Organic food is a 'human right' says important food scientist

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If we take pesticides away from our fragile food systems, we will protect people who most often get ill. Kendra Klein, senior scientist at Friends of the Earth tells Yasmin Dahnoun.


The food on our plates is not in its natural form. Most people trust farmers, supply chains and environmental laws, but our food often has toxic chemicals in it. This can affect our mood, health and body much more than people used to think.

This interview with Kendra Klein, a senior scientist from Friends of the Earth US, shows how pesticides affect people even in very small amounts; and how if you start an organic diet, you can cut the pesticides by about 70 per cent in only six days.

How did you become involved in organic farming?

My mother had breast cancer when I was a young girl and again while I was at college, and that made me interested in the connection between our health, the environment and contact with toxins. I used to work in public health and organic agriculture, and now I work with both at Friends of the Earth.

I am working on the problem and talking about cancer and other health problems linked to toxins. And I am also talking about the solution and what we need to do. So I am hopeful.

Many people say we get very small amounts of pesticides from food, so this doesn’t affect our health. Do you disagree?

Yes, for many reasons. At some points in our lives we suffer more from toxins: in the uterus, and when we are children and teenagers, when our bodies develop quickly. If we are in contact with very small amounts of toxins then, we can get problems our whole life. The safety regulations are agreed for healthy adults, not for children.

Regulations for ‘safe’ levels of toxins are agreed for each chemical. But the problem is that we have contact with many pesticides and industrial chemicals every day. This can increase the bad effects of each one. Also, some toxins are ‘endocrine disruptors’ – they mimic, block, or mix up the hormone messages of our body.

Endocrine disruptors can increase our risk of cancers, reproductive problems, neurological problems, obesity, diabetes and many other problems. More than 50 pesticides, including glyphosate and all the pesticides we tested in our organic diet studies are associated with endocrine disruption. Even a small amount of pesticide exposure affects health in this way.

Do we only have contact with pesticides in our food?

No. Pesticides like Roundup (another name for glyphosate) are used in city parks, playgrounds, and in homes. We made sure that the families we tested did not use pesticides in their homes, but people who use insecticides and herbicides in their gardens would have contact there.

So if you start an organic diet, you could still get these toxins.

Eating organic is good to get rid of toxic chemicals, but what about families who don’t have the money for organic foods?

We found families that didn’t eat organically and tested them for six days on their typical diets and then we tested them when they ate only organic food for six days. We found that in six days, every pesticide we tested for, dropped.

Glyphosate dropped about 70 per cent. And other compounds for another pesticide, malathion (that causes cancer), dropped by 95 per cent. So that’s great news - it means we can quickly get rid of a lot of pesticides in our body by changing to an organic diet. But the bad news is that we are have contact with pesticides from the food we eat because most people cannot eat 100 per cent organic.

So: why are pesticides still used in our food?

That is the basic question about industrial agricultural systems. In the past three or four decades, farmers have been using more toxic pesticides – even though more scientific evidence says they are harmful.

The US Environmental Protection Agency said that glysphosate probably causes cancer in humans in 1983 – but they still allow more farmers to use it. We discovered this from recent court cases against Monsanto. They showed that people like farmers, farm workers, some homeowners and home gardeners who often use Monsanto products with glyphosate get non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto had to pay a lot of money because they lost the three cases in court. Monsanto have been trying for decades to make sure this toxic product stayed on the market. They had influence on the science and the public and fought against regulations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

How can large corporations, such as Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), change what the public think?

They write scientific articles, but don’t add their names. They attack researchers who write about good science and criticise their products.

A number of reporters have found the truth. Why do we have a lot of use of toxic pesticides? It’s because of the power of the pesticide industry. This is not just one case, glyphosate shows a systematic failure that has allowed these companies to influence rules and laws, so the company benefits, but our health suffers.

The government are not keeping regulations up to date with the science. You must feel very frustrated.

Yes. We are working on science-based environmental and health efforts, but there is a big divide between the science and our regulations. We know this with climate change, we know this with other toxic chemicals. We know this with tobacco use and lung cancer. This is an old story. There is an excellent report from the EU called Late lessons from early warnings with many stories where the science showed danger, but no regulations were made.

I think that it’s important to understand that we keep repeating the same failure. Where science shows something is dangerous, we wait for many people to die before regulators have to do something. I think the story of big tobacco gives me hope. It took decades, but we now have real success in cutting use. Maybe in a few decades we will be able to celebrate success with pesticides.

Many people prefer to buy organic food – but is this a human right?

The UN released a report a few years ago that it is a human right for all the supply chain to be free from contact with pesticides. Farmers and farm workers have most contact. It’s difficult for farm workers because they don’t make the decisions about what pesticides are used and often they don’t know what they are using.

When we talk about getting pesticides out of the food system, we are talking about protecting these farm workers from higher rates of cancer, asthma, birth defects, Parkinson’s disease, and many other health problems. And when we move through the food chain and we think about people who eat the food. People who don’t have access to organic food is a human rights issue.

We think about organic food as if it’s a shopping preference, and it feels more elite, because it often is more expensive. But really, it’s necessary. We need to protect everyone from exposure to pesticides that we know are harmful to our health.

Many people say we need large-scale farming and pesticides to feed the growing world population, what would you say to this?

It is not true that we need pesticides to feed the world. But the pesticide industry say it is true. We found out about this in the Monsanto documents.

We are destroying the biodiversity, soil, water and climate to grow more food. This is like cutting off the branch of the tree that we are sitting on. If we want to continue feeding all people, we will need to quickly move from a pesticide-intensive system to an organic system. This is a big change. We will need to think differently about what is good agriculture.

The idea that industrialized countries feed the world is not true – it is mainly small farmers around the world who feed themselves and their communities. There are so many reports by experts that show we need to make the big change to agro-ecological farming.

It seems like agriculture is in a very bad situation, what’s the good news?

The really good news is that we know how to change to organic farming. More people want to buy organic food and farmers are changing to organic production. We know that we actually already have the solution. We just need to grow it. And that’s where public information helps. When we understand that this is a human right, we can get far more people to work to create the policies that we need.

No one is going to fight for luxury goods. So, when we change our understanding about organic food, from a shopping preference to something we need, we see that this is where we need to put more energy.