By Liza Gross
The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal that Americans’ appetite for locally grown, organic food is growing. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it. Most polls show that the vast majority of Americans also support mandatory labels for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Nearly half of Americans think scientists have found risks associated with eating GM foods even though they haven’t, according to a recent survey by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “People don’t know very much about the science, and they don’t know that GMOs have been in the food supply for 20 years,” says William Hallman, who ran the survey. “They just know they don’t like it.”
Last month, after years of contentious debate, President Obama signed legislation requiring the first national GMO labeling standard. (Labeling advocates aren’t happy with the law because it lets companies choose whether to use a simple text label or a smartphone-accessible code to disclose GM ingredients.) But what’s lost in the debates over imaginary risks from GMOs is the real threat posed by the way our food is produced.
U.S. farmers apply more than a billion pounds of pesticides to conventionally grown crops every year. It’s no surprise that chemicals designed to kill living things that farmers consider pests can also harm us. There is mounting evidence that conventional agriculture’s reliance on pesticides places agricultural communities, and especially their children, at risk for serious health problems.
Last month, University of California, Berkeley researchers reported that seven-year-olds scored lower on cognitive tests if their mothers were pregnant when high applications of organophosphates and other pesticides were applied to crops near their homes. On average, these children had lower IQs. They also scored lower on verbal comprehension tests.
The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, adds to a growing body of research which indicates that people who live and work in agricultural communities face increased risk for asthma, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and other chronic conditions related to pesticide exposure. Their children are more likely to have birth defects, cognitive difficulties, childhood cancers, lower IQs, and other developmental problems.