Do you remember when a postcard of US farmland was like a national symbol of abundance and health?
My mother remembers.
She used to stand at our kitchen window and breathe wistfully through her nose as if she could smell the scent of some far off place. She would rhapsodize about red barns in magazines and neat rows of corn, about rolling hills and the slow energies of Holsteins that could mow any landscape into a wavy blanket of green. She always felt there was a place waiting for her out there, a place of loamy joy, where she could be well, where she could be happy.
The dream made sense then. It was the old world.
Sixty years ago, all of US farmland was organic. Now, only 1% of US farmland is organic.
While my mother stood wistfully by the window, the farmland she dreamed of was quickly becoming a postcard from another time.
Today, most farmland is brave and new: it is automated and angular, propelled by chemicals that can burn the hairs right out of your nose if you’re not careful--not exactly a place where you can breathe wistfully.
The green revolution made some huge promises. It would feed the world. It would be cheap. It assumed we would have the best of everything because everything it promised hinged on a single shiny idea, an idea so bright it could not be inspected: the idea of better living through chemistry.
From Green to Unclean
But better living through chemistry isn’t always easy. You pay the price of the myth.
And some people pay the price more than others, especially little people.
A new study using advanced brain imaging shows how prenatal pesticide exposure from modern farming is changing the brains of our children.
Over 800 million pounds of pesticides are applied to US crops each year. Among them, organophosphates lead the pack.
Organophosphates attack the nervous system in the same way as nerve agents like sarin. Yet this straightforward fact has not seemed to dampen the enthusiasm for organophosphate use.
For most of us, the route of exposure to organophosphates is through our food via the chemical residues on fruits and vegetables.
But for people who live close to agricultural land or who live with agricultural workers, the exposure is manifold. These people can be exposed to large doses of organophosphates via clothing or via the air that moves freely from nearby fields into their homes. This is where prenatal exposure becomes especially toxic.
We’ve known for a long time that prenatal exposure to organophosphates is linked to poorer cognition and behavior problems in children. But up to now, little has been known about exactly where in the brain the damage is done.
In this study, researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for our ability to set and achieve goals.
You need a healthy prefrontal cortex to:
- Focus your attention
- Predict the consequences of your actions
- Control your impulses and manage your emotions
- Plan for the future
- Prioritize, sequence, and adjust your behavior (“I can’t do A until B happens”)
So what did the researchers find? (I can feel you cringing already.)
The researchers examined the brains of 95 kids living in California’s Salinas Valley. They found that a 10-fold increase in organophosphate use within 1 km of where their mothers lived during pregnancy led to a decrease in brain activation on both sides of the prefrontal cortex during a cognitive flexibility task.
These results suggest that organophosphate exposure in utero could underlie cognitive and behavioral changes in the brains of adolescents, teens, and beyond. These changes include attention problems, autistic traits, and poor cognitive development.
You were right to cringe.
Whether the use of organophosphates turns out to be a sin of biblical proportions, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation,” remains to be seen. But clearly, it appears to be affecting the first generation. For most people, that’s enough to create a broad yearning for something better.
Certainly it’s enough for me.
From Postcard to Reality?
My mother finally got her farm.
In her late 60s, she and my father bought 40 acres of rolling pastureland at the foot of a snowcapped mountain where they now bring forth miracles of beauty and abundance every day.
Yet in spite of their love for pristine natural environments, it’s been a challenge to be anything like organic in their neck of the woods. Because not far away lies a Monsanto testing facility. Cross-contamination is inevitable.
Just like the mothers in the study who could not escape the pesticides borne on the wind and so could not protect their unborn children, so individual farmers are unable to protect their crops from polluting neighbors. Nobody owns the air, yet everyone is affected by the air. It’s a tragedy of the commons. And it's tragically common.
Recovering What Was Lost
The good news is, consumers like you and me have a lot of leverage here. We can actually start reducing the amount of pollution and brain damage in the world by buying more organically-grown fruits and vegetables and by shopping at farmer’s markets where the products of regenerative agriculture are available. We can expand the market for these products. We can stop rewarding wealthy execs at Monsanto and shareholders on Wall Street for filling the world with sarin-like poisons--we can stop buying their stuff.
As for political solutions, I am less sanguine.
I doubt any senator is going to do this for us; there doesn't seem to be much political will to change the practices of Big Ag among politicians--left, right, or center. They talk about healthcare reform which is great, but they seldom talk about why Americans are so sick in the first place. Change, in this case, is more likely to come from the bottom up than from the top down. It's more likely to come from consumers like you and me who change the market by changing our demand for clean food.
It's already happening. In 1997, organic food sales were a paltry $3.4 billion. But by 2017, organic food sales in the United States had shot up to $45.2 billion. That's encouraging. Yet we still have a long way to go: $45.2 billion is only 5.5% of the total amount Americans spend on food each year! So we might ask ourselves: what are we still spending 94.5% of our food dollars on and what are we getting for that money?
I know it’s difficult to go 100% organic overnight. So you might try starting with just The Dirty Dozen: the twelve most polluted products on the market in 2019.
- Hot Peppers
That's 13, I know. I threw in a bonus.
If you can buy these foods organic, you will maximize the positive effect you have not only on your own health but also on the health of people who live, work, and procreate near where these crops are grown.
Here it is on a bumper sticker:
Save a child’s brain. Go organic. The child you save could be your own.
It’s time to go from postcard to reality. For reals. Don't you think?
...Your Friendly Guide to Human Flourishing
P.S. The Dirty Dozen list changes from year to year as pesticide use fluctuates. Stay up-to-date with Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide
- The Tangled Web We Weave: When Certainty Trumps Curiosity and Science Fails.
- The Making of the Modern Diet: Prepackaged, Prefabricated, and Practically Pre-Chewed.
- What Do We Feed 9 Billion People: The Case for a Greener Revolution.
- Doctors for a Better Food System: Politicians Want to Be Pushed; They Don't Want to Lead.
- How I Learned the Deep Magic of Real Food: Why Nutrition Isn't about "Diets". It's about the Interactions between Living Organisms and Their Food.
- Sagiv, Sharon K., et al. "Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and functional neuroimaging in adolescents living in proximity to pesticide application." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019): 201903940.
- Furlong, Melissa A., et al. "Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and reciprocal social behavior in childhood." Environment International 70 (2014): 125-131.
- Exodus 20:5, ESV.
- Sales Growth of Organic Foods. https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/11853-sales-growth-of-organic-foods-slips-to-64-in-2017