A nuanced(ish) approach to organic & GMO foods

I recently started following Science Babe on Facebook, excited to find a kindred spirit in this whole “Why is The Internet so bad at discussing health (and other things)?” quest of mine. She likes to alternate between debunking and mocking the infamous Food Babe; I’m sure she’s a busy gal, but I find one of these approaches to be far more laudable if I understand her mission correctly. In fact, I was recently disturbed to see her overly simplistic indictment of what might be the most sane advice Food Babe has ever given (granted, it was still titled like a conspiracy theory and contained plenty of irrelevant paranoia). In a Facebook image summarizing recent stupid regarding health and nutrition, Science Babe joked about the article: “Food Babe disproves thermodynamics.” I can’t help but feel that she’s letting her annoyance at Food Babe’s uncritical and illogical obsession with organics, GMOs, and additives cloud her judgment here. I responded in a comment on the photo and tagged Science Babe, but haven’t gotten a reply thus far. My comment read:

Food Babe, while still an unjustified fanatic about additives and GMOs in general, is not terribly wrong this time. Yes, more calories in than out means weight gain, but the source of the calories absolutely matters for health and nutrition (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2013/06/19/ajcn.112.057331.abstract) and I would have expected Science Babe to agree on that. When labs count calories, they measure the energy released, not the amount of ATP created, from food. And it’s not a closed system, so there are downstream effects. For instance, Ace-K increases plasma insulin concentration and reduces blood glucose (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2887500), which means that “zero/low calorie” foods that rely on Ace-K to sweeten them may cause snackiness later where other foods might not have. Additionally, some foods require more calories to break down than others, which means their net “calories in” is lower. And lastly: GUT FLORA. There is mounting evidence that it matters for everything from obesity to mental health, and artificial sweeteners kill off your gut’s good bacteria (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18800291).

Science Babe’s knee-jerk response got me thinking, Where is the rational place to draw the line when it comes to support of organic produce and labeled GMOs? Sure, I’ve heard all the go-to arguments for both camps. What I rarely hear anyone on either side of these debates say, though, is… well, anything nuanced. So here goes! Keep your hackles down until you’ve actually read what I’ve written, please.

GMOs are worth labeling because of:

1.   Altered allergenicity

It’s rare, but foods containing altered proteins may cause allergies that may not be caught by the standard battery of thorough tests. It’s also worth labeling because genetic modification can effectively eliminate the allergenic proteins found in many crops, allowing those who have problems with the conventional crop to consume the modified one.

2.   Ummm…

I think biodiversity is important, but I don’t see it as antithetical to the use of GMOs that allow us to feed a crowded planet. I’d sort of like to know what GM companies would benefit from my purchase of any given food as a means to hold them more accountable, but I also feel that way about the Koch brothers and toilet paper. Realistically, it would just confuse consumers to add these things to product labels. The thing about GMOs I feel most strongly about is that the patent system should be replaced with open-source gene sequencing, but that doesn’t belong on labels either.

Okay, onto organics…

Now let’s not poison Jesus, eh?

As for pesticides, certified organic farms still use naturally-derived pesticides. (I cannot recommend <–that article enough to anyone who wants an organic crash course). As a reminder, snake venom is at once all-natural and very toxic. I’ve ranted before about the fact that many, many chemicals are found in nature and this should not be in any way surprising or salacious. To the extent that any legit studies may show lower or safer exposure to pesticides on organic farms, I’m all for organic. For the most part, though, I’m for more transparency from conventional and organic farms about their pesticide use. So, just kidding–I’m not going to discuss organics directly because it is too often a distinction without a difference when it comes to the very real issue of pesticides. Because organic produce is what makes for organic juice and organic animal products, I’m going to ignore processed organic foods (no, that’s not contradictory) and avoid crossover with other feel-good terms since things get convoluted when you start treating labels like “all-natural” as synonymous with “organic” as synonymous with “healthy.”

Lower pesticide exposure is worth caring about because of:

1.    Risk aversion.

This is America. If you want to spend more money to possibly reduce your risk of exposure to pesticides via your juice and produce, go for it. You’ve probably heard of the “dirty dozen and the clean 15,” and you probably also know that the produce whose skin you remove is less likely to be a source of pesticide exposure. With regard to the exposure of children on conventional or organic diets, there exists an inconclusive but interesting study on organophosphorus pesticides. (It’s inconclusive because they chose to assume azinphosmethyl was responsible for all of the exposure, being a common but also fairly toxic OP. This put the children on conventional diets above the EPA daily reference dose, which left them in “uncertain risk” territory; the children on organic diets came in below the EPA recommendation, and their risk level was considered to be negligible.) Am I saying that you or your kids will see any bad effects from eating a conventional diet? Nope. I’m saying that I’m not actually an expert on pesticides, so I’d be inclined to follow the governmental guidelines on pesticide exposure.

2.   The environment.

There are primarily two families of pesticides used on food: organophosphates and carbamates. Organochlorides (some of which are persistent organic pollutants) have mostly been phased out, often because of their tendency to build up in living things. Again, I’m not an expert on pesticides, but I’m guessing that not using lots of these chemicals–especially on large-scale agriculture–is probably beneficial for the nearby flora and fauna, at the very least. Then again, I benefit plenty from Big Industry, which is terrible for the environment, too. I’m not saying all is lost so we shouldn’t bother; I’m merely suggesting that those passionate about a healthy world and a healthy lifestyle get their own households in line with any standard they wish to scale. After all, your patronage speaks louder than your protest sign in a market economy.

3.   Agricultural workers.

This one is one that I really care about. Sure, your exposure might be low by the time your rinsed produce gets bought, washed, and eaten, but what about the farm workers? That article on organics that I super-duper recommend stated that, as of 2011, the government didn’t track the volume of pesticides used on organic farms. It also does a great job of detailing the dangers of some natural pesticides. There isn’t really a good option here yet, unfortunately. I sign UFW petitions and buy local whenever possible, in the hopes that smaller operations care more about their workers, but realistically, big, grindy operations are big, grindy operations, whether they’re organic or not. For me to get all excited, either the standards for “organic” need to be tightened or there needs to be some kind of assurance that the source of my purchase protects its workers–documented and otherwise–from abnormal pesticide exposure. I have no clue what that would look like and I’m not holding my breath that it’ll happen any time soon, but it would be nice, as someone who cares about human rights, to have that kind of confidence in my produce purchases!

So what do you think, Jumpers? Do you have any peer-reviewed literature that proves me wrong or addresses an issue that I left open to debate? I would love to read anything you recommend on these topics as long as you keep the comments quack-free!

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