By Charlotte Vallaeys
For the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has weighed in on organic foods for children. Its news release was widely covered in the national media.
While the AAP should be commended for acknowledging the potentially harmful effects of pesticide residues on conventional foods, their report—and associated press coverage—is seriously flawed in its basic approach to agrochemical contamination in our food supply and the associated threat to public health.
Even though the AAP acknowledges that many pesticides are neurotoxins, that studies have linked exposure to pesticides to neurological harm in children, and that a recent peer-reviewed study correlated higher pesticide residue levels in children with higher rates of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the AAP is cautious about reaching a conclusion regarding the harmful effects of pesticides.
Why such a reckless approach? AAP explains, “No studies to date have experimentally examined the causal relationship between exposure to pesticides directly from conventionally grown foods and adverse neurodevelopmental health outcomes.”
With this statement, the AAP suggests that it considers existing knowledge about toxic pesticides to be inadequate and incomplete for the purposes of recommending organic foods for children, which have been shown in peer-reviewed published studies to radically reduce children’s pesticide exposure.
The pediatric group suggests, as agrochemical manufacturers have for decades, that the question of whether pesticides harm children will remain unanswered until results from experiments provide definite proof of harm. With this expectation, the AAP joins the agribusiness and pesticide lobbyists in setting an impossible standard. Let’s step back for a minute and imagine what such an experimental study would look like.
Children in such experiments would need to be assigned to two different groups: ‘Group Conventional’ which would receive only conventional foods with the documented pesticide residues, and ‘Group Organic,’ on a 100% organic diet. But exposure to pesticides starts before birth, so to control for this confounding factor, the experiment would have to begin with the mothers while pregnant—also grouped in ‘Group Conventional’ and ‘Group Organic.’
Then, in order to definitively link dietary pesticide exposure to harmful outcomes, the two groups of children would need to be raised in sterile, confined isolation, to shield them from all other environmental toxins. After all, if raised in a typical household, in the soup of chemicals contaminating our air and water, and synthetics commonly found in our homes, the pesticide industry could easily dispute the study’s results.
Other factors would need to be controlled as well. Other than the conventional v. organic factor, the diets for the two groups would have to be identical. In fact, the children would have to be force-fed; if, for example, several of the children in ‘Group Conventional’ simply pick at their vegetables and refuse to eat them, but most of the children in ‘Group Organic’ do consume all their veggies, the agrochemical industry could again rightfully claim the study to be invalid because of these differences.
Moreover, we know that effects of pesticides can be long-term, especially pesticides that are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. So to understand the effects of dietary pesticides on health outcomes in adulthood, the experiment would have to run for decades.
The problem is clear: a study that could definitively prove that pesticides cause adverse health effects in humans would be logistically near-impossible, not to mention highly unethical.
The AAP suggests that conventional foods, which carry well-documented pesticide residues, should not be considered harmful to children until the results of impossible experiments prove otherwise. This is the approach that acts in the interest of the pesticide industry, because it lets them off the hook.
But shouldn’t the AAP act in the interest of children and public health? When pesticides have been found to be toxic and carcinogenic to lab animals, have been correlated with higher rates of ADHD in children, and have been shown to lead to neurological harm in farmworkers and their children, the basic assumption should be that they are harmful until proven safe, not the other way around.
Many parents opt for organic foods for their children, because they appropriately approach toxic pesticides using the Precautionary Principle: synthetic compounds that are designed to kill living organisms should be presumed dangerous to growing children until proven otherwise. And the only way to remove your children from this huge, uncontrolled experiment is by refusing to offer them foods with agrochemical residues—by choosing organic.
The burden of proof should lie with the pesticide manufacturers, who must conclusively demonstrate that their toxins are safe. It should not be the responsibility of our children to prove, decades later, that the pesticides they consumed as kids contributed to their generation’s health problems.
By failing to come out strongly in favor of organic foods, the AAP does a serious disservice to the health of our children and the well-being of future generations.
— Charlotte Vallaeys is Director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Master of Science from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.