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Are Organic Foods Safer ??

by Stephen B.Lovejoy
Prof. Agric. & Envir. Policy, Purdue University

Reprinted from TBGS newsletter issued September 1994.

The word, pesticide, is derived from the Latin "pestis" that means plague, and "cide," that means destroyer or killer. Together, pesticide is "the destroyer of plagues." Prof. Lovejoy brings another element into the picture, one not normally given even slight regard when a dispute, organic versus pesticide, occurs. So, we prevailed upon him to remind us all how Mother Nature takes her own defensive measures, and just what that entails...Ed.

Are there risks from the pesticide residues remaining from U.S. production practices? Studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration find that over 60% of foods have no detectable pesticide residues, and that less than 1% have residues exceeding health tolerance levels.

A 1987 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that the average American consumes 45 micrograms of potentially carcinogenic pesticide residues per day in their food. This certainly suggests that there is some risk of cancer from pesticide residue in the foods we buy and consume.

However, is the risk from organic foods zero? No, unfortunately; there are other kinds of potential carcinogens in our food supply. Most foods have natural pesticides that assist them in defending themselves from pests. One type of natural pesticide are the mycotoxins (e.g.aflatoxin) which are also potential carcinogens. These mycotoxins are present in many of the foods that we eat. For instance, a slice of bread has 185 micrograms of natural carcinogens, and a cup of coffee has 500 micrograms.

Are the risks from natural and artificial pesticides independent, cumulative, or interdependent?

Let us look at one study that took a single product and directly compared organic and conventional. One of the mycotoxins is a chemical named patulin, which occurs in apples;this mycotoxin is always present in apple products but at varying levels of concentrations. The study purchased samples of conventionally produced apple juice and organic apple juice, and then analyzed the samples to determine the concentrations of patulin.

The conventional apple juice had patulin ranging from 244 micrograms per liter up to 3993 micrograms per liter. On the other hand, the organic apple juice had patulin at rates up to 45,000 micrograms per liter. This study suggests that the use of artificial pesticides and concentration of patulin are inversely correlated.

Readers should not take this as an indictment of organic food but rather an attempt to force them into looking at these issues from a comparative risk perspective. There is no absolutely safe food supply. Risks are everywhere. Our job as intelligent consumers is to minimize those risks, and that will only happen with greater information about the risks in conventional and organic foods.

In answer to the question, "Is organic food safer?," the readers must answer for themselves.
by Prof. Stephen B. Lovejoy

A Brief Editorial Comment On Prof. Lovejoy's Report

The juice derived from apples naturally grown was found to contain much more than ten times the concentration of patulin found in juice from apples commercially grown, sprayed, etc. To us, as to many others, no doubt, this would come as a "shocker." Which would you buy ?

What Are Mycotoxins
This time it's Greek that provides the combining form, myco, and it means fungus. So, fungi are the sources of the toxins patulin and aflatoxin, referred to by Prof. Lovejoy. Last month, we wrote about toxic algae that do not harm certain shellfish, but when eaten by other fish, or by man, they are poisoned from the pass-along. Aflatoxin is a toxic fungus that can be passed along to man from the animals that ingest it when they eat "moldy" corn. Several years ago, a serious condition arose that led to the dumping of huge quantities of affected milk and meats. It, too, is a carcinogen. Ergot is produced by another fungus, and when ingested, can lead to hallucinations --- and death. Add to them the tribe of so many poisonous mushrooms...Sol Steinberg, Ed.

To contact Prof. Lovejoy, e-mail to
To contact Sol Steinberg. e-mail to