On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

AGRICULTURE'S 'ENVIRONMENTAL DEFICIT' IS UNSUSTAINABLE

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am interested in your thoughts on pesticides and organic fruits and vegetables. What are the dangers of foods grown using pesticides, and what is your view of the benefits of the alternatives (such as buying organic)? -- N.T., San Diego

DEAR N.T.: Health experts consider the hazards from pesticides to be well behind other dangers in our food supply, such as bacterial contamination and naturally occurring toxins. However, pesticides still do pose a challenge. One alternative is organic agriculture, where foods are raised without synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Another, called integrated pest management (IPM), limits the use of synthetic chemicals whenever possible, although they remain a part of the farmer's arsenal to be called upon when needed.

Farmers' markets can be a great source for organically grown fruits and vegetables or those produced on farms that practice IPM. There are an increasing number of supermarkets that offer these foods as well.

The discussion of organic vs. conventional agriculture needs to go beyond the safety of the foods we eat. Such concerns must also include the risk to workers who manufacture, transport and apply these powerful chemicals, and to our environment. All this helps to explain why, despite assurances, survey after survey reveals that American consumers continue to be wary of pesticides.

We are the best-fed country in the world, but this status comes with a tremendous price tag in natural and human resources. Billions of pounds of commercial fertilizers are used annually, and the use of pesticides made from petroleum to control weeds, insects, diseases and other pests helps explain why farming uses up more oil than any other single industry.

America's preoccupation with perfect-looking produce is a factor behind the continued demand for pesticides. A 1998 report out of the National Academy of Sciences titled "Alternative Agriculture" detailed how the food industry encourages the use of pesticides solely to maintain high cosmetic standards. A survey conducted on citrus fruits by Public Voice and another by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that, in some cases, over half the pesticides used are for purely cosmetic reasons, such as to prevent minor external blemishes that had nothing to do with the taste or wholesomeness of the fruit.

To eat, or not to eat, should never be the question. No one wants to impair our ability to feed the nation. The focus should be on the direction agriculture should be heading. We all need to balance human needs with costs and environmental consequences. Agriculture cannot continue to operate using environmental "deficit spending." Today's output should not mean a loss of tomorrow's resources. There needs to be a course that guides our agricultural environment back to health without impairing our current capabilities. Ideally it would be a balanced, sustainable system that gives back as it takes.

Information is power, so I encourage additional reading. The EPA has a page on pesticides at epa.gov/safepestcontrol. I also encourage you to check out the FAQs at the nonprofit Organic Farming Research Foundation: ofrf.org/organic-faqs.

Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.