Tag Archives: pesticides

What is the deal with pesticides in produce? To organic or not to organic?

As I am suffering from a disease, I apologize for the time it took me to get this extremely critical article published. I really wanted to churn it out in my usual style. I tried starting this post with some funny lines. They all sucked. Then I moved on to analogies. They didn’t make sense. Then I tried a newsflash of sorts. That just sounded lame. So I’m just going to start with some basics and gradually move on to the crux of the issue. Sorry, but the disease is a downer! Writers block… you need to have had to relate!

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What are pesticides anyway?

Pesticides (including insecticides) are substances or mixtures of substances intended to protect against pests where the pesticide may be a chemical or a biological agent or device and the pest may be anything from insects to plant pathogens to worms to mammals that spread disease or cause any kind of nuisance.

Pesticide use, like most things we have today, was invented a long time back and, obviously, for a reason. This might be news to you but, for a while now, we humans have been using chemicals on our crops to save them from pests. What started off as dusting of elemental sulphur (in ancient Mesopotamia about 4500 years) got transformed into the use of…

  • toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead by the 15th century,
  • nicotine sulphate based insecticides in the 17th century, and
  • natural pesticides derived from chrysanthemum and roots of tropical vegetables in the 19th century.

It was in the 1950s that things started to get ugly when synthetic pesticides and insecticides (like DDT) were starting to become the preferred choice. Pesticide manufacturers started manufacturing too much synthetic pesticides and their use became widespread. Between 1950 and now, pesticide use has has increased 50-fold and per this article we are now looking at the following ungodly numbers…

World pesticide amount used exceeded 5.0 billion pounds in 2000 and 2001. Herbicides accounted for the largest portion of total use, followed by other pesticide use, and fungicide use. Total world pesticide amount used decreased in 2001 for all pesticide types.

There’s got to be something good about it!

If we have been using pesticides for thousands of years and if the government regulates it’s use, there should be some good to pesticide usage right? OK, the government regulation means nothing, but you know what I mean – pesticides didn’t come into existence for no reason. So what are the pros associated with pesticides?

  • Better yield: Pesticide use helps in controlling pests and plant diseases and hence results in improved yield.
  • Protection against infection: Using pesticide to ward off pests has saved many (human and animal) lives from insect born infectious diseases like malaria, typhoid, black plague etc.
  • More revenue: By improving yields, pesticide use helps agrobusinesses generate more revenue. As a matter of fact, for every $1 spent on pesticides, $4 worth of crops are saved.
  • Variety & availability: A variety of crops are made available year round removing ‘seasonal’ from the equation.

And of course there is the bad!

As expected though, as we started using pesticides and as demand and ‘food manufacturing’ increased, their usage has also increased drastically. And what is the easiest way to meet demand? Yep! Dump the natural and move completely to artificial. And since synthetic pesticides can be produced in large quantities with ease, that is exactly what we did.

So when we realized we are using too much chemical on our food, we started looking into the possible ill effects of pesticide use and came back with an impressive list.

Acute & chronic effects

Pesticide exposure can cause a variety of adverse health effects. These effects can range from simple irritation of the skin and eyes to more severe effects such as affecting the nervous system, mimicking hormones causing reproductive problems, and also causing cancer.

More here.

Acute poisoning from a single or short-term exposure can result in death. Chronic impacts of long-term exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues in food, could also result in death.

More here.

Birth defects

Fifteen studies from 9 countriesexamined associations between pesticides and birth defects. The studies consistently showed increased risk with pesticide exposure. Specific defects included limb reductions,urogenital anomalies,central nervous system defects,orofacial clefts,heart defects,and eye anomalies. The rate of any birth defect was also increased by parental exposure to pesticides.

Fetal deaths

Fetal death includes spontaneous abortion, fetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal death. Results were consistent across several study designs; 9 of 11 studiesfound positive associations with pesticide exposure.

Genotoxicity

Pesticide exposure doubled the frequency of chromosome aberrations. In clinical practice, these aberrations could present as spontaneous abortion, birth defects, sperm abnormalities, or cancer risk.

More here.

And here is some literature about pesticide exposure causing asthma, neurological defects and cancer.

But the government has it under control, right?

Yes, the government set limits!

But wait! No one cares about limits! Its all about making a buck isn’t it? This is a world where people will do anything to shine some greeen… and that includes killing you. I’m not kidding one bit here.

While developed countries have good control of food production (and manufacturing), developing and under-developed countries struggle with quality and control. As is the case with adulteration, control over agricultural produce – the seeds, the methods, the pesticides, the quantities – is very weak. And the reason for this?

  • Farmers are uneducated and don’t posses the capability to understand the risks involved with excessive pesticide use.
  • Greedy farmers and food manufacturers use WAY more pesticide than their supposed to in an effort to improve their yields.
  • And of course, corruption in its many forms.

So what happens when people don’t care about limits? Well, things get ugly… real ugly!

When bad becomes worse and worse becomes WTF!

OK, so pesticides are being used and the government can’t and won’t do crap about it. This isn’t any different from robbery or bribery or prostitution right? Wrong. The difference is that this particular issue could harm you in ways you wouldn’t imagine and that isn’t because pesticides are being used in produce but because…

  • Pesticides are being used in astronomical quantities in India (and other developing countries)
  • Pesticides that have been banned due to their extremely toxic nature are still being used in India (and other developing countries)

Here is some evidence explaining why the situation is worse than you think it is.

This 2005 article from India Together says…

Pesticide use in India has jumped hundred folds from 154 million tones in 1954 to 88,000 million tones in 2001 [Thats 571-fold in under 50 years!]. Punjab is one of the largest users of pesticides: 6,972 million tones a year.

This Nov 2010 article from India Today says…

The NGO picked up 193 samples of 35 different vegetables from markets in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. These were then tested for 106 pesticides and the results were alarming as four of the five banned chemicals were found in these samples.

Banned substances like chlordane, heptachlor, endrin and ethyl parathion were found in almost all samples of bitter gourd. Pesticide residue was also recovered from vegetables like cauliflower, tomato, ladyfinger, brinjal, cucumber, cabbage, potatoes and onions.

According to the findings, the pesticides used in India are 750 times higher than the European standards. These chemicals can cause brain cancer, blood cancer, kidney or lung damage and neurological problems. It can also disrupt liver and hormone functions and can cause several skin disorders.

The pesticide residue limit in India has not been reviewed for the past 30 years. Experts agree that strict monitoring from state agencies is an absolute imperative.

This post on Living Farms says…

The chemical came into spotlight in India when at Kasargad in Kerala it was sprayed aerially and the local population of many villages was exposed to it. What followed was very shocking. It led to physical and mental defects in poor farmers and their families. Studies have shown endosulfan to accumulate in a mother’s breast milk and it has been linked to appalling birth deformities, the like of which are still being observed at Kasargad, “Kerala’s Bhopal”.

Such events have occurred across the Globe and 62 countries all over the world have either banned it or restricted its use. Unfortunately India has done nothing to stem the use of this endocrine disruptor which can cause changes at the genetic level.

This very recent article on toxiclinks says…

However, studies over the years have shown that a little over 200 grams of vegetables that an average Indian statistically gets on a daily basis, is a recipe of a toxic blend of over 40 deadly chemical pesticides….

The year 2008 document of AVRDC  ‘The World Vegetable Center’, thus rightly suggests India’s pesticide use on vegetables as alarmingly high.

This, also very recent, article from The Times Of India says…

Rampant use of banned pesticides in fruits and vegetables continues to put at risk the life of the common man. Farmers apply pesticides such as chlordane, endrin and heptachor that can cause serious neurological problems, kidney damage and skin diseases. A study cond`ucted by Delhi-based NGO Consumer-Voice reveals that the amount of pesticides used in eatables in India is as much as 750 times the European standards. The survey collected sample data from various wholesale and retail shops in Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata.

“Out of five internationally-banned pesticides, four were found to be common in vegetables sold in the Indian markets. Banned pesticides were found in bitter gourd and spinach,” said Sisir Ghosh, head of Consumer-Voice. The banned chemicals included chlordane, a potent central nervous system toxin, endrin, which can cause headache nausea and dizziness, and heptachor that can damage the liver and decrease fertility.

And make no mistake, this absolutely is the case in pretty much all developing nations as explained here, here and here.

And guess what? Most of these risks seem to affect folks who make ‘healthy food choices’ more than their non-caring/unhealthy counterparts as these are the folks who tend to include more vegetables and fruit in their diet! And this, my friend, is how worse becomes WTF!

My thoughts?

Pardon my french but, from this and the other literature I have read on the subject, I have to say…

Les pesticides seront vas te faire encule jusqu’à

Alright Raj. Thats enough! Less scary, more healthy! Is there a solution?

If you do live in a developed country, this might not be that big a deal since controls are in place holding pesticide content within acceptable limits and worrying too much about this might be considered obsessive. But if you do live in a developing country, eating organic food ranks right up in the list of things you’d need to do to live a basic safe life. In other words, eating pesticide free food (in developing countries) is comparable to looking for vehicles on the road before crossing.

So, safely assuming all the vegetables and fruits you buy (in your developing nation) from your local grocer or grocery chain or street vendor is loaded with (accepted AND banned) pesticides (way beyond the upper limit), what do you do to keep your risk of pesticide poisoning low?

The best option to safety, taste and health – eat organic food!

Yes, finding organic food is hard and yes it is a bit more (10-20%) expensive. But wouldn’t you rather eat truly healthy produce and support organic farming than to eat chemical laden make-believe healthy produce and fall prey to greedy food manufacturers/distributors?

If organic food isn’t available for any reason,

  • Eat ONLY seasonal vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits that are in season need lesser pesticides than others.
  • Wash vegetables and fruits thoroughly using soap! Yep. You read that right. Use any detergent you use to wash your hands but be sure to wash off all the soap before eating/cooking.
  • Eat food that has worms in it. Pick fruits and vegetables that have worms in them. Clean them free of worms. Eat! If the reasoning isn’t obvious, if the worm wasn’t killed, you probably are safe too.
  • Any fruit, be it a banana or an apple or a fig, peel it before you deal it.
  • If you’re at a restaurant or someone’s house and are unsure about the produce you are being served, reduce your risk by eating less of what you’re skeptical about.

Think about it this way – You don’t eat food that has dirt/crap on it. Why would you eat food with (real) poison? You wouldn’t eat at a place that is known to cause food poisoning. Why would you eat pesticide laden food that you know could food poison and poison you and your family?

Eat organic food folks! A few bucks here and there isn’t worth the risk of chronic pesticide poisoning leading to possible neurodevelopmental disorders and cancers and acute poisoning resulting in anything from skin problems to possible death.

And remember – awareness precedes action! If you live in a developing country, consider this an eye-opener and make the necessary changes immediately. If you live in a developed country, please make an effort to forward this on to your friends and family who live in developing nations. Take a moment and make a difference. Please share this post on your wall or whatever else you share stuff on and spread the word.

In the next post, I will write in detail about some organic food stores in Chennai (India) that supply safe, delicious and pesticide free produce at reasonable prices. Stay tuned.

Peace out.

Paleo, primal, eat real food, GAPS… really?

This is probably what you'd look like at the end of this post

I think everyone will agree that the best way to eat right is to eat plenty of nutritious foods and, if possible, eat only nutritious foods. And hence the nutrition concepts concepts such as paleo, primal, eat real food, GAPS, WAPF etc. are pretty awesome. Forget the different diets circling around the internet. Forget high fat low carb. Forget moderate protein. Forget macronutrient ratios. The concept of good nutrition is that quality of food is paramount. As long as one eats foods that are devoid of anti-nutrients and wholesome and unprocessed, it can be accepted that the said person is ‘eating right’.

So in as little words as possible, any good diet concept should preach the following.

  • Eat meat, whole eggs, vegetables, roots, tubers, fruits, unprocessed whole dairy and nuts.
  • Stay away from any and all potentially allergenic grains like wheat.
  • Stay away from any and all legumes, beans and lentils unless they are soaked/fermented.
  • Stay away from sugars.
  • Stay away from anything processed.

As you can see, the emphasis here is staying away from all foods that could potentially hurt you and eating only foods that are benign. And as it turns out, the foods that don’t hurt you are actually filled with plenty of nutrients and actually help you w.r.t health and longevity. Now getting into a little more detail, the following minutiae really matter.

  • Red meat is great but all red meat should be grass-fed/finished.
  • Poultry is healthy but all poultry should be free range.
  • Seafood is filled with nutrients but all seafood should be wild caught.
  • Whole eggs are more loaded than multi-vitamin tablets but all eggs should be organic and free range.
  • Vegetables and fruits are king but all vegetables and fruits should be organic.
  • Dairy, and especially dairy fat, is healthful but all dairy should be from grass-fed animals or should at least be organic.

What’s the problem really?

All these nutrition concepts – paleo, primal, eat real food, GAPS, WAPF – work and there is absolutely no surprise there. If you eat high quality food and stay away from any and all anti-nutrients that irritate your gut, there is no chance that you won’t get healthier.

But here’s the catch. These concepts only works under one condition – you have got to do it right!

Let me explain.

Health is a not short-term goal. Health is the cumulative result of many years of eating good food among other things like leading an active and stress-free lifestyle. So for any of these nutrition concepts to help with long term health (and hence longevity), one needs to ‘do it’ for many many days. In other words – the diet needs to be sustainable. So then, the question is…

Are these concepts sustainable?

If you live in the US or in any other developed country, you’d notice that most things are easy. This holds true for everything from cleaning the house to depositing cash to eating nutritious food. But if you live in India or in any other developing country, you’d realize that it is indeed hard to get things done. And eating right isn’t an exception.

As much as advocates of all these nutrition concepts (yours truly included) argue that their concept of eating is suitable for everyone, sustainable and more environmentally friendly than agriculture dependent feeding, I still haven’t found answers to the following questions.

  • If meat, seafood & eggs forms a considerable portion of one’s diet and if high quality meat (grass-fed, wild caught etc.) is a requirement, what about places where high quality meat is unheard of?
  • If dairy is healthful and necessary for healthy living (especially in the absence of meat), what happens if grass-fed cows don’t exist and the term organic milk is always associated with ‘what is that?’ or ‘now you owe me your car’? You could go raw, but what happens if raw milk is diluted with questionable water and if raw milk is indeed unhygienic?

If you’ve read even some of my articles, you’d know that I’m a big proponent of sustainability and I keep banging on the same point over and over again…

Is your super healthy diet and/or nutrition concept sustainable?

The answer to this question depends on many factors and two of the main factors are ‘availability’ and ‘affordability’. Sure, you may have discovered the world’s best diet, but can you ‘do it’ right? Are high quality foods available? If yes, are they reasonably affordable? If yes again, is this affordable availability sustainable?

And IMHO, if you don’t have answers to these questions, then you’re just buying into another fad! Why? Well, because what isn’t sustainable doesn’t last!

Coming to India:

As most of you know, I recently moved to India (a developing country) from the US (a developed country) and I cant guarantee that the fight to ‘eat right’ is harder here… much harder.

Allow me to elaborate.

Let’s say Rahul, a chubby 40+ metabolically deranged desk-job worker with a sedentary lifestyle and limited experience and enthusiasm towards health and fitness, has been advised by his doctor to ‘eat right’. So he decides to try one of the above stated nutrition concepts. All his meals contain mostly meat, eggs, vegetables and fruits. He consumes limited whole milk dairy and enjoys a cup or two of rice say every once or twice a week.

While Rahul read the right literature, took the best advice and is following the plan as closely as possible, he doesn’t realize a few things.

  • The commonly available meat (beef, lamb, chicken etc.) is in no way close to grass-fed or free range.
  • Most commercially available seafood is farmed.
  • All commonly available eggs are from factory farmed hens.
  • Whole milk available in regular supermarkets are made from milk solids.
  • Vegetables and fruits are loaded with pesticides.

Ummm… this is what I call – epic fail!

I’m sure many of you can relate to our imaginary Indian – Rahul. You’ve made up your mind, modified your pantry and even tweeted your resolution! But are you doing it right? If yes, care to share? If not, what are you going to do about it?

Do I have answers to these questions? Have I modified my dietary recommendations? Are things really that bad or am I just orthorexic? We’ll find out in the next post.

Peace out.

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