“Cadmium exposure, pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria all result in costs to society that are not typically included in the price of the fertiliser, plant protection product, or antibiotic drug. Although difficult to estimate accurately, these costs may be substantial and represent negative production externalities.”
That’s according to a major new study for the European Parliament, issued last month.
The “Human Health Implications of Organic Food and Organic Agriculture” report by the European Parliament Research Service’s Scientific Foresight Unit reviews scientific evidence on the impact of organic food on human health, and the potential contribution of organic management practices to development of healthy food systems.”
The study is largely inconclusive or non-committal about many health issues, stating that it is difficult to isolate effects of organic food from other lifestyle factors.
However, its strongest findings are on cadmium, pesticides and antibiotics public health concerns.
Regarding pesticides: “In organic agriculture, the use of pesticides is restricted. Epidemiological studies point to the negative effects of certain insecticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure.
“Such risks can be minimised with organic food, especially during pregnancy and in infancy, and by introducing non-pesticidal plant protection in conventional agriculture.”
“Pesticides undergo a comprehensive risk assessment before market release, but important gaps remain.
“Of major concern, these risk assessments disregard evidence from epidemiological studies that show negative effects of low-level exposure to organophosphate insecticides on children’s cognitive development, despite the high costs of IQ losses to society…
“Organic agriculture provides both a source of food with low pesticide residues and an environment in which agronomic techniques for pesticide-free plant protection are developed. These techniques can be adopted in conventional production, aiding transition towards integrated pest management and overall lower pesticide exposure of the population and the environment.”
Cadmium “is toxic to the kidneys, can demineralise bones, and is carcinogenic” the study states.
“The Cd content of crops is therefore of immediate relevance to human health”.
“The long-term use of mineral phosphorus fertiliser has contributed to increased cadmium concentrations in agricultural soils.”
“Low soil organic matter generally increases the availability of Cd for crops, and organically managed farms tend to have higher soil organic matter than conventionally managed farms”.
The study states that lower cadmium concentrations in organic production is ”not certain”, but goes on to acknowledge “long-term experiments over more than 100 years indicate that cereal crops fertilised with mineral fertiliser tend to have a higher cadmium content compared to cereal crops fertilised with animal manure.”
On antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the study notes that while factors outside animal husbandry inevitably play a role, “the World Health Organisation has identified overly prevalent use of antibiotics in animal production to be a contributing factor. “Restricted use of antibiotics in organic systems could minimise this risk.”
“The preventive use of antibiotics is heavily restricted in organic husbandry.”
Overall, while much is left up in the air in this study, when it comes to these three public health concerns — cadmium exposure, pesticide residues, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — organic farming and food challenge the conventional sector to step up or move over.