Health and Workers Dying to Feed Us

This article in Scientific American is unusual among the articles defending the results of the Stanford University study finding no nutritional benefit in eating organic food in that it at least mentions the people on whom pesticides have an uncontested negative effect: the workers who tend the field (though it consistently calls them “farmers,” romanticizing the labor relationship often involved).

In a section titled, “No Need to Fear,” it twice notes that “farmers” are exposed to high levels of pesticides.

To date, there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet leads to better health.

What of all those studies I just mentioned linking pesticides to disorders? Well, exactly none of them looked at pesticides from dietary intake and health in people. Instead, they involve people with high occupational exposure (like farmers who spray pesticides) or household exposure (from gardening, etc). Judging pesticides safety by high exposures is like judging the health impacts of red wine based on alcoholics.


The closest we have to studying the effects of diet on health are studies looking at farmers. However, farmers in general have high occupational pesticide exposures, and thus it’s impossible to tease out occupational versus dietary exposure. Even still, in this high-risk group, studies simply don’t find health differences between organic and conventional farmers. A UK study found that conventional farmers were just as healthy as organic ones, though the organic ones were happier.

And while the UK study–which, by its locale, leaves out some of the more dangerous chemicals used here but not in Europe–shows that organic “field and packhouse workers” were only healthier than conventional workers because they were happier, it also showed that all the 605 farm workers involved had significantly poorer health than normal in the UK.

Thus, even in an article admitting that farm workers were exposed to high amounts of chemicals that it admits are dangerous, it concludes that “there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet leads to better health.”

As if the health of people who work to feed me has no effect on me at all.

It reminds me of a passage from Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. Three female tomato farm workers give birth within days of each other to seriously deformed children; they had worked without protection in a field sprayed with the fungicide mancozeb days before the babies were conceived and had been sprayed with methyl bromide regularly. Lawyer Andrew Yaffa sued the owner of the field, Ag-Mart, on behalf of one of the children, a boy who had been born with no limbs and other health problems. In a deposition, Yaffa got the President of Ag-Mart to admit the chemicals used on the field caused birth defects in lab animals, but distinguished that from the birth defects of the kids born to workers who had worked without adequate protection in his field.

“So in regards to the pesticides that you use day in and day out, as your sit here today you are aware that there are, in fact, studies linking animals who are exposed to these pesticides to birth defects?”

“Yes, there are studies.”
“This isn’t new to you?”

“No, no, this is not new.”


“You knew for years that these pesticides were linked to birth defects in lab animals. We talked about that … knowing the risk was there, why not be proactive and take that step before you have three women bearing children with such horrific defects?”

“Well, the three women were not all–I don’t believe thta–this is my belief, so I–I–don’t believe that the pesticides caused the birth defects. I believe that the pesticides have been tested to cause birth defects in animals, but I don’t believe pesticides caused birth defects in those three women.”

Sure, the President of Ag-Mart was playing a legal word game. But it’s a word game often repeated by discussions of the dangers of pesticides, an admission that pesticides are bad for the invisible–often migratory and undocumented–people who work to feed us, but a confidence that they nevertheless are not bad for our health.

As if the only effect our industrial food system has on us is via our own ingestion of the problems it brings.

24 replies
  1. BSbafflesbrains says:

    Will our world ever return to fact based scientific method logical reasoning. We also need less people like this guy… “My lawyer said to say this but I don’t believe it even as the word are coming out of my mouth. I’m really a nice guy and I care about others just not these others; if my daughters had deformed babies then I would care.”

  2. greengiant says:

    Just checking to see what got deleted on wikipedia on herbicide 2-4-D
    “The typical smell of 2,4-D is the break-down product [[2,4-dichlorophenol]], which is a suspected endocrine disrupter and possible carcinogen.{{citation needed|date=November 2011}}”
    3rd most widely used herbicide in the world.

    I had a reality check when I talked to the local farmer. Their business model is to use herbicides so that when they feed their cattle they are not “spreading” weeds.
    A friend had to plant an acre of peaches to qualify for a zoning to build a house. He said his farm plan called for 17 sprays a year.

  3. shermhed says:

    “Will our world ever return to fact based scientific method logical reasoning.”

    “Stanford article researchers, bought and paid for idiots”

    I think you have your answer, which is in the negatory/Not Gonna Happen area.

  4. jo6pac says:

    I live in AG World in the central valley in Calli. The corn being grown behind my house is to be sold in the stories and it’s sprayed every 3 days. The tomatoes the were just harvested for the cannery are sprayed 4 times with pesticides/sulfur then sprayed with a defoliate before harvest. I don’t eat anything except the stuff in my garden.

  5. JTMinIA says:

    Without any evidence that the health of farm-workers has an effect on the health of the people who eat the food, I don’t see any problem with the conclusion that pesticides don’t have negative effects on consumers, given the results of the Stanford study. I understand that pesticides have huge negative effects on the farm-workers (including those that might be working on an otherwise organic farm down-wind), but that’s really a separate issue. Am I missing something?

  6. JTMinIA says:

    To be clear about the above: would you argue that a Hummer2 should lose its 5-star safety rating because it gets bad mileage and, therefore, pollutes more? Should wind-based energy be seen as less green because the shadows cast by the blades can cause an epileptic to have a fit? Should dolphin-safe tuna be seen as less good because the nets used to catch blue-fins while not drowning dolphins don’t have the side-benefit of pulling some garbage from the ocean?

    If you’re not going to let anyone answer a specific question because said question ignores other issues, then you won’t help scientific literacy; you will simply eliminate all data.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @jo6pac: But you’re the other reason we should care. Implicit in this article is that environmental exposure to pesticides is actually a greater threat than eating them. And while the article talks about how pesticides get into normal houses, the houses most at risk are those close to spraying.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @JTMinIA: Perhaps the better question is should Hummer2s lose their 5-star safety ratings because they result in more accidents, and those accidents they have with non-SUVs are far more lethal?

    H2s externalize the risks of bad driving. Pesticides externalize the risks of certain kinds of eating (which is somewhat cheaper, but not entirely, and particularly not if you assume someone has to bear the risks of those preventable diseases).

    The big push even to define the problem in this way is to find a way to diminish the hit on public opinion by hiding where the damage is undeniably occurring.

  9. jo6pac says:

    @emptywheel: True that’s why I don’t drink the water from the well also. Back in the 80s draught yrs I lived in the delta and when we went water sking you smell the chemicals in the canel water. Sad, we’re killing the little blue sphere a little bit every day.

  10. greengiant says:

    I do not know why these corporate kill the humans at any price shill trolls even bother to post inane comments here. They get so much better mileage by censoring wikipedia and getting newspaper headlines about “organic food not being healthier”.
    The stanford article whitewashed negative pesticide health effects on consumers by reporting that “levels of contamination were within safe levels.” And as pointed out here and elsewhere ignored the health effects of neighbors and downwind and downstream peoples.
    Which is exactly what the British Petroleum guy told the divers about Corexit. Must have forgot to tell them that the LC50 dose goes down by a factor 9 of when diluted with oil. Also forgot that any effects after 96 hours are unreported.
    A couple of those divers committed suicide rather than suffer the symptoms. Others are dead or crippled.
    The Stanford authors are just as culpable in my opinion.

  11. JTMinIA says:

    @emptywheel: The way you push back against pesticides because they hurt farm workers is not, IMO, to change the definition of safe food. The way you push back is to focus on the effects on farm-workers.

    If you’d like to create a new, more comprehensive measure of the effects of pesticides, combining the effects on the consumer with those on the farm-workers, etc, you are, of course, free to do so. But note that you will have to come up with some way to weight all the factors, which will then be argued about, such that I can pretty much guarantee that your new, comprehensive measure will have no useful effect on the deeper question, because it will be so bogged down in the debate on weighting.

    It would, IMO, be much better to try to draw people’s attention to the effects on the farm-workers using a simple and pure measure of such effects, such as the known casual relation with birth defects in the lab and the observed correlation in humans. My guess is that you will then discover the real problem: that the typical American and/or those with any power just don’t care; none of their friends or family is a farm-worker. In other words, if they were allowed to set the weights for new, comprehensive measure of all effects of pesticides, the weight that they would give for “illnesses in farm-workers” is zero. That’s the real problem. Not the format of the data.

  12. P J Evans says:

    Almost every kind of fruit and nut tree requires spraying, even in home gardens, but some need it during the growing season. You can do without, but you’re going to have problems, and some of them may kill your trees.
    But 17 times a year sounds excessive to me. (Three or four, in the winter, because of leaf curl. In the summer, if you have problems with beetles or moths or fruit flies, once a month.)

  13. P J Evans says:

    The farms are supposed to post signs and keep workers out when they’re spraying. If they aren’t, then they should be legally liable for the results. It isn’t like they don’t know what they’re working with. (I’ve read product labels myself, and some of the stuff I was using was seriously nasty.)

  14. P J Evans says:

    The levels of pesticides on food are within the limits of safety. They didn’t say you couldn’t buy organic; they said the differences, with only a few exceptions, aren’t worth the extra money.

    We had a home garden with minimal pesticide use – but we had to deal with bugs chewing on stuff, and picking caterpillars off things, and fruit that wasn’t as pretty as it is in supermarkets (but it tasted the same, except for the peaches and tomatoes being really ripe). We lived with it, because we had pets that couldn’t take the sprays that would have been needed in the summer.

  15. greengiant says:

    @P J Evans: “are within the limits of safety” That is exactly the point, unless I am missing some sarcasm.
    The Stanford and EPA definitions of safety are whatever someone PAID them to be.

    We have the best science money can buy. Excuse me if I don’t care to read how tobacco or pesticides are not harmful to my health.
    What is the latest garbage science that was done? Viox? I forget.
    Did you not read, the levels of Corexit were “within the levels of safety”. People died anyways.

    You think Dow or the US Chamber of Commerce loves you? Then go ahead and put YOUR life in their hands. Oh, you already did.

    What happened to all the products tested by that testing laboratory that was found to be making up the results? Retested? Not that I have heard of.

  16. Morris Minor says:

    I have the most strange and terrible news: organic produce is grown with pesticides also. If it was not, there would be wormholes and other insect damage. But they are lovely- just peachy! The pesticides break down into harmless chemicals; they leave no dangerous or non-natural chemical residues.

    Many of these pesticides are more dangerous physically than the ‘conventional’ kind and are often harder on the migrant workers. The ‘farmers’ with no health insurance.

  17. shermhed says:

    OK, well, here is a tip for you Nic108; when stating as fact that a scientifically derived conclusion is bunkum when you take a look at the actual data you should have something on hand to demonstrate the debunking.

    Last week people like greengiant grabbed a hold of study done by some French scientists that stated, unequivocally, Genetically Modified Organisms, specifically maize in the experiment, are EVIL because they cause tumors in rats who only eat GM food stuffs (now, from here on out greengiant and probably a couple more commenter’s will start saying I am a corporate shill or some Monsanto sock puppet, to which I will say HA! I WISH! it might mean i could make some actual money if i was instead of being one of the many working poor in our lovely country). Doesn’t matter that the experiment was flawed, sample sizes weren’t nearly as large as they would need to be, it was only a single blind experiment when the hypothesis would need to be tested with at least a double blind, and whole host of actually bunkum science being spread to all those willing to believe in the BS dichotomy that says “natural = good/artificial = EVIL”. Oh, the biggest problem with the French study? The scientists used a strain of rats that have tumors occur in 72% of its population at 2 years old…the same age the rats of the same genetic strain were at when the study was conducted.

    What is the most disturbing thing to me, being somebody trained in a science field, is that in this comment thread I read/hear basically the same distrust and wholesale discounting of a scientifically derived finding that doesn’t match the orthodoxy of someone’s accepted political ideology. Usually, 99% of the time, you just get this kind of anti-science BS from right-wingers. Who knew that not only would liberals and “progressives” (Gabriel Kolko makes a convincing argument that the progressive movement has ALWAYS been a stealth conservative movement…but there goes somebody challenging an orthodoxy again. can’t have that, now can we?)lurch very far to the right when it came to jingoism and warmongering but they would follow, in their way, the conservative distrust of science?

    Curiouser and curiouser…

  18. JohnLopresti says:

    I did not see a link to the scientific study itself. The NY Times summary is still loading on the other online computer.

    Ew’s story of tomatoes has much substance to me. As part of a public input process in an EIR once I sent a 290-page study of my own concerning tomato crop management, to a state agency who was preparing a guidebook for that crop in consultation with the university of California, Davis.

    Much has changed since then. Some pesticides then categorized unrestricted became restricted several years later, meaning license required to apply, certification of declared application rate and timing. Then in another few years’ time, a few of the tomato repertoire pesticides got unapproved altogether. Tomatoes were one of the largest pesticide using crops in CA. Still, the actual pesticide use reported was a mere fraction of what was applied. There were no legal remedies available to halt the excess or to document it.

    The case of methyl bromide is fairly unique. It even has an atmospheric role similar to global warming. It also is known to cause mental illness from chronic exposure It was a high-volume soil preparation treatment pre-planting in many cropfields; millions of pounds applied yearly in one ag state alone. The state agency that gathered pesticide data did not get all the numbers from applicators. The oversight agent in each county is a political appointee, not an impartial scientist. Growers had to conform to market esthetic quality standards which only could be met by pesticide inspired crop growing regimes. It took egregious transgressions for mishaps to occur, and blame to begin to be directed at various members of the economic construct which produces tomatoes. However, there’s lots of new research I have not seen since those times. The book I wrote and the state food and ag department certified scientific bioscience monographs from which the book was drawn, are not available online. I have located the attorney who organized the monograph research, now ensconced in a vibrant environmental law practice in an East Coast state.

    It’s true, as Ew says, the fieldworker impacts are notable. But so are Jo6pac’s likely exposures, of which j6p appears mostly aware. Living in the central valley and delta lands is to locate in one of the most pesticide intensive air pollution districts and water districts, and soil environments in the world.

    Those cardboard to the touch tomato sections with meager taste, pale coloration, without the natural tomato bouquet of perfumes, grown from patented seeds sold by companies that do not let farmers store seed for the next year, are not the same thing as a tomato was a mere fifty years ago, but even fifty years ago tomatoes were beginning to feel, look, and taste as bland and nondescript as they do now. Too much modern food chemistry research has gone into finding salient sensory impact chemicals instead of defining the entire fruit. Chemistry, too, has sold out to the corporate coffers.

    Stanford is not exactly a liberal school. It’s about 50-50. You can get a good education there. You might find Pam Karlan there, and Condoleeza Rice. Now, I’m not blaming those two for the condition of the modern California commercial tomato, nor for part of the research behind the NYT article, which at first scan, now, appears to be a bit of consumer fluff, albeit with a few threads that might lead to the actual link to the report.

    Oh, and the state agency charged with testing safety of pesticide residues when I wrote my study, had not checked most substances; nor had the EPA. The Republicans as well as some Democrats with funding sources within the ag business, all saw to it that EPA coould not gather, write, or report the toxicity data. And Republicans still are doing that; check out Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, Esq.’s argument on behalf of Bush W’s EPA that EPA could not regulate greenhouse gases in 2005-2006.

  19. Karla Rainey says:

    This is really troubling. We never really know for sure that the food we eat have in fact significant amount of pesticides or other chemicals. Sometimes farmers overlook this important fact and the health risks it poses on human beings. I’d say we better go for organic despite the lack of evidence against conventional ones. Never wait for something to happen. Better be safe than sorry.

  20. JohnLopresti says:

    After some online research a copy of the original article appeared, not behind a professional-society paywall; there.

    The report lists numerous authors, one of whom is known to me, somewhat. Essentially, the article is 20 pages, of which 6 are text; and the methodology of the comparison of “organic” food to “regular” supermarket food basket food is ecclectic, patently biased. I would like to see the peer literature; perhaps ‘Jim White’ at Ew’s place, has time to look further. When I did this work, one had to wait 5 years for the FDA to collate and report on market basket studies, and the content of the reporting was substandard, misleading, imprecise, and nearly useless; kind of bureaucracy at its lamest.

    Among the study’s authors is a doctor who worked supplying obese patients to a medical group whose physicians perform ‘partial gastrectomies’, euphemistically called ‘bariatric’ surgery. I am familiar with all three members of that medical group as well as Dr. Bravata’s in that regard.

    I have studied thousands of toxicology reports. The paper in Annals of Internal medicine by Dena Bravata and associates cannot compare to standard research quality in the field of toxicology. Rather, the Bravata article more closely resembles the sort of work climate deniers publish; the work of a group of people with an agenda to use specious methods to discredit a substantial body of evidence. Further, reviewing the listwise results of a Google search, it is clear that publication of the article was synchronized with widespread consumerist articles which did not link to the article. Ew, early-on, showed how similar techniques were employed in the Bush W administration to use the press to generate an initial tale.

    Another aspect of the article in NYT’s telling, which Ew linked, was the accompanying photo of a strawberry fieldworker in Watsonville. Like the modern ‘tomato’, the reporter at NYT doubtless has not done a taste comparison between organic strawberries and the cardboard, watery, hard white fleshed ‘regular’ strawberry, either.

    I suppose, some of this may have to do with a bored Republican news engine currently pondering what ever might become of the Department of the Interior during an extended time of Democratic party leadership in Washington. Maybe some of that anonymous 501c4 money can be put to such a use! Issue advertising! Market alignment/realignment!

    Bravata’s page at Stanford does not list the article, nor link to it.

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