Organic Farming Can Enhance Food Safety
Source: Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist, Organic Center, (208) 263-5236; Lisa Bell, Crescendo Communications, (303) 527-0203
FOSTER, R.I. (September 22, 2005) — The Organic Center released today a report that shows organic farming practices can lessen the risk of dangerous mycotoxin contamination in foods, especially grain-based products. The report, Breaking the Mold—Impacts of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems on Mycotoxins in Food and Livestock Feed, analyzes scientific studies and literature comparing the incidence of mycotoxin contamination in organic vs. conventional foods. An executive summary and the full report can be found at: http://www.organic-center.org/science.htm?articleid=59.
“Our analysis found that conventional samples of food contained mycotoxins about 50 percent more frequently than the organic samples in a set of comparison studies, at average levels a little over twice as high,” says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., study author and Chief Scientist of The Organic Center. “While mycotoxins can be a problem in both conventional and organic farming systems, the data gives us new insight and hope that organic farming methods can work to enhance margins of food safety.”
Some individuals and organizations critical of organic farming claim that organic food and animal feed are more frequently and heavily contaminated with mycotoxins than conventional food and feed. Those making such arguments typically highlight a few isolated instances where mycotoxins were detected in organic or “naturally” grown food at levels higher than in other foods. They explain the differences by pointing out that organic farmers are not allowed to apply synthetic fungicides.
However, The Center’s report finds that, in fact, organic agricultural practices often reduce the prevalence of serious fungal infections, and hence mycotoxin risks in the food supply, by promoting diversity in the microorganisms colonizing plant tissues and living in the soil and by reducing the supply of nitrogen that is readily available to support plant—and pathogen—growth. The report points out that conventional farming systems increase the risk of fungal infections through a lack of diversity and reliance on monocultures and because of heavy use of fertilizers that deliver plant nutrients in a readily available form.
The report concludes that the advantages of organic farming practices equal if not exceed any disadvantages in terms of mycotoxin prevention on well-managed organic farms. The evidence is strong that organic production of small grains, especially wheat, can reduce the frequency and severity of mycotoxin contamination compared to conventional farms, even including conventional wheat farms treated with fungicides.
Fungi serve as decomposers in agricultural systems, releasing the nutrients stored within organic matter and helping life forms continue to grow and sustain the next generation. Most fungi pose little or no risk to humans, but there are more than 300 species of fungi with the ability to produce potentially dangerous mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by fungi in response to certain environmental conditions, and when present in the food supply can pose mild to severe human health risks.
Mycotoxins in the food supply are most commonly found in grains and grain-based products (such as whole wheat breads, and cornmeal), as well as in nuts, spices, milk and apple juice. The moisture level of grain when it is harvested is a critical variable controlling fungal growths; and wet conditions, followed by hot and dry periods, can stimulate mycotoxin production.
Mycotoxins cost U.S. agriculture between $630 million and $2.5 billion annually, largely because of market rejection of grain that contains mycotoxins at levels above government or company standards.
The Center’s report urges more systematic testing of mycotoxins across the entire U.S. food system. Testing standards and mycotoxin limits in the United States are well below those of the European Union, and no U.S. government agency routinely tests food for mycotoxins. Public funding invested in the development and promotion of genetically-engineered foods has grown dramatically over the last decade, while support for food safety research has grown modestly, if at all.
The Center encourages the organic industry to take the lead in strengthening those testing standards, suggesting that samples of organic and conventional milk, apple juice, corn meals, and whole wheat bread purchased in retail markets around the country should be tested regularly for common mycotoxins.
“The organic community should not wait for others to take on the challenges inherent in understanding more fully where and how mycotoxins enter the food supply,” says Benbrook. “More systematic and routine monitoring is an essential first step.”
About The Organic Center
The Organic Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2002. The Center’s mission is to generate credible, peer-reviewed scientific information and communicate the verifiable benefits of organic farming and products to society. By doing so, it promotes the conversion of more farmland to organic methods, finds ways to improve public health and works to restore our natural world by promoting greater awareness for organic products. For more information about how The Organic Center can be a resource for you, go to http://www.organic-center.org/media.htm?pressreleaseid=45 or visit the Center’s Web site at www.organic-center.org.