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Cargill's Way

The rotten apples surrounding Stanford's organics study

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The regulation of chlorpyrifos, like that of most chemicals, has not been consistent over the years. The EPA announced in July that it plans to require reductions in chlorpyrifos application rates and apply additional rules designed to protect children and other bystanders from exposure in agricultural applications and others. The agency expects to make a final decision in 2014, with implementation to follow. Until then, families in rural towns where farmworkers live will continue to expose their children to doses of a neurotoxin that we're pretty sure will soon be illegal.

While the danger of any given pesticide is constant, how it's regulated is changeable. Unfortunately, lobbyists and political appointees who might be neither concerned nor educated about pesticides can have undue influence over if, when and how they're used.

Had the Stanford study shown higher nutrient levels in organic food, you could be sure the organic industry would be parading those results like the Greeks dragging Hector's body around Troy. But if differences in nutrient content is what we want to look for, we should compare nutrient levels of food grown on small, crop-diverse family farms with food grown in large monocultures. The Stanford study compared the nutrient levels largely between organic factory farms and conventional factory farms. Practices common on small, integrated farms—like composting, crop rotation and mulching—tend to build richer soil. It would be interesting to compare nutrition levels in small farms that do these things with large farms that don't.

Still, nutrient levels are just one part of the debate on sustainable and fair agriculture. To many in the sustainable-food movement, factory-farmed organic, such as what you get at Whole Foods, is an imperfect compromise. As a wise farmer once told me, "most Big Organic food is still grown by exploited brown people on massive monocultures—just without chemicals."

The Stanford report concludes with the kind of self-contradictory statement that embodies the general confusion the study has generated: "The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues, and organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

In other words, organic isn't any better, but it might be less worse.

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