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Published July 27, 2010, 09:18 AM

‘Nutrient density’ and other dense ideas

FARGO, N.D. — I read with interest a July 8 release from Organic Trade Association, which criticizes a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture draft Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2010. The OTA complains that the guidelines say there is limited research on “nutrient density” comparisons between organic and conventionally raised food.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — I read with interest a July 8 release from Organic Trade Association, which criticizes a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture draft Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2010.

The OTA complains that the guidelines say there is limited research on “nutrient density” comparisons between organic and conventionally raised food.

“Our current understanding of conventional and organically produced foods indicate that their nutritional value and contribution to human health are similar,” USDA guidelines say.

Christine Bushway, executive director and chief executive of the OTA, didn’t like that. Instead of focusing on the nutrient density issue, she complains that USDA guidelines contradict a recent President’s Cancer Panel report. That report says Americans can cut pesticide exposure by choosing “food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers” and can cut exposure to “antibiotics, growth hormones and toxic runoff from livestock feed lots” by eating “free-range meat raised without these medications.”

Organic food is better, she says.

The Cancer Panel, in a document released May 10, generally notes the increased incidence of cancer in the country and suspected environmental factors linked to “genetic, immune and endocrine dysfunction.” Food may be the problem.

The cancer panel decries a “low priority and inadequate funding” for research and hints of “consequences of cumulative lifetime exposure to pesticides, while acknowledging they are “largely unstudied.” There is a “lack of effective measurement methods and tools; delay in adopting newer technologies; inadequate computational models; and weak, flawed or uncorroborated studies.”

What research there is relies too heavily on animal studies that depend on higher doses than humans would encounter in pesticides. And these studies fail to take into account harmful effects that “may” occur at very low doses. There’s little info on prenatal, childhood and lifetime accumulation from low doses. Too many tests focus on single agents, rather than combinations.

The report decries the idea that current regulations are “reactionary” in the face of “incontrovertibly demonstrated” harm, rather than “preventative” when “uncertainty exists.” Only a few hundred of the 800,000 chemicals used in the U.S. have been “tested for safety.” There is “undue industry influence” over regulations, they say.

On ag contamination, the report says the EPA has approved nearly 900 active ingredients, “many of which are toxic.”

And “many” of the inert ingredients in pesticide labels are toxic, “but are not required to be tested for their potential to cause chronic diseases, such as cancer,” the report says. The cancer report notes that “fertilizers and veterinary pharmaceuticals are major contributors to water pollution. Farmers and migrant farm workers are at “highest risk,” but it is “difficult to clearly distinguish cancer risks associated with individual agents.” The “burgeoning number” and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens” compels action even without “irrefutable proof of harm,” the panel concludes.

The panel calls for research in specific places and with farmers and migrant workers. It urges adults to act now to save children.

My thinking? 1) Organic is fine for those who can afford it, especially on crops where more chemicals are used. 2) Pesticides kill pests that compete with people for food, so they’d better be toxic to the target. 3) All fertilizers are chemicals. 4) USDA is right not to discourage food grown in certain ways unless it first is proven a real difference or harm.

Government is not always rational. I note (with personal pain) that Clay County in Minnesota imposes a whopping $110 fine per person for anyone caught without seatbelts in a four-wheeled vehicle. Meanwhile, motorcyclists ride freely without a belt — or hat or good shoes.

May your food be safe and your nutrients count be — uh, dense?

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