and caffeine are also natural. If you’re unfamiliar, Streptomycin and Tetracycline are antibiotics (yes!! antibiotics) used to control fire blight in organic apples and pears. There’s been a bit of controversy lately over those in particular, and they won’t be allowed after October of this year. Copper and sulfur have problems of their own. Copper accumulates in the soil and copper fungicides are more toxic to mammals and aquatic vertebrates and are used at much higher rates than their synthetic counterparts. Sulfur pesticides lead to the most farm worker complaints and appear to be harmful to birds. Even these pesticides, when used properly, are really nothing to worry about (except that they are less efficient).  The same way that there is really nothing to worry about with conventional pesticides.  All of these pesticides, whether approved for organic or conventional production, are regulated by the EPA.  But the point is still there: organic farmers are not immune to the same struggles that conventional farmers face. They also have to fight weeds, bugs, and disease. They also have to produce a crop that makes them money.   And they do this by using pesticides.

Ok, so organic produce has organic pesticide residue on it, but at least it doesn’t have yucky conventional pesticide residue, right? Wrong. Organic produce is also allowed to have up to five percent of the tolerance level of prohibited pesticides (what’s a tolerance level?). Samples show that they do, in fact, have trace amounts of these substances on them. While organic produce surprisingly goes largely untested for residues, in 2012 the USDA did a pilot study to test a small sample of organic produce for residues of pesticides that aren’t allowed in organic production. It found that almost 40 percent of the samples tested had those allowable levels of conventional pesticide residues. Five percent of the samples exceeded the allowable limits and were in violation of organic standards. So if you’re buying organic produce because you think it is completely free of conventional synthetic pesticide, it is not. It does have very, very low levels of conventional pesticide, if any, but so does conventional produce. In fact, the PDP tells us that conventional produce has similarly low levels of conventional pesticides, well below the tolerance level. Just out of curiosity, I looked at how residues on conventional bell peppers from the 2014 PDP report compared to organic bell peppers from the pilot study.  red pepper-1A significant number of the pesticides tested had average residue detections at or below five percent of tolerance level which means they would have been allowable levels under the organic label. In all fairness, the organic produce did have even lower levels of residues, but come on, we’re taking about levels so incredibly low it’s a distinction without a difference. The bottom line is that the conventional peppers, and their significantly more expensive organic cousins, may have similarly low levels of conventional pesticide residue.

One other thing to think about when you think about organic: if you look at that list of approved synthetic substances for use on organic produce, under the “to use as herbicide” category there is very little listed. In 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury. It turned out there was a bit of a loop-hole in the 1975 ban – they didn’t say anything about pulling weeds by hand. workers-1So in 2004, California also banned hand-weeding to prevent back injuries and protect workers. Seems like a good idea, no? You know who is exempt from that ban? Organic producers. Why? Because it would jeopardize the organic industry.  Organic growers filed for an exemption because without the use of herbicides, they have no other option but to pull weeds by hand in certain crops like lettuce. So picture yourself working on a 700 acre organic farm (an acre is nearly the size of a football field) and hand-weeding. That’s the “old-school” way, right? Yeah, old school like the 1800s when life expectancy was much, much lower.

“Ok, fine. You’ve convinced me, I’ll just buy local and forget about the organic.” I think that’s a good plan if you can actually find it. But, of course, there’s marketing in that, too.  At least the organic label has defined definitions. What does “local” actually mean? Within the state? From an adjoining state? From the US? From Earth?  There are no regulations on who can say their product is local. In fact, I was at the grocery store yesterday looking for apples and under the “local” sign were apples grown in the US. They didn’t say anything about what part of the US. In 2008 Congress defined local as within 400 miles. That really doesn’t mean anything about what the “local” sign at the grocery store means since it’s not regulated.

Look, all I’m saying is know what you’re paying for. Know that when you buy organic at the grocery store, it’s probably not from a small-scale local farmer, it’s not pesticide-free, and much of it requires back-breaking labor. If you can somehow afford to buy all your produce year-round at the local farmers’ market and you feel confident that your idea of organic lines up with reality, that’s awesome. But I don’t think most consumers are doing that. They may think they are, but they’re probably not. Don’t let fear and marketing convince you to pay twice as much (or more!) for a product that isn’t different or better. Call momsense on that.

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How Dirty is the Dirty Dozen?

EWG protest photo-1I have a confession to make: I have, on a few very limited occasions and against my better judgment, bought organic produce because I thought it was better for my family. Shocking, I know. I just wrote a story about what a good job I think the EPA and the USDA do to help ensure our produce has safe, minuscule levels of pesticide residue. How could I be so hypocritical? The answer is fear in parenting. Like so many other parents, I was (marginally and with doubts in my mind) temporarily frightened by media reports that perhaps some produce contained dangerous levels of pesticides and we would be better off with organic. Where would I get that idea? From a list called the Dirty Dozen. Rest assured, though, I have regained my composure and I am back on the conventional produce horse. Worry not, it won’t happen again, because now I know more about how wrong the Dirty Dozen list is than I used to.


The Dirty Dozen is a list put together every year by a group called the Environmental Working Group. The EWG is a US-based environmental advocacy organization that takes on issues ranging from sunscreen to genetic engineering to cell phone towers and cosmetics. The EWG is well known for the Dirty Dozen list which uses publicly available data to rank produce according to levels of pesticide residue.  The list has been expanded to include the top 15 “dirtiest” produce; those the EWG has determined have the most pesticide residue. The EWG recommends consumers buy organic options of these “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” The group also puts together the Clean Fifteen, which is a list of fruits and vegetables that fall at the bottom of the EWG’s ranking system for pesticides, ones you can buy conventional without feeling badly about it.

As you might expect, this concept is popular among parents. We’re always trying to balance doing the very best thing for our kids with the impact to our bank accounts. Not everyone can afford organic, so it’s inviting to hear someone say: “hey, don’t sweat it, you don’t always have to buy organic! Just focus on these specific items.” That helps parents feel good. They can check the “doing the right thing” box and move on.

It’s not surprising many parents use this list – the media regurgitates the Dirty Dozen like a mother bird feeding hungry chicks. The EWG packages its message in tidy little soundbites that basically write the stories themselves. Everyone covers it: CBS NewsCNNHuffington PostGood HousekeepingForbesFox NewsShapeWebMDPBS, even Oprah. I could go on and on, all you need to do is a simple Google search.

Seems legit, right? While I have heard the Dirty Dozen talked about in mom circles for years, even enough to convince me to throw a few extra dollars at the idea once or twice, I never actually looked at the EWG’s website to see where the data came  from. I recently did a casual Facebook survey to see how much my mom-friends know. Of the 24 who responded from across the US, 83 percent had heard of the Dirty Dozen and 75 percent could name two items on the list. Conversely, only 21 percent knew who was behind the Dirty Dozen, and only 8 percent had an idea about how the list was put together.

So how is the list created? Turns out, not very scientifically. The EWG states on its website that it uses data available from the USDA and FDA to create six evenly-weighted metrics to rank produce. Not a single one takes the tolerance level (what the EPA deems a safe exposure level) of the pesticide into account; the metrics and methodology don’t consider whether the amount present is actually a problem or not. The EWG’s metrics are instead weighted to basically vilify the mere existence of pesticide residue without consideration of whether the amount present is within the safety limits set by the EPA.


Not only are these metrics pretty questionable, but the EWG doesn’t make the subset of data it uses available for the public to view.  Without access to the specific data from the USDA and FDA that the EWG claims to be using, it is nearly impossible for anyone to verify or reproduce the EWG’s results.  Not surprisingly, this also makes it difficult to refute or differently interpret the EWGs findings. Nowhere on its site does the EWG even link to the USDA or FDA’s websites. I think I figured out where the EWG gets the numbers, but how would you know for sure if it isn’t said? After looking over the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program reports, I’m still not certain how all six of those metrics are determined or how the ranking system is created. Now, I’m not a scientist, so maybe it’s easier for someone familiar with that data to figure it out. But when you ask scientists, the consensus is disagreement with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.

In 2011, the Journal of Toxicology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a study that concluded the EWG’s methodology does not follow any scientific procedures and does not back up their claim that you can avoid pesticides by eating organic varieties of the “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” Steve Savage, a plant pathologist who has spent his career in agricultural technology, did an independent analysis of the data and concluded the EWG is misleading consumers. The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit group made up of farmers and farm organizations, commissioned an expert panel of five scientists (one of whom has 22 years of experience at the EPA) to evaluate the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and those scientists concluded it is unscientific. Forbes contributor Henry I. Miller did an opinion piece on the EWG’s unscientific-ness, which I thought was great, but sadly it was an opinion piece, not a news article.

Does anyone else find it ironic that we, as consumers, demand that scientists back up their claims with data and peer-review before we even reluctantly (read the comments) consider them, yet moms seem convinced by what appears to be an unscientific, intentionally opaque analysis that isn’t peer-reviewed? Clearly, this gets me fired up.

So I reached out to Teresa Thorne at the Alliance for Food and Farming to talk to her about what the science really says. Her bottom line was that moms should not be afraid to feed their kids fruits and vegetables. “We don’t advocate for organic or conventional, whatever choice you make is the right one for your family when you’re choosing to eat fruits and vegetables,” she said. Thorne said the Alliance is concerned that the EWG is using fear and language that is making people hesitate to buy produce. “Moms deserve truthful, credible information. There are decades of research showing it’s safe; farmers are doing a very good job.”


Thorne also had questions about the EWG’s methodology and lack of information on its website. “In today’s world, when you are putting out a new report or study, why wouldn’t you reference the USDA data you use?” Thorne said.  “Why don’t they link to the data? The answer is the EWG doesn’t want people to know what the USDA and EPA say. Because they say it’s safe.” The USDA just recently released the newest Pesticide Data Program results, again confirming that pesticide residues do not pose a safety threat. Thorne encourages consumers to read that report, but if they don’t want to read the whole report (and it’s long, trust me) at least look at the press release and look at the USDA’s “What Consumers Should Know” sheet about the report. “The EWG manipulate that data and turn it into something very negative, when the government report is very positive,” said Thorne.

Interestingly, let’s take a listen to what the mainstream media has reported on the recent USDA report saying our fruits and veggies are safe: … [insert sound of crickets chirping] … nada.

The EWG often argues that the EPA’s safety limits are too lax and if consumers want to be sure they’re safe they should eat organic. But Thorne brought up a good point that organic consumers might not think about. “The fact of the matter is that the laws and regulations are stringent and protective,” Thorne said.  “Those laws and regulations aren’t just protecting consumers for conventional produce; they’re also for organic produce. Organic pesticides go through the same scientific process as conventional ones. It’s dangerous to damage that credibility unjustifiably. Doesn’t that undermine both?” That’s an interesting point. Especially since, as far as I know, the USDA doesn’t test organic produce for residues of approved organic pesticides.

I also reached out to the EWG for clarification on some of these issues: namely why it doesn’t link to the data, present the data on its website, or submit to peer-review? Also why doesn’t the methodology take tolerance into account, and what’s the EWG’s stance on organic pesticides? After some back and forth, I was told they won’t answer my questions until after they release the 2014 list later this week. (I get it; I used to work in PR.) So I’ll get back to you on that. I’m planning a follow-up article on the media coverage of this year’s Dirty Dozen and I will include the EWG’s answers to those questions.

We can anticipate that the EWG is going to, yet again, misconstrue the USDA’s positive report this week when it releases the 2014 Dirty Dozen list. The EWG will take that data and twist it around and try to convince you to buy organic options to help protect your family from “harmful pesticide residue”. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let the media feed you information and don’t let an activist group make decisions for you about what’s safe and what’s not. Use your Mom Sense, look into the science, and reach your own conclusions.



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Peeling Potatoes: Worth It or Not?

potato parade-1Recently I was at a friend’s house for dinner with my family. I was chatting with my friend while she was putting dinner together, and while she was peeling the potatoes I remarked offhand that I never peel potatoes because I’m just lazy and it’s too much work. She said, “You’re going to think this is silly, but I’ve read lots of stuff about pesticides concentrating in the peel. Potatoes are on the dirty dozen list and I’m not sure how true that information is, but I feel like it’s a pretty easy way to avoid that. I even read that conventional potato farmers don’t eat their own potatoes, they grown a small organic plot for their families.” I said while I had never heard of pesticide residues concentrating in the peel, I seriously doubted potato farmers don’t eat their own crop. Based on the farmers I’ve met, my impression is that they’re extremely proud of what they do and likely they eat what they grow. But, I said I’d look in to it because I thought it was interesting. After slogging through lots of data and talking to some folks in the field, I’ve concluded you’re not really avoiding pesticides by peeling the potato, but you are reducing the nutritional value you gain from eating potatoes when you take the peel off.

Let me start by saying that this friend of mine is very smart. She used to be a science teacher and has a bachelor’s in microbiology and a master’s in immunology.  I respect her quite a lot, which is why I decided to look into it. If a rational scientifically educated person accepts this, then average consumers with less science reasoning background likely will also.  I did a google search, and I can see where she got that idea.  The media loves to cover the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list, and potatoes are tenth on the list. Just google, “do potato farmers eat their own potatoes” and you’ll see what I mean. The Dr. Oz show recently had Dr. Alan Greene on his show claiming he won’t eat conventional potatoes because of their high levels of pesticide residue.  This NBC News article even says that farmers “pour on the chemicals” to ensure a harvest and that you can avoid pesticides by peeling. So how true is that?

potatoes at the store-1I talked to a third-generation Washington potato farmer to find out about this idea that farmers don’t eat their own potatoes. This farmer certainly does. Not only do he and his family eat them, but they save them over the winter and eat them all year round. All of his employees also eat them, and he has family in other cities and states that beg him to bring potatoes when he visits.  He even went so far as to say he doesn’t know any potato grower or any farmer that doesn’t eat his or her own produce.  Does his family peel them? Sometimes, but that’s dictated by what dish his wife is making, not by concern over pesticide residues. (Clearly she’s not as lazy as me.) His farming operation applies pesticides to control pests (like fungus, insects, nematodes, soil borne disease, and weeds) that otherwise would damage his crop. If he didn’t use those pesticides, there would be fewer potatoes, the price would be higher, the quality would be lower, and the potatoes wouldn’t look very appealing.

He also told me that one misconception that really bothers him is that people who are unfamiliar with farming often think farmers spray pesticides just to be spraying pesticides. (Maybe because certain NBC articles say stuff like “farmers pour on the chemicals.”) “Spraying pesticide is expensive,” he told me. “The cost of an extra pesticide spray can make the difference between profit and loss on some fields.”  Farmers aren’t just spraying crops willy-nilly. They’re spraying only when they have to because it costs money and time. That’s time those farmers could be spending with their families, so they’re surely not out there spraying for kicks.

While it seems to be true that some pesticides concentrate slightly more in the peel, that’s not the whole story. The dose makes the poison, right? When discussing pesticide residues, it is very important to distinguish between the mere existence of residue and how much residue is present. What people should really be interested in is: does the amount of pesticide residue on the potato pose a risk to my health? If there is 0.01 parts per million (ppm) of residue in the potato itself, but 0.02 ppm in the peel, that’s a higher concentration in the peel. But at such a low concentration, it’s unlikely to be a health risk (of course, the toxicity of the pesticide is important, too). The risk of injury present while driving to the store to buy potatoes is likely higher than ingesting that teeny tiny amount of pesticide residue.


I also dug a little deeper into the idea that the pesticides concentrate in the peel. I talked to a chemistry expert who told me that when tolerances are set for certain pesticides, the EPA also looks at what’s called a processed fraction, or a part of the commodity that might be different than the whole commodity (like the peel.) If a pesticide concentrates higher in a processed fraction than the commodity itself, there will be a different tolerance set for that fraction. (For a refresher on what tolerance means please see my primer article on how pesticides get approved.) So, I looked up on the EPA’s website how many of the pesticides that are approved for use on potatoes have a higher tolerance for the peel. Fourteen of the 121 pesticides listed had higher tolerances for the peel. That’s about 12 percent. It’s important to note here that those 121 pesticides have tolerances set for the commodity itself, which means that there are residues throughout the potato, so you’re not avoiding them altogether by peeling.

I also looked up the USDA’s data on potatoes from their Pesticide Data Program. The last time potatoes were sampled was in 2009. Of the pesticides analyzed, only three have higher tolerances in the peel. Importantly, of those three, none were found to be over the tolerance level for the commodity (which has a lower threshold), let alone the tolerance level for the peel. For example, Chlorpropham, also known as Bud Nip, was the most commonly found pesticide in samples, and it does concentrate higher in the peel. The residues found ranged from 0.010 ppm to 23 ppm, and the mean level found was 2.5 ppm. The tolerance for Chlorpropham is 30 ppm in the commodity and 40 ppm in the peel. Not one sample was over the tolerance level for the commodity, and the vast majority was far from it!

Side note: Chlorpropham is an important tool used to prolong the shelf life of potatoes. Those little sprouts that you sometimes find on potatoes when they’ve been in the pantry too long can be toxic when eaten in high doses. The use of Chlorpropham not only helps protect you from that, but it also significantly reduces food waste.

You’d have to eat a lot of potatoes to ingest enough pesticide residues to cause a problem. In fact, there’s a website called safefruitsandveggies.com that will actually do that calculation for you. I asked it to calculate how many servings of potatoes a child could eat in one day without any effect even if the potatoes have the highest pesticide residue recorded for potatoes. The answer:  6,494 servings of potatoes.

A cup and a half of potatoes represents about the recommended daily amount of vegetables for a child.

A cup and a half of potatoes represents about the recommended daily amount of vegetables for a child.

A serving of vegetables for a child is about half a cup. So that’s 3,247 cups of potatoes you’d have to feed your child in one day before you got close to a problem. And that’s assuming every single one of those potatoes were at the highest residue level ever recorded, which we know, from PDP data, that they aren’t.  It is recommended that children have about one-and-a-half cups of vegetables per day, and the USDA tells us that children are not even getting those amounts. It would take a seriously concerted effort to get my kids to eat one and half cups of potatoes in one day, let alone 3,247 cups.

Can you really reduce your risk by peeling the potato? In short, I think the answer is that whatever miniscule benefits might be gained through peeling are likely offset by the loss in fiber and nutrients found in the peel. Twenty percent of the nutrients, and almost all the fiber, in a potato are in the peel. The residue in the peel is very small and far below tolerance; even so, most of the approved pesticides do not have a processed fraction tolerance, indicating they don’t accumulate more in the peel than in other parts of the potato. Most importantly to me, peeling the potato can’t substantially reduce a risk that isn’t there. Why is there virtually no risk? Because the amount of pesticide residue on potatoes (and produce in general) is so small that we can hardly measure it at all. That’s really more a testament to the sensitivity of the tests. The EPA and the USDA set rigorous guidelines for pesticide residues that are conservative and err on the side of being overly cautious for our safety. In practice, the residues aren’t even reaching these conservative limits.

I’m going to leave the peel on, which is good, because I’m lazy when it comes to cooking potatoes. Now I have a good excuse, though. I’m just trying to benefit from all those nutrients and fiber, I’m not lazy. That’s momsense.


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The Unintended Consequences of Organic

After I launched this blog, one of my very best friends reminded me that the reason lots of moms make the choices they do, including buying organic, is because they’re trying to do their very best to reduce their children’s exposure to chemicals they see as harmful. She said, “If you can reduce their exposure just a little bit, doesn’t that make sense?”

I agree – it makes perfect sense.  Sometimes.

I’m no different than any other parent. I want to minimize my kids’ risk, I want them to be safe, and I hope that I’m making good, informed choices. One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is bearing the burden of making decision for someone’s long-term future without any input from them. I find that overwhelming at times; it’s scary thinking you might make the wrong choices.

What some people don’t appreciate, though, is that the choices we make have far-reaching effects.  While this is true to some extent in many contexts, this is especially true with food.

on the tractor-1

For many things, like avoiding sun exposure, the only people impacted by your decisions are you and your family. But with food, you’re impacting the entire agricultural system, from the marketers who are trying to say things on the package that consumers might want to hear, to the breeders who make selections based on what they think consumers want, to the people across the world who just want food at all. When you vote for organic with your pocketbook, it impacts a connected system that we share on a global level. Agriculture relies on our shared, finite resources like water and land.

This is where the challenge of making decisions becomes even harder, because sometimes what seems like a no-brainer turns out to be more complicated. The only way to solve it, I think, is to properly evaluate the risk against the benefit. People are willing to take extreme risks with their safety when they can experience a clear benefit. For example, one of the biggest risks we take every day is getting into a car. According to the CDC, accidents or unintentional injuries is the fifth leading cause of death in the United Sates. Motor vehicle accidents make up the largest part of that category; more than 33,000 people died in a motor vehicle accident in 2010. Yet most of us strap our kids into a car almost every single day. We take that risk because we can see a clear benefit.  As consumers, we don’t see the benefit of conventional farming, but we think we can identify a risk, so it seems easy to make that choice.

The benefit is there, but we just might not see it. Conventional farming yields 25 percent more, on average, than organic farming. That means for every acre of land that’s farmed organically, we could be feeding a quarter more people if we used conventional methods. Not only that, but organic farming reduces the efficiency of all the inputs required to grow food: water, fertilizer, pesticides (yes, organic farmers also use pesticide), and fuel (to plant, manage, harvest and to transport the food).

If we had infinite resources this wouldn’t be an issue, but we don’t, and it is an issue. The amount of land that we commit to agriculture is shrinking as our population grows. The FAO projects our population will grow by one third between 2009 and 2050 and predicts we’ll need to raise food production by about 70 percent over that time. This feat will take all the tools we have, and that includes technology. I’m not saying that organic farming doesn’t have a place in that, it surely does. Having the choice to buy organic is a luxury in the United States, and I’m OK with having choices. But we need to be encouraging the overall system to be sustainable and efficient; using the fewest resources necessary to responsibly get the most out of every acre. If a farmer can do that, but doesn’t qualify for “USDA certified organic,” we should be voting for that.

When the choices that we make at the supermarket start a movement that impacts those in other parts of the world who don’t really have the luxury of choice, I’m not OK with it. There are farmers in India that really don’t have the luxury of farming organically; they need every bushel to feed their family. There are starving people in Africa that would love to have our conventionally farmed produce, because it would be food to feed mouths.

I can’t complete this post without harping on another fact: let’s acknowledgecarrots and zucchini-1 the fact that organic farmers also use pesticide. They use organic pesticides, but they’re still pesticides. Classifying a pesticide as “organic” does not mean that pesticide is harmless or even safe.  As with any pesticide, what matters is how much residue is present compared to how toxic that residue is. You simply cannot grow crops without controlling weeds and bugs – any backyard gardener knows this. My first year gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I lost an entire head of romaine lettuce literally overnight to slugs because I didn’t know I had to apply slug repellent.  I’m working on a more in-depth story on organic pesticides, so stay tuned for that, but remember that organic is not equivalent to pesticide-free.

I empathize with parents who choose organic because they’re trying to avoid exposure to pesticide. I understand what you’re aiming to do, but the benefit to your family (if any) doesn’t outweigh the risk to the global food supply. As I outlined in a previous post, there isn’t a real risk when you eat conventional produce, but there is a real benefit: efficiency in the use of our shared resources. And the availability and affordability of food for our children, our children’s children, and children in other parts of the world you will never meet but should probably care about, is a clear benefit.

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Why My Family Eats Conventional Produce

I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had that go like this:

Me: Let’s go apple picking!


Mom-friend: Yes! Let’s find an organic or spray-free orchard, though.

Me: Why?

Mom-friend: I want to avoid pesticides; I just don’t think the government does enough to guarantee our produce is safe.

Me: Really? Do you know what they do during that process?

Mom-friend: Um, no. Do you?

Me: Um, no. But I bet it’s a lot.

When I hear that line of argument against conventional produce (“I just don’t trust the EPA/USDA/FDA”) I want to drag that mom over to the computer and pull up the EPA’s website and walk her through some of the information they have on their website. But, believe me, it’s not very fun. I could write a whole post on why I think the EPA, USDA and FDA need serious help organizing and clarifying the information that’s on their websites. I’ve recently looked through a lot of it, for this and some future articles, and it’s almost as fun as trying to get your toddler to find the shoes they’ve hidden somewhere in your house when you’re late (never mind, you don’t need shoes, let’s go.) Perhaps this is why few consumers actually take the time to look into what the USDA and the EPA do. It’s tedious and science-y.

I thought it would be useful to actually investigate some of the things that I don’t think parents really think about when they toss aside the extensive work our regulatory bodies do to help reassure us that conventionally grown produce (those that are sprayed with synthetic pesticide) is safe. If you don’t read any further in this article (because I am going to talk about studies and use words like “tolerance level s” and “toxicology”) I will try to sum it up for you here: They do a lot. It’s extensive and exhaustive. At the end of the day, I feel very confident that they have looked at it from all angles and have put regulations in place that err on the side of caution to reassure us our produce is safe.

getting rid of weedsBut don’t take my word for it. Let’s take a look at what happens when a company wants to start selling a pesticide. Those companies have to do both an environmental and human health assessment, but I’m going to focus here on the human health assessment. It’s a three pronged approach: toxicology studies, establishing a tolerance level and dietary risk assessment.

First, the company (who is really called the registrant) must do toxicology studies. The goal of these studies is to show what effect the pesticide could cause, and to establish a level at which there is no adverse effect in animal testing. The studies systematically expose different mammalian species (such as rats and mice) to the pesticide at varying amounts and measure the effect. The EPA outlines extensively how this must be done; it’s not left up to the registrant. They must measure toxicity arising from acute exposure, chronic exposure, and sub-chronic exposure. They measure inhalation toxicity, oral toxicity, dermal toxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity, just to name a few. Look here for the full testing requirements.  The goal of these studies is to literally uncover the worst possible outcome from exposure to the pesticide. They take extensive tissue samples, analyze them all and determine the dose level at which there are no observed adverse effects, called the NOAEL. Then, because the studies aren’t actually done in humans, and because sensitivity can vary across individuals, a safety factor is applied to the animal NOAEL, which lowers the dose level anywhere from 100-1,000 fold less than the observed level. Using the NOAEL and the safety margin, the EPA establishes what is called a reference dose. A reference dose is an acceptable amount of exposure to a substance that has reasonable certainty it will cause no harm (also known as the safe exposure level).

The registrant also has to do field trials to establish a tolerance level. A tolerance means, assuming farmers use the pesticide according to the legal label (EPA-approved pesticide use instructions), we shouldn’t find produce with pesticide residue exceeding that amount. I don’t think the term “tolerance” is a great one, because I feel like it implies an impact to your health, like how much your body can tolerate. Tolerance is really talking about the maximum anticipated amount of residue on produce. Think of it like a speed limit, only one that you rarely even reach, and even if you go over by a teeny bit, it does not mean certain death. The EPA establishes that level by reviewing extensive registrant-conducted field trials in which the pesticide is sprayed at the maximum labeled rate and the produce is sampled at the shortest interval before harvest. For example, if pest control requires that the pesticide can be sprayed at a maximum of two pounds per acre and no later than seven days before harvest, the field trials will use those conditions. In practice, most farmers will likely not use the full two pounds (pesticides are expensive, they’ll use as little as possible to be effective). The scientists collect all the produce samples from the field trials (done over  one or two seasons throughout the US growing region) and they establish a method to measure the pesticide residue (parent compound plus any metabolites that the pesticide may have been turned into as a result of its interaction with the soil and plant.) The samples are analyzed to determine the concentration of the pesticide residue in the samples collected from all the trials, which may range for example, up to four parts per million (ppm).  Lots of factors affect the residue levels (rainfall, temperature, crop variety, etc.) and they often vary up to 10-fold across all the trials, due to these factors.  The EPA then uses these results in a statistically-based calculation to establish a tolerance, such as five ppm in this example.  The intent is to set a tolerance that is high enough so that it won’t be exceeded if the pesticide was used properly, but is still close to the maximum level measured in the trials.

So now we have the tolerance level (the pesticide shouldn’t occur in the produce above this amount) and the reference dose (people shouldn’t consume more than this in one day.) The only unknown is how much produce do people actually consume? How many apples, for example, do people eat on a daily basis? The EPA uses something called the Dietary Exposure Evaluation Model to figure that out. This database contains survey information for different age groups (infants, young children, teens, elderly, etc.) over different periods of time documenting how much of different foods they ate. The initial dietary risk assessment assumes that everyone is eating the produce for their whole lives that contain residues at the tolerance level. This means that they’re assuming every single acre of apples has been sprayed at the maximum rate and the shortest interval before harvest, and that there is no residue reduction from processing, apples 2-1washing, or cooking. They make the very conservative assumption that every apple you eat has the highest allowable pesticide residue on it, which the USDA knows from the Pesticide Data Program doesn’t happen (more on that in a future article on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List.) Assessments are made for both acute risk (a single day’s consumption) and chronic risk (a lifetime’s consumption). Acute risk assumes that you eat a very large (95th to 99.9th percentile of surveyed consumption) amount of apples in a single day. Chronic risk is based on average daily apple consumption over a lifetime. The amount of apples eaten under both scenarios is multiplied by the tolerance level to give the worst-case pesticide exposure, which is compared to the relevant reference dose (acute or chronic) to determine if the potential exposure is safe (below the reference dose; don’t forget that the reference dose incorporates a 100-1,000 fold safety margin). It’s especially important to note that these dietary risk assessments are not limited to exposure from a single food (e.g., apples) but are for aggregate summed exposure from all approved food uses of that pesticide, plus any potential exposure from drinking water. Total exposure must fall below the relevant reference dose (with its conservative safety margin) before a pesticide can be approved for use.

It’s also important to understand that the decisions of the EPA are legally binding.  It is a federal crime to promote or use a pesticide in any manner that is not approved by the EPA and printed on the label. When a pesticide use is approved, the EPA reviews the exact text of the label that will be printed to describe its proper use, which cannot be changed without prior re-approval.  States also have authority to review and approve pesticide labels. The residue tolerance levels are enacted by the EPA through rule making, and are printed in the Code of Federal Regulations; food containing residues in excess of the tolerance is adulterated and may not legally be sold or distributed. Only after both federal and state approvals of all these documents are complete is a pesticide “registered” for use.

Whew.  See? Not as flippant as you might think.  Not just one or two studies, not conspiracy theories about pesticide companies hiding data, not just someone from the EPA having dinner with someone from the chemical company and shaking hands about money-making over some scotch while they cackle ominously about the fate of our children’s health. I hope no one actually thinks that, but it would make a good caricature for the op-ed section, no? Real scientists doing real studies that actually try to guarantee safety. This is why I feel confident feeding my family conventional produce, and why I’m calling momsense on being afraid of conventional pesticides.

If you’re interested in the real data, and want to follow the registration of a pesticide from start to finish (ala “How a Bill Becomes A Law” only not animated, and not really fun to watch) follow the below progression. I’ve arbitrarily chosen the pesticide fluazinam, which is a broad spectrum contact fungicide often used on potatoes.

  1. Click here to view the CFR entry for fluazinam tolerances
  2. Open the PDF file at this link to see an example of an EPA dietary risk assessment for fluazinam
  3. Click here to see the Federal Register Rule arising from the fluazinam dietary risk assessment
  4. Click here to see the EPA approval of the fluazinam label based on the above decisions
  5. Click here to view the final printed label translating these regulatory actions into a real pesticide use label

* I have to give extensive credit to my dad for helping me with this article. He spent much of his career working on pesticide label registration and has expert experience navigating the regulatory websites and databases.

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