According to a recent review of existing scientific data, foods with high levels of pesticides may compromise brain health and lower IQs.
The report, commissioned by the E.U. parliament to determine the safety of pesticides in food and the potential of organic alternatives, does not appear to be publicly available but has been viewed by multiple non-American outlets.
The American media has thus far largely failed to report on the ominous findings from the scientists working for the E.U.’s Scientific Foresight Unit, which was led by the Swedish University of Agricultural Scientists for this review.
As the Independent reported:
“A report based on the review said a California study had found that children whose mothers had traces of organophosphate metabolites – the basis for many pesticides – during pregnancy were more likely to have “adverse mental development at two years of age, attention problems at three-and-a-half and five years, and poorer intellectual development at seven years.”
The outlet also reported that “Another study calculated that an estimated 13 million IQ points a year are lost as a result of pesticides, which represents a loss of approximately €125bn (£109bn) across the European Union,” though it was not specified exactly how that figure was calculated.
Nevertheless, the Independent noted, “the report suggested this figure was likely to be an under-estimation, as it failed to take into account the possible impact of pesticides on diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes and some types of cancer.”
Unsurprisingly, advocates of pesticides were quick to deny the findings of the comprehensive review. Sarah Mukherjee, director of the Crop Protection Association — whose members include Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont — argued that pesticides are approved by regulatory bodies, which apparently makes them safe.
“As the report itself acknowledges, they are only approved after extensive evaluation,” she said. “Crop protection products are amongst the most heavily regulated products in Europe, taking up to 12 years and costing over £200m to bring an active ingredient to market.”
However, the report acknowledged this, adding the caveat that despite “a comprehensive risk assessment before market release … important gaps remain.”
For example, in 2015 the E.U. dropped its plans to ban 31 pesticides amid pressure from U.S. officials. “[T]hese were dumped amid fears of a trade backlash stoked by an aggressive US lobby push, access to information documents obtained by Pesticides Action Network (PAN) Europe show,” the Guardian reportedat the time.
Many of the health risks were known then. As the Guardian pointed out:
“The result was that legislation planned for 2014 was kicked back until at least 2016, despite estimated health costs of €150bn per year in Europe from endocrine-related illnesses such as IQ loss, obesity and cryptorchidism – a condition affecting the genitals of baby boys.”
This is far from the only example of industry interests seeking to exert influence over pesticide use.
Though Mukherjee asserted that European consumers are not exposed to levels of pesticides that can harm their health, the European body that sets limits on pesticide levels in food, the European Food Safety Authority, has its own conflicts of interest. Further, Mukherjee is hardly an unbiased source considering the first tab on the European Crop Protection Association’s homepage is titled “Why Pesticides,” and focuses on proving their legitimacy for massive agrochemical companies.
Further, as the Telegraph reported regarding the latest review, previous efforts to determine the safety of pesticides have fallen short:
“‘Previous attempts to assess the risks have not taken proper account of epidemiological studies, which look at the health of whole populations, instead of just limiting themselves to scientific trials,’ [the report] suggests.
“’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,’ it states.”
The report also expressed concern that current methods of analyzing the risks of pesticides are inadequate “at addressing mixed exposures, specifically for carcinogenic effects as well as endocrine-disrupting effects and neurotoxicity.”
“Furthermore,” they note, “there are concerns that test protocols lag behind independent science studies from independent science, are not fully considered and data gaps are accepted too readily.”
Still, there were some positive findings, as well. Lead author of the study, Assistant Professor Axel Mie, said:
“Several practices in organic agriculture, in particular the low use of pesticides and antibiotics, offer benefits for human health.”
The report found that organic food contains low levels of pesticides, meaning “potential risks to human health are largely avoided.”
Professor Ewa Rembiałkowska of Warsaw University added that organic crops have “lower cadmium content” than conventional crops. Cadmium is a known carcinogen that carries a variety of other health risks, as well.
The report also found a “link between organic food consumption and a decreased risk of allergic diseases, as well as potential benefits for overweight or obesity people.”