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Pesticides: Learning Or Building Bias?

written by Grant

We’ve been thinking and writing about scientific research relating to foods we eat. And here’s something interesting that happened to me in the last couple days.

As much as we’ve talked about bias when we think about which body of research we choose to believe, one thing that hasn’t come up is timing. We all understand the phenomenon where we prefer the version of a song we heard first as a teenager. Play some other artist’s version to us now and it’s just not the same, right? We have a strong bias for the first-heard.

Up to now I must admit I have done very little reading on the topic of pesticide residue on foods we eat. Why? Well, again, my defense mechanism against a complex food world is simplicity…or just dodge the issue. I buy organic, locally grown, integrated pest management fruits and vegetables and figure that’s the safest thing I can do.

So I’m telling you I have very little bias on the matter of grocery store produce and whether there is pesticide residue on it or not.

Then along comes this article from Steve Savage, a plant pathologist, on his Applied Mythology blog, shared with me by a thoughtful big ag farmer:

How The USDA Unwittingly Aids EWG’s Pesticide Disinformation Campaign

Savage makes these three points in the article:

  1. “…the data (ed: from the Agricultural Marketing Service arm of the USDA) demonstrates […] that pesticide residues are only present at very low levels, usually dramatically below the conservative “tolerances” set during the risk analysis by the EPA.”
  2. The press and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who publish the Dirty Dozen list each year proclaim loudly that our fruits and produce are pesticide-laden. No comment given in these announcements that the USDA research shows extremely low levels of pesticide residue.
  3. And how is the USDA partially to blame for this spread of misinformation? Savage says, “What USDA does not do is provide a summary version of the data that is easily digestible by ordinary readers, including typical members of the press.”

So here you have my first and primary exposure to the pesticide residue controversy. I don’t know much about Steve yet, but I have to say he makes very clear and believable points. And I’m almost with him on the idea that, hey, maybe extremely low quantities of pesticide are not harmful. The USDA studies this and deems it so. If I can believe the USDA, I can shop at the grocery store.

Next, I find this in my inbox from a thoughtful small ag farmer who writes for a big ag journal:

Cleaning Up the EWG’s Dirty Dozen

The article is written by Henry Miller and Jeff Stier. Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. Miller’s bio reads, in part: “biomedical scientist; FDA drug regulator; and scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution” and he is a self-proclaimed debunker of the misunderstandings of science and research.

Their points, though presented in a slightly more strident tone than Savage’s, are clear and easy for me to get. Primarily they argue that the amounts of pesticide residue being found are too low to be concerned with and they are exaggerated by the EWG and others:

 “EWG’s 2010 list involved levels of pesticides 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose (the level of daily exposure likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime of chronic exposure)”

So three scientific minds reach me in these two articles and I have to say, I’m fairly persuaded. I understand there is pesticide residue, but that it is extremely low. There is even some natural pesticide that the plants themselves produce and some of these may be more harmful. The early exposure bias, like that favorite song I talked about earlier, is creeping in on me and I’m about ready to allow pesticide residues at USDA approved levels. It is very interesting for me to see this process in action in my mind.

So what does the EWG say about dosage? Nothing:

 “The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure. Since researchers are constantly developing new insights into how pesticides act on living organisms, no one can say that concentrations of pesticides assumed today to be safe are, in fact, harmless.”

Hmmm. Emotional argument I would have taken hook, line and sinker before. Gotta say, not too convincing for the scientific-y mind, and this is found on their press release, a good place to be convincing if you ask me. Seems like the EWG needs to address the dosage question directly and that’s basically what Jon Hamilton reports on NPR: Why You Shouldn’t Panic About Pesticide In Produce.

There are nagging questions though:

  • Are the USDA’s standards, their “conservative tolerances”, low enough? How do we know?
  • What about accumulation or interaction of these pesticides in our bodies?
  • What about the effects of these pesticides on our environment? Although the EWG’s efforts with their Dirty Dozen list are clearly focused on consumer consumption, you can’t remove our planet’s health from the equation.
  • What about the effects of these pesticides on our farmworkers?
  • Is the USDA testing only applicable for average weight adults? If so, what about the impact on smaller body sizes, like, say, kids?

So you see the trajectory of my learning on this topic. Now I need your help. Chime in. What do you know about pesticides in our farming that would add to my learning? How do you feel reading this? Are you convinced one way or the other? Speak up!

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Meal One: New Views On the Science of Food

written by Grant

Sitting down to dinner at Meal One I realized there is a wonderful construct in our approach – sharing a meal with someone is powerful.

Natasha Godard has followed our burgeoning project with interest and when she read my post about research confusion and saw our list of intended meals, she thought we might like to talk with her because she is a scientific-thinking person with a biology degree. Hoping we could get some clarification about how scientists think, how they’re funded and how to choose trustworthy science from someone who’s actually done scientific research, we of course invited ourselves to dinner!

Hailing from New Mexico, she and her husband Bill served huevos rancheros – a tortilla topped with refried black beans, then a delicious layer of carne adovada and topped with a fried egg. Natasha bought pork shoulder from Rob over at the Butcher + Larder, which means it was from Slagel Family Farm and slowly simmered it in red chili sauce. (Here’s her recipe.) And because Ellen has a ready supply of “city eggs” to take as hostess gifts wherever she goes, the eggs we enjoyed were from our own birds! All that plus a delicious homebrew made for a fantastic meal that was thoughtfully sourced and prepared from scratch. For me, that alone is a powerful thing to sit down to with new friends. Add intense conversation delving into food and the science of food and you have a great learning experience as well.

So what the heck did I learn?

I read a lot about food and some of the apparent problems with our food system. Over time, my brain has decided that because it is difficult to sort out what is good, nutritious and safe from what is not, I need some simple mechanism. For me and Ellen, that mechanism is to rely on finding foods that seem “natural” and “caveman-like”. Simpler, whole foods that are grown fairly close to the way they’d grow in nature make sense to us. Complicated, processed foods do not. Our friend Seedling Pete is an example of someone who offers a value-added, processed food product – apple cider. When you read the ingredient list though, it says: apples. Yes, it has a short shelf life, but it is food I can understand. Simple.

So inherently I count GMOs in the “complicated” and “unnatural” category.

But I learned, from this scientific mind and eater I trust and respect that casting all GMOs in the same light may not be fair. There can be good science that leads to healthy GMO plants that we may want to consider eating after all – as Natasha puts it, she is not inherently suspicious of GMOs. She trusts the process but doesn’t always trust the intent of companies putting the science to work.

I am beginning to realize that I may not be able to discount all “science-y” food just because it is lab-derived. I am not sure of this yet, but Natasha is asking me to consider it in a compelling way. Perhaps some GM crops like nutrient-enhanced golden rice are ok but others may not be. In any case, it is now important to me to understand the GMO process better and consider whether it’s fair to apply such a broad, dismissive brush stroke to them all.

The topic of rBGH came up too and we were shocked to learn that Natasha has no objection to drinking milk from cows given the growth hormone. SHOCKED! She had reasons:

  • Because she is given to understand that growth hormones are species-specific, her scientific mind tells her it is not going to impact her…or even impact kids. She thinks the early puberty happening these days is likely caused by various endocrine disruptors, including BPA in cash register receipts, baby bottles and canned goods but possibly also by childhood obesity itself.
  • She also understands, scientifically, that rBGH does not necessarily enter the cow’s milk.

All that said, she and Bill drink Kilgus milk which is rBGH-free. Why? Tastes great! And because they have environmental concerns and concerns for animal welfare that they feel Kilgus addresses.

I admit I have not read a lot about rBGH so I am ill-prepared to debate it with her. Again, our food system is so incredibly complex that I apply my “close to nature” filter on milk. Cows should eat grass and produce milk. Anything else is too much science for me. Yes, it may be safe, but I don’t always have time to read every white paper out there, so as a consumer, I choose simple.

Which brings us generally speaking around to research, the topic we most hoped to cover with Natasha. If you happen to be a crazy food person who wants to know more about what you’re eating, how do you suss out which research is trustworthy? Is land-grant university research trustworthy even with all the recent reports showing how much of that research is funded by big ag businesses? Can we trust research from Pew? Who is Pew anyway? What can we trust?

Natasha was pretty clear in her response to these questions. First off, scientists inherently try to be objective. Secondly, it is incumbent on anyone who is interested that one read from a lot of sources. In particular, Natasha stresses that peer-reviewed journal articles are going to be the most fact-based source of information. Use these to form your own synthesis of the preponderance of evidence. In her own words:

“That said, these articles are written for other experts, not laymen. This is why we all (myself included for many fields, ag being one of them) end up needing someone to “translate” it for us. Unfortunately, “translation” potentially comes, intentionally or otherwise, with bias.

This is why I say, don’t just pick one source and stick with it. It’s vital to read multiple sources, especially once you’re into magazines, blogs and what have you, because of that potential for bias.

Please note, though, “bias” doesn’t in this case mean, “having an active agenda”. It simply refers to the honest fact that we all have our lenses through which we view the world, and that will always influence our interpretation of what we read. Going to multiple “interpretive” sources will help a person understand the facts of a study better, and allow them to make their own judgment calls. Hopefully, recognizing their own bias.”

And lastly Natasha would caution, there are researchers who publish results that are NOT in the interest of their funding sources – it does happen. Here’s an example: Dr. Richard Dick at Ohio State University, a land-grant school, used soybean check-off funding (check-off funds are monies set aside by soybean farmers as a group to fund research and marketing) to research the negative effects of glyphosate (herbicide) on soil health.

As for Pew, she is still forming her own opinion of them so she had little to say. We are too and we’ll be working to learn more!

Meal One did two things – it gave Ellen and me a new lens with which to look at scientific literature. We’re not experts now, but we’re better than we used to be!

And secondly, I was touched to learn also that the meal impacted Natasha and Bill too. In an email afterwards Natasha wrote:

“Interestingly, our conversation and my noticing this [rBGH/rBST labels] on our milk has inspired several conversations between Bill and me about labeling. And we’re both curiously noticing them a lot. For example, we noticed last night at Target that Dean’s milk proudly displays that they also do not use rBST on the label. The potential results of labeling, either required or otherwise, has been a topic of endless fascination in this household. So I must thank you two for bringing it out for us. It’s been a truly interesting set of discussions.”

Proof that One Hundred Meals will be a rewarding process for everyone at the table – both because we all got to eat huevos rancheros and because we are all now thinking outside of our previous mindsets!

•   •   •   •   •

read Ellen’s post in response to Meal One: Gettin’ Sciencey


The Research Fog

written by Grant

I’m confused.

And depressed.

And so wanting to really dig into an actual meal for this One Hundred Meals project. But we need to start with some information first. We need to get informed a wee bit more neutrally before we just jump in. We need to do the homework before we arrive at the first test.

So, Ellen and I have given ourselves this task of understanding and respecting the viewpoint of big, industrial farmers. Check.

One topic comes to the fore which seems pivotal to understanding – research. We ask our new Big Ag friends, for example, what they think of the recent FDA decision to reduce antibiotic use in livestock. The response is both from the gut and experience (which we honor and respect) as well as to cite organizations and research they trust – FDA, USDA, land-grant university studies. If I’m doing my job right, I hear them out and guess what? I get that if that were the body of knowledge I had always known and was the bulk of what I’d heard for years, and I was in the business of earning a living following those principles — sure enough, I’d reach the same conclusions the Big Ag folks have reached. I would be comfortable with the current antibiotic use in animals. I would be comfortable with GMOs in our food system. So there you go – I can understand and respect Big Ag (Agvocates*) where they stand.

Turning it around, I hope they feel the same.

So are we done?

Well, if we were, contention about our food system would not exist. So, no.

Now imagine this. In my effort to internalize and understand Agvocates’ viewpoint (kinda like running a second operating system on your computer!) I read a bunch of literature and research coming from their “camp”. As I do, I am careful to note who funded the literature, what the biases are. And there are lots and lots of biases.

But here’s the thing: When I turn the mirror inward, I see, sure enough, that you find biases and questionable funding of “my” literature also.

Gridlock.

That is where my brain is right now. Stuck. Ellen, for her part, is just getting depressed.

And it gets worse: There is no arbiter for this.

You’d like for it to be the FDA and the USDA, because that is actually supposed to be their purpose for existing. But recently, if you are following along, you’ll know that the FDA is just now getting around to acting on its findings from 35 years ago. And they are only doing so because a judge forced them to. So I am hard-pressed to trust the FDA as the reliable arbiter of truth we’re looking for on these tricky questions!

Look, I do NOT come from a long history of conspiracy theory, but the more I research, the more I start to sound like such a person.

In some weird way, I am starting to distrust that a research duel will help us. I may find some research I trust. I’m not saying I can’t find that, but I am not sure pitting one body of research against another will lead us anywhere because even if the greater percentage of society or a government agency like the FDA finally chooses one body of evidence over another, does that matter? Will it lead to anything when the “other side” is still going to stay entrenched in their beliefs regardless?

If you’d like to disagree with all this gloominess, then answer one of these two simple questions:

  • If you currently disagree with antibiotic use in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?
  • If you currently agree with the use of antibiotics in animals for growth purposes, whose research to the contrary would you believe? Who could turn your firmly held beliefs completely around?

They’re rhetorical questions.

I will say, even being confused and depressed is better than not thinking about our food at all.

And Ellen and I are certainly thinking about things! We’re getting familiar with all the entities and interests on the Agvocate side of things. We’re learning the acronyms like GRAS, FOIA and CSPI. We’re learning how to spot influence and bias (ProTip: follow the money, which is often only barely hidden by a public service-style organization with a clever name). We’re reading the data from the Farm Bill. All in the hopes of having some solid background information before we start.

We have been busy brainstorming a starter list of Meals We Hope To Eat and we’ve posted them here for you to look over.

And we hope, soon, to sit down and eat with someone so we can get this show on the road!


*Agvocates — for the sake of clarity, from here on out, we’ll refer to Big Ag folks as Agvocates, which is what they are calling themselves these days. We’ll call the other side — the sustainable, local, Slow Food side — Agripreneurs.