Are Pesticide Sprayers 'Health Experts?' Seriously?

New online videos from a chemical agribusiness front group show conventional growers straining to convince consumers that it's just fine to eat bug killers and weed killers.

The Alliance for Food and Farming, or AFF, which has lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tone down its annual pesticide residue tests on fruits and vegetables, has rolled out short videos in which California farmers answer questions usually reserved for scientists and health experts.

Among AFF's unsupported claims:

Is organic farming better for the environment than conventional farming?

AFF says: No. Rod Braga, a vegetable farmer from Soledad, Calif., says conventional agriculture is actually "very much easier on the environment."

Truth: The environmental benefits of organic agriculture far outweigh any offered up by conventional operations. Conventional farmers apply more than one billion pounds of highly toxic manmade pesticides and fungicides each year. These chemicals pollute not only the food supply but also air, drinking water and ultimately people's bodies. They have been found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. Chemical fertilizer runoff from Midwest crop operations has introduced so much nitrate into the Mississippi River that the Gulf of Mexico has a Dead Zone the size of New Jersey literally chocking off aquatic life. Mega-farms throughout the country have also played a significant role in greenhouse gas emissions.

Are pesticides used in organic farming different from those used in conventional farming?

AFF: Not really. Grape and blueberry farmer Jon Marthedal of Fresno, Calif., contends that pesticides used on conventional agriculture are "really just synthetic versions of the organic compounds we use in our organic operations."

Truth: The U.S. has never banned or restricted the use of any organic pest control chemical because of potential risks to human health or the environment. Not one. However, dozens of conventional pesticides have been banned or their uses severely restricted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for several reasons, including health and environmental risks.

Is organic produce healthier than conventionally grown produce?

AFF: Nope. Marthedal dismisses the question as, "Do I want to drive a Chevy, or do I want to drive a Ford?"

Truth: A study published in September 2010 by scientists at Washington State University found that organically grown strawberries from California not only tasted better but also provided more nutrients than those grown with synthetic pesticides.

Jane Black wrote in The Washington Post:

A new study of 13 pairs of conventional and organic California strawberry farms over two seven-month growing seasons in 2004 and 2005 revealed that organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious berries while leaving the soil more healthful and genetically diverse. In a surprising twist, the organic strawberries also had a longer shelf life than the other varieties.

Should I be worried about pesticide residues on my fruits and vegetables?

AFF: No. In tackling this question, farmer Marthedal said he and his family have farmed the same land for 100 years while spraying pesticides on their crops.

Truth: Dietary exposures to pesticides, particularly for children and babies in the womb, may cause adverse health effects including neurologic impairments and low birth weight. Last year, three separate studies arrived at similar conclusions: Prenatal pesticide exposure is linked to diminished IQ.

Other health problems that have been linked to low-dose exposure to pesticides include disruption of the hormonal system, lower levels of testosterone and other hormones, leukemia, lymphoma and Parkinson's disease.

In announcing these new videos defending pesticides on produce, AFF executive director Marilyn Dolan said, "Who better to talk with consumers about how fruits and vegetables are grown than the farmers of these products themselves?"

When I want an expert opinion on whether or not I should drink or smoke, I don't ask the owner of the local liquor store if the cigarettes and bourbon he's peddling are safe for my health.

The answers given by these farmers are riddled with half-truths, misleading statements and outright falsehoods.

Just last month Arysta LifeScience, the maker of a toxic pesticide used primarily by California and Florida strawberry growers, decided to pull one of its signature products, methyl iodide, from the market. The company acted under pressure calls for a ban from the public, leading scientific and public health experts and farmworkers. Members of the AFF fought a ban every step of the way.

The same crew took a similar stance when the predecessor to methyl iodide, methyl bromide, was being phased out for depleting the ozone layer. Representatives of the strawberry and tomato growers - the two crops that used the highly toxic pesticide - gained exemptions from the 1992 international agreement, commonly called the Montreal Protocol, which set in motion a worldwide effort to phase out all ozone depleting chemicals by 2000. Agribusiness vigorously opposed the methyl bromide ban. The United States is the only industrial country still using the fumigant, with 1.7 million pounds applied in California during the latest reporting year available, 2010, courtesy of the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation.

When chemical-dependent agriculture takes a page from the "All is well!" scene from Animal House and tries to persuade you that pesticides in our food and environment are perfectly fine, just remember who is delivering that message.