As you all know, in the last few years I’ve become The Organic Gypsy. Often I get asked during workshops, presentations, and even while operating on the street, “Why Organic?” This is a very complicated issue and not easy to answer, especially in one blog post. Many factors influence this answer including farming practices, proximity of the farm to your table, and the actual product itself. To break things down a bit, I’d like to start with one of the most important things to purchase organically: dairy products, including milk. To assist in this explanation, one of my favorite TED Talk’s is by Robyn O’Brein, who calls herself a “Real Food” evangelist. Robyn authored “The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It.” A former Wall Street food industry analyst, Robyn brings insight, compassion and detailed analysis to her research into the impact that the global food system is having on the health of our children.
Many of us assume that what food is on the shelf is safe. With limited budgets, limited time, and picky eaters (especially children) it can be difficult to feed ourselves and each other. Milk is one of the top eight food allergens amongst children. According to the Center for Disease Control, from 1997-2002 there had been a doubling of the peanut allergy. At that point, one out of seventeen kids under the age of three had a food allergy. There had been a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions from doctors checking kids into the ER. You might be asking how a child can be allergic to food? If you are from an older generation, you can add to this conversation that children you grew up with weren’t allergic to food like they are now. It is time to start digging into data to understand why these changes are occurring here in the United States. If you are wondering what a food allergy is: A food allergy is when your body sees food proteins as foreign. It launches an inflammatory response to drive out the foreign invader. Is there something foreign in our food that wasn’t there when we were kids that is creating these type of reactions within children these days?
When trying to figure this out, the U.S. department of Agriculture can be a good place to start. Beginning in the 1990’s, new proteins were engineered into our food supply via the dairy industry. It was done to maximize profitability for the food industry though increased production (also increasing efficiency). From a business perspective, this makes sense. At the same time, no human trials were conducted to see if they were safe. According to the Wall Street Journal and CNN, the most common food allergy in the United States is milk. In 1994, in order to drive profitability for the dairy industry, scientists created a genetically engineered protein and synthetic growth hormone and injected it into cows to help them generate more milk. Again from a business perspective this makes perfect sense: increase profits by increasing production, done by increasing inputs. At the same time, it was making the animals sick: it was causing lameness, ovarian cysts, skin disorders, and mastitis. These series of complications increased the antibiotic use amongst these animals.
Governments around the world decided to exercise precaution and did not want to let this into their dairy and milk supply because it hadn’t been proven safe. The U.S. took a different approach: it hasn’t been proven dangerous, so we will allow it. Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all 27 countries in Europe didn’t allow it when it was introduced to the United States in 1994. One of the concerns amongst this new growth hormone, this synthetic protein, is that it elevated hormone levels linked with breast, prostate, and colon cancer. You might wonder how this decision affects the health of the people in our country. According to organizations such as The American Cancer Society and the Livestrong Foundation, the U.S. has the highest rates of cancer of any country on the planet. According to the ACS’s studies on immigration, if you moved to the U.S. from another country (such as Japan or Canada, a country that has banned these synthetic proteins), your chances of getting cancer increases four-fold. One out of every two American men and one out of three American women will develop cancer in their lifetime. Currently, one out of eight women has breast cancer in this country. Only one out of ten of those breast cancers are genetic. Which means nine out of ten are environmentally triggered.
Shortly after milk was engineered with this new protein, scientists started to engineer soy. Soy is also one of the top eight allergens. Scientists were able to engineer the soy bean to withstand large amounts of weed killer. The business side makes sense: engineer a seed so you can sell more weed killer. You’ve engineered something unique so it can be patented and you can sell it. Plus, you can also gain profit from selling this special weed killer. In 1996, the U.S. again let genetically engineered soy into the production of agriculture in this country, while numerous governments around the world used precaution and wouldn’t allow it (because it hasn’t been proven safe). Most of the soy that is engineered isn the United States is fed to cattle to fatten them (which in turn makes them sick because they have special ruminants in their stomach that are specially designed to eat grass, but more on that another day).
Another product that was engineered was corn, which is also a common allergy. In the late 1990’s as the concerns started to grow about spraying insecticides over corn plants, scientists developed a corn seed with the insecticide inside the DNA of the seed. As the corn grows, it is able to release its own insecticide as the plant grows. As a result, corn was regulated by the EPA as an insecticide.
In the United States, we had introduced a term called “substantial equivalents,” a conceptual tool used by the tobacco industry to facilitate the approval process for something when no human trials had been conducted. This was the justification for why we introduced these synthetic and engineered things into the United States food supply.
You might be wondering what the organic label has to do about this. Although there are many benefits to using organic products, organic dairy (and meat) products have no use of synthetic growth or breeding hormones, organic regulations forbid the use of genetically engineered seeds or animals (including clones), and don’t use antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics in farm animals leads to the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections. Organic farmers instead rely on natural measures to promote and maintain animal health.