Synthetic chemicals in food and health

The use of synthetic chemicals in the food and farming industries has been a growing concern since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring.

The organic food movement began in the early and mid-20th century in reaction to the growth of industrialized farming that uses synthetic chemicals for fertilizing and pest control. The movement began to grow in intensity in the 1970s.

“We were started by three pioneering organic farmers in 1976,” said Randii MacNear, the Davis Farmers Market manager.

Typically there are at least a half a dozen vendors at the Davis Farmers Market who are California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and are qualified to use both the CCOF and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program seals. The CCOF is a nonprofit, private certification organization that follows USDA organic standards. At least a third of the farm food vendors present on any given Wednesday evening or Saturday morning at Central Park in Davis have these seals.

Michelle Rossi, who shops at the Davis Farmers market and works for the Upper Crust Bakery Company, likes to develop her food purchasing relationships with local growers.

“Some growers don’t use chemicals, but can’t say it, because they don’t want to spend the money to become certified organic,” Rossi said. “You’ve got to ask people, so you can put a face on the label.”

“Why do we want to put toxins into the soil and food supply?” asks Jim Eldon of Fiddler’s Green Farm, another Davis Farmers Market vendor. “That they’re bad is really a no-brainer from the perspective of health and ecology.”

Views on the benefits of organic compared to industrialized, also called “conventional,” farming methods are often polarized with some exaggerated claims on both sides, said Johan Six, a professor of agroecology in the UC Davis plant sciences department. He is also affiliated with UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

“I strongly believe that there is a ‘golden mean’ between those two [polarized views] and that is where our agriculture needs to move to,” Six explained.

“Conventional agriculture and food depends heavily on agrochemicals that are not strongly regulated and that have been shown to have many negative health effects,” said Ryan Galt, who is an assistant professor of agricultural sustainability and society in the UC Davis department of human and community development. “Organic as a set of standards faces its own challenges and blind spots.”

“Organic does not necessarily mean safe, and vice versa, so even organic products need to be tested for health effects,” Galt said.

Sarah Hawkins, who graduated from UC Davis in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, owns Castle Rock Farm in Vacaville, California and sells goat’s milk at the Davis Farmers Market.

“People play the system, so the [certified organic] rules have to be written more and more specifically,” Hawkins said. If one of Hawkins’ goats gets sick and needs medicine, that goat then has to be placed in a different barn and cannot ever be used again for the organic milk that she sells.

“If you get pneumonia, are you going to stay away from the hospital?” Hawkins asked.

Clay Jenkinson, the author of Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century, makes the connection between the downside of conventional farming and our rising health care costs.

“We’re making the wrong choices and counting on the industrial [health care] paradigm to save us,” Jenkinson said. “This is clearly not a sustainable path. Health care is unaffordable. Costs are too high [and are] rationed for the privileged. We need to make the right [food] choices and use the industrial paradigm to help us with things we can’t control.”

BRIAN RILEY can be reached at