In 2019, a study by Healthy Babies Bright Future, an alliance of NGO’s and scientists, found that 95% of conventional baby foods in the US are contaminated with toxic heavy metals including lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium, which can impact the growth of babies brains, lower IQ, and increase the risk of cancer. It also found that the effects of these toxins are cumulative, and that even low-level exposure in early life was of significant concern.
It’s no coincidence that these poisons are routinely used to produce the chemical fertilizers that are used extensively in conventional farming, and when you add in the toxic pesticides used on these crops, we have a perfect storm which many experts around the world believe is the cause of rising cases of infertility, early puberty in children, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, ADHD, and autism.
A ground-breaking study published in 1993, “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children”, was the first to focus on the risk of toxic chemicals to this group – prior to this, environmental safety policies had focussed on the assessment of risk to the “average adult”.
The study found that infants and children have a heightened susceptibility to chemicals in the environment. Firstly, children have a greater exposure to toxins compared to adults because they drink and eat more than adults in relation to their body weight. In addition, children’s metabolic pathways and their ability to metabolize chemicals are immature and they lack the enzymes needed to break down and remove these poisons.
Thirdly, children’s early developmental processes are complex and easily disrupted. There are critical periods in early development when exposure to even tiny doses of toxic chemicals—levels that would have no adverse effect on an adult—can disrupt organ formation and cause lifelong functional impairments.
Finally, children have more time than adults to develop chronic diseases. Many diseases triggered by toxic chemicals, such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, are now understood to evolve through processes that take many years and that are kicked-off by exposures in infancy.
What happened to our food supply?
To understand how we have got to a situation where our food is making us sick, we need to understand just how much food production has changed in the last 100 years. Before the industrial revolution, which saw the massive migration of populations from villages to cities, farming was typically subsistence-based – a family or village produced enough food to feed their members. Food was farmed on a much smaller scale, crops were rotated, and a homestead would typically include a small number of livestock which produced manure that provided the nutrients the soil needed to grow food. Food waste was worked back into the soil, further improving its quality. Cow, sheep, and goat hooves churned up the soil and aerated it. Chickens scratched and turned the soil, fertilized it with their nitrogen-rich droppings, and kept weeds under control by eating the weed seeds. Soil was a complex living substance, filled with nutrients and organisms that not only sustained food growth, but protected these plants from pests and disease. The system was as Nature intended, and it was perfect.
In the mid-1800’s, as the industrial revolution was in full-swing, populations were moving to cities, new railroad systems were able to transport food long distances, and the system of food production was shifting to large-scale agriculture. Scientists had isolated which nutrients crops needed to grow – nitrogen, phosphates and potassium – and it slowly became more common to add these to crops. But this ignored the other elements the soil needed to stay healthy – an entire microbiome that worked synergistically, with earthworms aerating the soil, antibiotic-producing bacteria, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms that kept the PH level of the soil in balance and ideal for plant growth.
It was only after World War II that the large-scale use of chemical fertilizer began in earnest. Ammunitions factories that had made a killing (pun intended) during the war, were reluctant to give up their new-found wealth and re-branded themselves as chemical companies providing nitrogen (used in bombs and bullets) and other chemicals for fertilizers.
20 years later, companies that had been involved in making biochemical warfare agents like Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (which basically stripped all life from jungles so troops could move around easily, and gave “the enemy” less places to hide) now also jumped on the agriculture bandwagon in a big way in the 1960’s and 70’s. The world’s food production was now in the hands of chemical companies.
Monoculture crops, which are particularly susceptible to disease and pests because there is no biodiversity in the form of other plants and insects that might be beneficial to the ecosystem, now required large amounts of chemical fertilizers to ensure crop growth. In addition, because the soil and the environment no longer offers protection against these pests and disease, large amounts of chemical pesticides and fungicides must also be applied to these crops.
The use of chemical herbicides to control weeds was already widespread, because manual removal or tilling the soil was no longer viable in these massive industrial farms. These herbicides were developed to be selective, ie they were formulated to kill specific weeds without affecting surrounding plants. In order for weeds not to become resistant to specific herbicides, farmers needed to switch these products up. All of this changed in 1974, when Monsanto (one of the makers of Agent Orange mentioned above), introduced its new flagship product, Roundup – which promised to kill all weeds, and also promised that the amount of toxic herbicide farmers needed to use would be drastically reduced.
Use of Roundup exploded. It has become the most widely used, and most controversial, herbicide on the planet. An estimated 6.1 billion kilos of glyphosate-based weedkillers were sprayed across gardens and fields worldwide between 2005 and 2014.
Without going into the debate about the safety of Roundup, which has been raging in scientific communities for many years, suffice to say glyphosate, the active ingredient, was classified as “Probably Carcinogenic” in 2015 and lawsuits against Monsanto (and Bayer, who bought the company in 2016) are mounting, and being won.
The effect of glyphosate on the rest of the environment, for example through water run-off into rivers and its long-term effects on mammals and other living creatures, is also a topic for another day and one that is causing heated debate in scientific circles. We should not underestimate the power these massive companies wield in lobbying for their poisonous products and presenting scientific data in questionable ways which favour the outcomes they seek.
The age of Frankenstein Foods
Initially used in large-scale agriculture as an alternative to tilling soil to reduce weed growth in preparation for planting, in 1984 Monsanto revealed their next grand plan for Roundup – genetically modified seeds that were resistant to Roundup, which meant it could now be applied directly to crops of Roundup Ready soy, maize (corn), canola, sugar beets, cotton and alfalfa without killing them.
Farmers – desperate to increase their yields with soil quality failing, and convinced by the massive marketing machinery of Monsanto that these products were safe – were tied up in complicated legal contracts that meant they could no longer save seeds from previous harvests, they had to buy new modified seeds each year together with vast quantities of Roundup, and faced being sued if their crops cross-pollinated with non-GM fields on neighbouring farms. Use of Roundup during this time resulted in resistant superweeds that have overrun around 60 million acres of farmland in the US alone. Instead of reducing herbicide use as initially promised, it has resulted in vastly more chemicals added to food crops.
And Roundup is not just applied to modified Roundup Ready crops as they grow, but also to grain crops like wheat and oats, as well as beans and lentils, so they can be harvested more quickly. Essentially, the Roundup kills these plants, and desiccates (dries up) the grains and legumes in a more uniform and convenient way.
Genetically modified food moved more into the mainstream in the 1990’s, touted as the answer to feeding the world, and creating drought- and disease-resistant crops – wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, papayas are just some of the foods whose genes have been fiddled with, the success of which has been debatable.
There is no space here to talk about the ethical and environmental concerns around splicing genes from completely different species into seeds, how this could impact our health and the biodiversity on our planet in the long term, and unleashing them, untested into the world. But suffice to say that by this stage of the game, many concerned consumers were looking for an alternative.
The Organic revolution is born
While organic or natural methods of farming were popular with consumers until the 1970’s, when the very intensive and industrialised agricultural practices of the following decades emerged, their market became increasingly limited. Environmental awareness and consumer demand was rising, but while there was agreement on philosophical and ethical approaches, there were no standards or regulations to define organic produce. It wasn’t until 1990, when the Organic Foods Production Act was adopted in the US, and 2002, when mandatory certification requirements were introduced, that organic farming became formalised and organised. Today, organic food one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture.
To receive the Organic stamp of approval, farmers can of course not use the toxic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that permeate conventional farming. They must revert back to more labour-intensive ways of managing weeds, such as tilling the land, and can only use a limited number of approved, naturally-based products. They need to maintain their soil quality through crop rotation and working in organic compost.
Because organic farmers are not using synthetic chemicals to boost yields, their crops on average produce up to 20% less than conventional crops, and with no chemical pest management, their crops are more at risk of damage. They must also pay for annual Organic certification and regular inspections.
The factors above account for the higher price we pay for organic produce, but when this is considered against the long-term health impacts of consuming toxic, conventionally farmed food, as well as the long-term impact of conventional farming practises on our environment, it seems a small price to pay.
And the feeling of socking it to companies that have tried to hijack Mother Nature? Priceless.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With the current chemical-based system of food production, humans are exposed to increasing levels of toxic chemicals which accumulate in our systems throughout our lives. Early exposure – as infants and children – has been linked to the development of a range of cancers and neurological disorders. By limiting this exposure particularly in the vulnerable early years, through feeding infants and children organically produced food, parents can give their children the best possible chance for a healthy future.