Organic - If They Only Knew or Understood!


By Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen

Consumers of organic foods are getting both more and less than they bargained for. On both counts, it’s not good.

Many people who pay the huge premium—often more than a hundred percent–for organic foods do so because they’re afraid of pesticides. If that’s their rationale, they misunderstand the nuances of organic agriculture. Although it’s true that synthetic chemical pesticides are generally prohibited, there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act, while most “natural” ones are permitted. However, “organic” pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – JUNE 13: A label stating ‘Produce of USA’ is wrapped around a bunch of organic carrots at a farmers market on June 13, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Another poorly recognized aspect of this issue is that the vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume are in our diets “naturally” and are present in organic foods as well as non-organic ones. In a classic study, UC Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” Moreover, “natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests.” Thus, consumers who buy organic to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on just one-hundredth of one percent of the pesticides they consume.

Some consumers think that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) requires certified organic products to be free of ingredients from “GMOs,” organisms crafted with molecular techniques of genetic engineering. Wrong again. USDA does not require organic products to be GMO-free. (In any case, the methods used to create so-called GMOs are an extension, or refinement, of older techniques for genetic modification that have been used for a century or more.) As USDA officials have said repeatedly:

Organic certification is process-based. That is, certifying agents attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices which meet the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the [National Organic Program] regulations . . . If all aspects of the organic production or handling process were followed correctly, then the presence of detectable residue from a genetically modified organism alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation. [emphasis added]

Putting it another way, so long as an organic farmer abides by his organic system (production) plan–a plan that an organic certifying agent must approve before granting the farmer organic status–the unintentional presence of GMOs (or, for that matter, prohibited synthetic pesticides) in any amount does not affect the organic status of the farmer’s products or farm.

Under only two circumstances does USDA sanction the testing of organic products for prohibited residues (such as pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or antibiotics) or excluded substances (e.g., genetically engineered organisms). First, USDA’s National Organic Production Standards support the testing of products if an organic-certifying agent believes that the farmer is intentionally using prohibited substances or practices. And second, USDA requires that certifying agents test five percent of their certified operations each year. The certifying agents themselves determine which operations will be subjected to testing.

Deleted - irrelevant to this discussion.

David I wonder if you will find this interesting. It is an epidemiological study comparing the overall health histories of thousands of licensed farm pesticide applicators to those of the the overall U. S population. In spite of huge exposure to all kinds of agricultural pesticides these people as a group have less cancer. are over all healthier and live longer than the general public.

Such a study does not prove anything, but it is terribly suggestive that the comparatively tiny amounts of synthetic pesticide residue in conventionally grown food is not an important health issue. There are, of course, other reasons to buy and grow organic food but it is the health issue that is most often touted by the media and that issue is utter BS in my opinion.

If you don’t trust the U.S. gov to do an accurate analysis of data, the Canadian gov did a similar study with similar results.

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Annals of Epidemiology
Volume 15, Issue 4 , Pages 279-285, April 2005
Mortality among Participants in the Agricultural Health Study

Aaron Blair, PhDemail address, Dale P. Sandler, PhD, Robert Tarone, PhD, Jay Lubin, PhD, Kent Thomas, BSPH, Jane A. Hoppin, ScD, Claudine Samanic, MSPH, Joseph Coble, ScD, Freya Kamel, PhD, Charles Knott, MPA, Mustafa Dosemeci, PhD, Shelia Hoar Zahm, ScD, Charles F. Lynch, MD, PhD, Nathaniel Rothman, MD, Michael C.R. Alavanja, DrPH

From the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, NIH, DHHS, Bethesda, MD (A.B., R.T., J.L., C.S., J.C., M.D., S.H.Z., N.R., M.C.R.A.); Epidemiology Branch, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH, DHHS, Research Triangle Park, NC (D.P.S., J.A.H., F.K.); US Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, NC (K.T.); Battelle, Durham, NC (C.K.); and Department of Epidemiology, University of Iowa College of Public Health, Iowa City, IA (C.F.L.)

Received 20 February 2004; accepted 18 August 2004. published online 02 November 2004.

Full Text

Article Outline



This analysis of the Agricultural Health Study cohort assesses the mortality experience of licensed pesticide applicators and their spouses.

This report is based on 52,393 private applicators (who are mostly farmers) and 32,345 spouses of farmers in Iowa and North Carolina. At enrollment, each pesticide applicator completed a 21-page enrollment questionnaire. Mortality assessment from enrollment (1994–1997) through 2000 provided an average follow-up of about 5.3 years, 447,154 person-years, and 2055 deaths.

Compared with the general population in the two states, the cohort experienced a very low mortality rate. Standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) for total mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, COPD, total cancer, and cancers of the esophagus, stomach, and lung were 0.6 or lower for both farmers and spouses. These deficits varied little by farm size, type of crops or livestock on the farm, years of handling pesticides, holding a non-farm job, or length of follow up. SMRs among ever smokers were not as low as among never smokers, but were still less than 1.0 for all smoking-related causes of death. No statistically significant excesses occurred, but slightly elevated SMRs, or those near 1.0, were noted for diseases that have been associated with farming in previous studies.

Several factors may contribute to the low mortality observed in this population, including the healthy worker effect typically seen in cohorts of working populations (which may decline in future years), a short follow-up interval, and a healthier lifestyle manifested through lower cigarette use and an occupation that has traditionally required high levels of physical activity.

Key words: Farmers, Mortality, Pesticides, Agriculture, Cancer

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A number of studies and reviews have documented a unique pattern of mortality among farmers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Compared with the general population, farmers appear to have a remarkable deficit in total mortality, total cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, and a number of other major causes of death. Excess mortality has been reported for accidents (7), for non-malignant respiratory conditions (8), and for a few cancers (lip, stomach, skin, eye, prostate, brain, soft-tissue sarcoma and leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma) by some 2, 3, 6, but not others 5, 9.

Although certain lifestyle factors undoubtedly contribute to some of these mortality deficits and excesses, they may not provide a full explanation. The favorable total mortality and mortality for tobacco-related diseases is heavily influenced by lower smoking rates among farmers. Farmers, however, may have contact with a number of potentially hazardous substances (10). High rates of non-malignant respiratory diseases may be due to contact with dusts, chemicals, and engine exhausts 8, 11. Excesses for certain cancers could be due to sunlight, pesticides, other chemicals, and microbes 3, 10. Fatal accidents are associated with use of machinery and working with large animals 7, 12. Because of this mixture of positive and negative risk factors, farmers and their families offer a population that may provide unique insights into disease causation and prevention. Most previous investigations, however, have used data collected for administrative rather than epidemiologic purposes, that is, death certificates, census records, tumor registries, and may have included non-farmers. Few were based on populations of farmers specifically assembled for epidemiologic investigation (13).

To more fully explain cancer and other disease patterns in agricultural populations and to identify lifestyle, occupational, and environmental factors associated with various health outcomes, we assembled a cohort of private and commercial pesticide applicators and spouses of private applicators in Iowa and North Carolina (14) with detailed information on lifestyle, medical, and agricultural exposures. Although we have already published on the cancer incidence of this cohort (15), this article on mortality provides an evaluation of death from cancer and non-malignant diseases.

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The Agricultural Health Study ( is a prospective study of agricultural populations in Iowa and North Carolina (14). It is composed of 57,309 licensed pesticide applicators, including 52,393 private applicators (who are almost entirely farmers), and 4916 commercial applicators from Iowa only (not included in these analyses), and 32,345 spouses of private applicators for a total of 89,654 individuals (Table 1). The applicators are mostly men (97%) and the spouses mostly women (99%). The study protocol was approved by the Human Subject’s Review Boards of each collaborating agency and informed consent was obtained from study participants prior to data collection.
Table 1. Persons and person-years of follow up through 2000 by enrollment category and gender for private applicators and their spouses
Category Gender Number of persons Average age at entry Person-years Average years of follow-up Average age at death Number of deaths
Private applicators Male 51,034 47.6 282,407 5.5 65.9 1529
Female 1359 48.2 7680 5.6 65.2 29
Spouses Male 219 50.8 1211 5.5 65.4 15
Female 32,126 47.4 155,855 4.8 64.3 482
Total 84,738 47.5 447,154 5.3 64.5 2055

All applicators were eligible. Enrollment of applicators took place at county licensing facilities when each pesticide applicator was asked to complete a 21-page, enrollment questionnaire. Over 80% of the applicators completed the enrollment questionnaire. Participating applicators were given a second questionnaire covering aspects of lifestyle, pesticide application, and other agricultural activities to complete at home. Private applicators were also given a Spouse Questionnaire, used to enroll the spouse, and a Female and Family Health Questionnaire to be completed by the spouse or the occasional female applicator. Recruitment started in December 1994 and was completed in December 1997.

The applicator enrollment questionnaire sought information on crops, livestock, pesticides, pesticide application methods, use of personal protective equipment, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, fruit and vegetable intake, medical conditions, diseases among first-degree relatives, and basic demographic information. Applicator take-home questionnaires sought more detailed information on some pesticides, personal protective equipment use, various agricultural practices and tasks, diet, cooking practices, non-pesticide agricultural exposures, and jobs held off the farm. Take-home questionnaires completed by the spouses covered basic demographic and lifestyle information and included questions on pesticide use, occupations outside the home, alcohol and tobacco use, leisure-time physical activity, drinking water source, pesticide use in the home, dietary and cooking practices, and medical history. The Female and Family Health Questionnaire covered reproductive history, and some information about their children. Methodologic studies have found the reliability of reporting on lifestyle and exposure factors to be quite good 16, 17, 18.

Deaths among cohort members were identified through the National Death Index (NDI) and state mortality databases for Iowa and North Carolina from time of enrollment through 2000. Underlying causes of death, provided by the NDI, were coded according to the International Classification of Diseases rules in effect at the time of death and assigned rubrics according to the 9th revision. Less than 1% of the cohort has been lost to mortality follow up.

Standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) were calculated to compare deaths among private applicators and spouses with mortality patterns in the general population in each state. SMRs were calculated for major causes of death and selected cancers, including those previously associated with farming. Causes with less than three deaths are not presented, unless they represent diseases of special importance to farming. Commercial applicators are not included in these analyses because of the small size of this sub-cohort, the relative short follow-up period, and the younger age of this group. Expected numbers of deaths for the SMRs were developed from 5-year age and calendar-time, race, and gender-specific mortality rates for the Iowa and North Carolina populations from 1990 through 1999. Mortality rates for 2000 for Iowa and North Carolina were not available and those for 1999 were assumed to apply. Statistical significance of the SMRs was based on exact Poisson 95% confidence intervals according to Breslow and Day (19). Person-year accumulation began on date of enrollment into the cohort (date of completion of the enrollment questionnaire) and ended on the closing date of this follow-up (December 31, 2000), if alive, or date of death, if deceased.

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The average age at entry was about 48 years. The average follow-up time was 5.3 years for this analysis (Table 1) with 447,154 person-years accumulated and 2055 deaths.

The private applicators and their spouses have mortality rates for most causes that were significantly lower than the general populations in Iowa and North Carolina (Table 2). The SMR for all-cause mortality was 0.5. Statistically significant deficits were observed for all causes, all cancers combined, and many individual causes of death including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, COPD, nephritis, suicide, and cancers of the buccal cavity and pharynx, esophagus, pancreas, lung, prostate, and bladder. No statistically significant excesses occurred. Causes of death with SMRs greater than 1.0 (and with at least three deaths) included Hodgkin’s disease, and cancers of the gallbladder, eye, and thyroid. Mortality patterns were largely similar for applicators and spouses, but spouses had slight excesses of NHL, leukemia, and cancers of the stomach, colon, liver, soft tissue, and brain. Applicators had nonsignificant excesses for Hodgkin’s disease, and cancers of the thyroid and female genital organs that did not occur among spouses.
Table 2. Mortality in the AHS cohort through 2000 for selected causes of death by enrollment category (expected based on general population mortality rates in Iowa and North Carolina)
Private applicators Spouses Total
Cause of death Deaths SMR (95 % CI) Deaths SMR (95% CI) Deaths SMR (95% CI)
All causes 1558 0.5 (0.4–0.5) 497 0.6 (0.5–0.6) 2,055 0.5 (0.5–0.5)
All cancers 514 0.6 (0.5–0.6) 239 0.7 (0.6–0.8) 753 0.6 (0.6–0.7)
Buccal cavity and pharynx 5 0.3 (0.1–0.7) 0 0 (0–25.4) 5 0.3 (0.1–0.6)
Digestive system 145 0.7 (0.6–0.8) 56 0.9 (0.7–1.2) 201 0.7 (0.6–0.8)
Esophagus 16 0.5 (0.3–0.9) 1 0.3 (0.1–1.9) 17 0.5 (0.3–0.8)
Stomach 10 0.5 (0.2–1.0) 4 1.1 (0.3–2.8) 14 0.6 (0.3–1.0)
Colon 56 0.7 (0.6–1.0) 31 1.2 (0.8–1.6) 87 0.8 (0.7–1.0)
Liver 8 0.6 (0.2–1.1) 4 1.7 (0.4–4.3) 12 0.7 (0.4–1.3)
Gallbladder 3 2.0 (0.4–5.7) 2 1.3 (0.1–4.6) 5 1.6 (0.5–3.8)
Pancreas 29 0.6 (0.4–0.9) 10 0.7 (0.3–1.2) 39 0.7 (0.5–0.9)
Lung 129 0.4 (0.3–0.4) 29 0.3 (0.2–0.5) 158 0.4 (0.3–0.4)
Soft tissue 4 0.7 (0.2–1.8) 3 1.4 (0.3–4.1) 7 0.9 (0.4–1.8)
Melanoma 13 0.7 (0.4–1.3) 2 0.4 (0.1–1.6) 15 0.7 (0.4–1.1)
Breast 3 0.9 (0.2–2.7) 54 0.9 (0.7–1.1) 57 0.9 (0.7–1.2)
Female genital 4 2.1 (0.6–5.5) 25 0.7 (0.5–1.1) 29 0.8 (0.5–1.2)
Ovary 4 3.9 (1.1–10.1) 13 0.7 (0.4–1.2) 17 0.9 (0.5–1.4)
Prostate 48 0.7 (0.5–0.8) 0 0 (0–1.6) 48 0.7 (0.5–0.9)
Bladder 7 0.4 (0.1–0.7) 2 0.8 (0.1–2.7) 9 0.4 (0.2–0.8)
Eye 2 2.1 (0.2–7.6) 1 3.7 (0.1–20) 3 2.5 (0.5–7.2)
Brain 19 0.7 (0.4–1.1) 11 1.1 (0.5–1.8) 30 0.8 (0.5–1.1)
Thyroid 3 1.8 (0.4–5.3) 0 0 (0–2.2) 3 1.3 (0.2–3.7)
NHL 33 0.9 (0.6–1.2) 16 1.2 (0.7–2.0) 49 1.0 (0.7–1.3)
Hodgkin’s disease 3 1.7 (0.3–4.8) 0 0 (0–2.5) 3 1.1 (0.2–3.3)
Myeloma 11 0.6 (0.3–1.2) 5 0.9 (0.3–2.1) 16 0.7 (0.4–1.2)
Leukemia 27 0.8 (0.5–1.1) 14 1.4 (0.8–2.4) 41 0.9 (0.6–1.2)
Diabetes 26 0.3 (0.2–0.5) 18 0.6 (0.4–1.0) 44 0.4 (0.3–0.6)
Cardiovascular disease 537 0.5 (0.5–0.6) 82 0.4 (0.3–0.5) 619 0.5 (0.5–0.6)
COPD 35 0.2 (0.1–0.3) 15 0.3 (0.2–0.7) 50 0.2 (0.2–0.3)
Nephritis 9 0.4 (0.2–0.7) 6 0.9 (0.3–2.0) 15 0.5 (0.3–0.8)
Motor vehicle accidents 56 0.8 (0.2–1.0) 14 0.8 (0.4–1.3) 70 0.8 (0.6–1.0)
Non-motor vehicle accidents 74 1.0 (0.8–1.2) 8 0.6 (0.3–1.2) 82 0.9 (0.7–1.1)
Suicide 46 0.6 (0.5–0.9) 7 0.7 (0.3–1.5) 53 0.6 (0.5–0.8)

SMRs adjusted for calendar year of death, age, state, race, and gender.

SMRs for applicators were based primarily on mortality among men and for spouses primarily among women. There were only 29 deaths among female applicators and they resulted in SMRs of 0.5 (95% CI, 0.3–0.7) for all causes, 0.7 (95% CI, 0.4–1.2 based on 12 deaths) for all cancer, 3.9 (95% CI, 1.1–10.1, based on four deaths) for ovarian cancer, 2.8 (95% CI, 0.3–10.1 based on two deaths) for NHL, and 2.2 (95% CI, 0.2–7.8, based on two deaths) for non-motor vehicle accidents. Male spouses experienced 15 deaths and resulted in SMRs of 0.9 (95% CI, 0.5–1.5 based on 15 deaths) for all causes, 1.0 (95% CI, 0.3–2.4 based on five deaths) for all cancers, and 1.6 (95% CI, 0.3–4.7 based on three deaths) for lung cancer.

The mortality for most causes of death was quite similar in the two states with large deficits for all causes, all cancers, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease (data not shown).

Table 3 displays SMRs for selected causes of death among private applicators stratified by presence of livestock or corn on the farm, farm size, and duration of handling pesticides. There were no obvious mortality differences across these strata, although the numbers of events were small for many categories. Table 4 shows SMRs for selected causes of death by cigarette use, strenuous non-occupational summer exercise, off-farm employment, and follow-up period.The lower SMRs among never smokers than ever smokers for many causes of death were to be expected. For example, all-cause and all-cancer SMRs were less than one for both nonsmokers and ever smokers, but the deficits are considerably larger among nonsmokers. Individuals who reported they engaged in strenuous leisure-time exercise for more than 1 hour per week had lower SMRs for all causes combined, cancers of the colon, breast, prostate, and brain, and cardiovascular disease than those who exercised for less than 1 hour per week. Holding a non-farm job did not appear to impact the mortality from any disease. The SMRs for the first 2 years of follow-up and most recent 2 years were similar for most causes, although there might be a slight increase in the recent period.
Table 3. Mortality among private applicators in the AHS cohort through 2000 by type of farm and exposure (expected based on general population rates in Iowa and North Carolina)
Grew corn Had animals (Other than poultry) Farm size (Acres) Years handled pesticides
No Yes No Yes <200 ≥200 ≤10 11+
Cause of death Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR
All causes 669 0.6∗ 889 0.4∗ 946 0.6∗ 612 0.4∗ 610 0.5∗ 541 0.4∗ 313 0.5∗ 1010 0.5∗
All cancers 220 0.7∗ 294 0.5∗ 308 0.6∗ 206 0.5∗ 203 0.6∗ 183 0.5∗ 99 0.6∗ 337 0.5∗
Colon 13 0.5∗ 43 0.8 30 0.8 26 0.7 18 0.7 22 0.7 8 0.6 39 0.7∗
Pancreas 8 0.5 21 0.7 15 0.6 14 0.6 9 0.6 16 0.8 26 0.4∗ 26 0.8
Lung 67 0.5∗ 62 0.3∗ 87 0.5∗ 42 0.3∗ 46 0.3∗ 40 0.3∗ 25 0.4∗ 80 0.3∗
Prostate 24 0.8 24 0.6∗ 29 0.7 19 0.6 21 0.7 13 0.5∗ 10 0.7 30 0.6∗
Brain 8 0.9 11 0.6 11 0.8 8 0.6 9 1.0 6 0.4∗ 5 0.9 12 0.6
NHL 14 1.0 19 0.8 17 0.9 16 0.9 14 1.0 15 0.9 10 1.4 22 0.8
Myeloma 5 0.8 6 0.6 8 0.9 3 0.4 4 0.6 4 0.6 1 0.3 1 0.6
Leukemia 11 0.9 16 0.7 19 1.0 8 0.5∗ 13 1.0 9 0.6 7 1.0 22 0.8
Cardiovascular dis. 222 0.6∗ 315 0.5∗ 322 0.6∗ 215 0.5∗ 219 0.6∗ 184 0.5∗ 106 0.6∗ 355 0.5∗
COPD 17 0.2∗ 18 0.2∗ 30 0.3∗ 5 0.1∗ 14 0.2∗ 7 0.2∗ 8 0.2∗ 23 0.2∗
Non-motor vehicle accidents 18 0.9 56 1.1 29 0.8 45 1.2 22 0.9 39 1.1 17 0.9 48 1.0

SMRs adjusted for calendar year of death, age, state, race, and gender.

∗95% confidence interval does not include 1.0.
Table 4. Mortality among private applicators and spouses in the AHS cohort through 2000 by lifestyle characteristics and follow-up period (expected based on general population rates in Iowa and North Carolina)
Ever used cigarettes Strenuous leisure time summer exercise Ever held non-farm job Follow-up period
No Yes ≤1 Hour >1 Hour No Yes Through 1998 1999–2000
Cause of death Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR Deaths SMR
All causes 748 0.4∗ 1131 0.6∗ 637 0.6∗ 446 0.4∗ 348 0.5∗ 838 0.5∗ 1157 0.5∗ 898 0.6∗
All cancers 296 0.5∗ 405 0.7∗ 247 0.7∗ 197 0.6∗ 140 0.6∗ 351 0.6∗ 415 0.6∗ 338 0.7∗
Colon 45 0.9 35 0.8 31 1.0 23 0.8 19 0.9 42 0.9 47 0.8 40 1.0
Pancreas 16 0.5∗ 23 0.8 11 0.6 14 0.8 7 0.6 22 0.9 25 0.7 14 0.6∗
Lung 14 0.1∗ 134 0.6∗ 45 0.4∗ 35 0.3∗ 24 0.3∗ 59 0.3∗ 90 0.4∗ 68 0.4∗
Breast 35 0.7 16 1.0 27 1.2 18 0.7 6 0.6 46 0.9 39 1.1 18 0.7
Prostate 17 0.6∗ 27 0.7 15 0.7 9 0.5∗ 11 0.7 14 0.6 29 0.7∗ 19 0.6∗
Brain 21 1.1 5 0.3∗ 10 0.9 4 0.4∗ 6 0.9 11 0.6 15 0.6 12 0.6
NHL 27 1.1 22 1.0 12 0.8 17 1.2 8 0.8 24 1.1 29 1.0 20 1.0
Myeloma 7 0.6 7 0.7 5 0.8 3 0.5 1 0.2 7 0.7 12 0.9 4 0.4
Leukemia 20 0.9 18 0.9 13 1.0 13 1.0 7 0.8 21 1.1 21 0.8 20 1.1
Cardiovascular disease 210 0.4∗ 352 0.6∗ 185 0.5∗ 109 0.3∗ 106 0.4∗ 204 0.4∗ 359 0.5∗ 260 0.5∗
Non-motor vehicle accidents 34 0.8 43 1.1 19 0.9 18 0.8 12 0.8 27 0.8 57 1.0 25 0.7

SMRs adjusted for calendar year of death, age, state, race, and gender.

∗95% confidence interval does not include 1.0.

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This initial evaluation of the deaths among private pesticide applicators (almost entirely farmers) and their spouses participating in the Agricultural Health Study indicates they experience a very favorable mortality compared with the general populations of Iowa and North Carolina. This is consistent with the published literature on farmers 1, 2, 3, 5. The deficits for overall mortality and a number of selected diseases in this cohort, however, are somewhat greater than previously reported. The mortality pattern was similar in the two states and did not vary much by farm size, type of farm operation, years of handling pesticides, or holding non-farm jobs. Although nonsmoking participants had lower SMRs than smokers for tobacco-related causes of death, it is striking that even smokers had lower mortality rates for these diseases than the general population. Those engaging in more frequent strenuous leisure-time physical activity tended to have lower SMRs for a number of causes than those with lesser activity, although these differences were not statistically significant. Leisure-time exercise may be a poor measure of physical activity for farmers who traditionally perform many physically demanding tasks associated with their farm activities.

Some of the observed deficits are undoubtedly due to the well-documented healthy worker effect observed when working cohorts are compared with the mortality experience of the general population 20, 21. This is likely to contribute to the mortality deficits among the applicators, but might be less important among the spouses. The healthy worker effect, however, complicates interpretation and without some adjustment means that true excesses could be entirely missed and others diminished against this back drop of low mortality. We chose not to make a formal adjustment, such as dividing cause-specific SMRs by the total mortality SMR, but we do recognize that SMRs for some individual causes of death may be artificially low. It would be preferable to have another working population from these two states for comparison, but no such group is available. The healthy worker effect is typically the strongest during the early years of cohort follow-up and moderates over time 21, 22. Such moderation may occur in the Agricultural Health Study cohort as follow-up continues. We calculated SMRs for follow up through 1998 and for 1999 to 2000. Although the SMRs for all causes of death rose from 0.5 to 0.6 and all cancer from 0.6 to 0.7, these differences are small and the follow-up is really too short to draw meaningful comparisons at the present time. The major objective of the AHS, however, is to evaluate the impact of specific agricultural practices, exposures, and lifestyle factors on disease risk and this can be accomplished using internal comparisons, for example, comparing exposed and unexposed farmers, which largely removes the healthy worker effect present in comparisons with the general population. The purpose of this article, however, was to provide data on the mortality experience relative to the general population, rather than identify risk factors for specific diseases.

Farm families engage in a number of positive health habits that have a beneficial impact on mortality rates. Many of these traits are found in rural populations whether engaged in farming or not. Stiernstrom et al. (23) found that for several causes of death among farmers and non-farming rural residents, mortality rates were similar and considerably lower than urban residents. Non-farming rural residents did have a slightly higher mortality rate than farmers for all tumors combined. Tobacco use among farmers is less than for urban populations (3). Only 15% of farmers in the cohort and 10% of their spouses were tobacco users at the time of enrollment (14). Smoking rates were low even in North Carolina where tobacco is an important crop. This compares to 26% of the men and 21% of the women who are smokers in the general population in Iowa and 28% among men and 21% among women from North Carolina (24). These differences, however, would not explain why smokers in the AHS cohort have lower mortality for many tobacco-related causes of death than the general population, which is a combination of rates among smokers and nonsmokers. Other factors must be involved. Alcohol use did not appear fundamentally different among the cohort and general population. Thirty-four percent of the farmers and 44% of their spouses reported they had not used alcohol during the past year compared with 31% among men and 44% among women in the United States (25). Farmers may, however, be more physically active than individuals in other occupations. Physical activity is known to be protective against a number of chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancers of the colon and breast, and perhaps other malignancies (26). Farming typically requires a considerable amount of physical activity and was the explanation for the lower levels of heart disease observed among farmers in studies in Georgia and Iowa 27, 28. The low prevalence of smoking, alcohol use, and physical inactivity would lead to lower mortality rates for several major causes of death including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancers of the lung, colon, mouth and throat, liver, pancreas, bladder, and kidney 26, 29, 30.

Several previous incidence and mortality studies of farmers have reported excesses for cancers of the lip, stomach, skin, brain, and prostate and lymphatic and hematopoietic system 1, 2, 3, 9, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37. We observed no statistically significant mortality excesses for any cancer in the Agricultural Health Study cohort after 5.3 years of follow-up and there were only a few SMRs of 1.0 or larger, including cancers of the gallbladder and eye among applicators and spouses; non-motor vehicle accidents, Hodgkin’s disease and cancers of the thyroid, and female genital organs among applicators; and NHL, leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma and cancers of the stomach, colon, liver, and brain among spouses. Some of the cancers with small excesses were cancer sites (i.e., eye, stomach, NHL, myeloma, soft-tissue sarcoma, and leukemia) that have been reported as excessive in previous investigations of farming populations 3, 31, 32, 33. These small excesses are somewhat more impressive when considered in light of the very low overall mortality for this cohort. As with mortality, cancer incidence rates among applicators and spouses in this cohort are generally lower than the general population (15).

Historically, rates of injuries and accidental death rates among farmers are among the highest for any occupational group 3, 7, 38 and farmers rank number 12 among the 50 highest rate occupations for fatal injury (39). It is not clear why we found an SMR of only 1.0 for non-motor vehicle accidents among applicators and an SMR of 0.6 among spouses, although Acquavella and Olsen (5) did not see an excess in their meta-analysis of mortality among farmers. It could be that Iowa and North Carolina farmers have lower accident rates than farmers elsewhere. Zwerling et al. (40), however, found excess mortality from accidents among Iowa farmers in the 1980s and agriculture ranked high for fatal occupational injuries among self-employed workers in North Carolina (41). There is some evidence that rates of fatal occupational injuries are declining in the agricultural sector 42, 43 and this study of mortality in the late 1990s may reflect this pattern.

In summary, private applicators (mostly farmers) and farmers’ spouses participating in the Agricultural Health Study have a very low overall mortality. A more careful evaluation of this population is warranted to identify environmental and lifestyle factors in the agricultural environment that may contribute to these deficits. There are a few causes of death with slight excesses that deserve attention as the cohort ages when there will be larger numbers for analysis and the impact of the healthy worker effect moderates. The combination of very low mortality for many causes of death and possible excesses for a few causes of death make this a valuable cohort to identify factors associated with good and ill health.

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Deleted - irrelevant to this discussion.

The labels usually only call for a long sleeve shirt, pants, hat, nitrile gloves, and maybe eye protection. If you are in an open tractor, pulling a mist blower you almost might as well be bathing in whatever is in the tank. Farmers tend to be highly exposed to pesticides, IMO. I’m a licensed sprayer and as careful as I am, I know my exposure is much more than what I could get by eating any legal food.


Now that you read the piece, could you please point to any statement in it that is either wrong or that you disagree with.

Attacking the messenger does nothing to diminish the message.

It is just that the masses are subject to mass manipulation


Deleted - irrelevant to this discussion.

I’m sorry David, but that is what journalism does and if we aren’t discussing a specific piece or body of research and are discussing a journalistic article I think you have to run with it. You neither credit or discredit the substance of the article by saying that it falls in the category of modern journalism- that is, possibly trimmed and slanted to represent a particular viewpoint and, most of all, being entertaining by arousing curiosity because it contradicts common assumptions (man bites dog). Michael shared an article he found interesting, you claim the article is misleading, so take it apart point by point. Otherwise, you are simply doing what you say the writer did, but in an entirely nonconstructive way, devoid of even entertainment value.

Given your glib dismissal of what I consider the obvious fact that farmers are much more exposed to pesticides than the general public, I am skeptical of your skepticism.

Here is some information about the high exposures to pesticides by farmers compared to the general public.


I re-read the piece and your observations and I still don’t understand what your objections are about.

I will admit that I have bitten into wormy fruit and although the worm was, no doubt, organic I don’t believe it colored my opinion about “organic” .

So, until you illuminate me as to what, specifically, you find incorrect, misleading objectionable or irrelevant in the piece, I must file your response as irrelevant to this discussion.


I get the question, “is it organic” a lot from the customers on my U-Pick farm. Most of these folks have no real understanding of the term and have not taken the time to do any research. They expect perfect fruit and no chemicals. We do the best we can to explain basic concepts like PHI and risk posed by Spotted Wing Drosophila. Several "no spray farms in my area got SWD last year. Once these folks see and eat a few SWD maggots they may find some time to improve their understanding!

1 Like

Yes- you are right I apologize to all on the forum.

If what Miller and Kershen say and imply is true than the US Organic Food Production Act needs to be modified to closer match what the consumer thinks the Organic label means. The term Organic sounds nice but based on current law it’s doesn’t provide the guarantees people think it does. A term, backed by law, that states that “no chemical has been applied that has known health risks” would be more useful.

Regarding farmers:

From the most recent National Institute of Health Agricultural Health Study:

The Agricultural Health Study (AHS) is a prospective study of cancer and other health outcomes in a cohort of licensed pesticide applicators and their spouses from Iowa and North Carolina. The AHS began in 1993 with the goal of answering important questions about how agricultural, lifestyle and genetic factors affect the health of farming populations. The study is a collaborative effort involving investigators from National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

More than 89,000 farmers and their spouses in Iowa and North Carolina have participated in the study. Their participation has provided, and continues to provide, the data that researchers need to help the current and future generations of farmers and their families live healthier lives.

Some key recent findings include:

Farmers have lower rates of many disease compared to the rest of the population, perhaps because they are less likely to smoke and are more physically active.

Farmers have a higher risk for developing some cancers, including prostate cancer.

Gloves matter. Use of chemically resistant gloves can reduce pesticide exposure 50 to 80%.

Rotenone and paraquat are linked to increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Allergic asthma in men and women may be associated with use of some organophosphate insecticides.

Accidental high pesticide exposure events may affect health later in life.

Diabetes and thyroid disease risk may increase for users of some organochlorine chemicals.

I became disenchanted with organic agriculture early on. Courses I took in college basically teach substitution of one pesticide for another and one fertilizer for another. Sometimes the substitutions are no safer than the synthetic counterparts and typically require many more applications. Generally speaking, large organic producers are not taking a broad systems approach to organic agriculture (soil health, beneficial predators, IPM, and so forth) and are simply practicing substitution agriculture which follows the letter of the law but not the spirit of organic agriculture.

I will take produce grown by the farmer at local markets who grows conventionally over “organic” mega-farm produce from the supermarket any day.

1 Like

This is an odd hodgepodge of an “short article.”

It starts out with consumers of organic foods. Then it either creates a
majority subclass who do so in order to avoid pesticides and discusses
no other reason why someone would buy “organic.”

It then insinuates that such consumers are ignorant that organic
pesticides can be as dangerous or more so than synthetics. It uses
Scientific American as the resource, lol. Though at least it gives a
reference. The authors may be correct about organic produce consumer’s
beliefs, but their article does nothing to enlighten such ignorance. So
what is the point other than act as filler for the print edition?

It gives a quote that is either out of context or the author logically
is in error. “Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy
organic?” Well duh, lower pesticide residues (if) are obviously a good
reason to choose organic if the primary (sole) reason for buying them is
to avoid pesticides which this article presupposes. The question would
be ‘ARE organic produce lower in pesticide residues?’

This is followed by this gem: “Organic pesticides pose the same health
risks as non-organic ones.” Obviously untrue on the surface as there
are just as many organic as synthetic pesticides with variable
toxicities. One cannot make a blanket statement about one or the other
as a class. Therefor specific pesticides pose specific risks or
toxicities, but one cannot say one class poses the SAME risk as the
other. You could say that some organic pesticides pose the same or
greater risks as some synthetic ones.

Then it refers to the Organic Foods Production Act and it lengthy list
of exceptions to the ban on synthetic pesticide use [now I have to
actually read the damned law–something I try to avoid since
retiring–since this surprises me, well, except the law was written by
lobbyists for the pesticide/herbicide/corporate farming industry.]

Then it goes on to make the case that virtually all the pesticides we
eat are naturally there as a plant product. Now this is an interesting
take on things and precisely true, though I would have appreciated a
link to the “classic study.” None of this ingestion matters between the
same vegetable eaten that was organically or non-organically grown.
They should each contain the same amounts and types of pesticides
produced by that plant species. [This is not true obviously since there
will be cultivar differences, environmental differences, organic produce
is typically harvested later and not treated with ripening agent,
holding conditions to market, et cetera in the amounts of plant pesticides produced. But for the sake of arguing…]

So the great point: Is it worth the price of organic produce to avoid
what is a minor amount of unknown pesticide? Benefits to cost ratio
would argue “no” in most cases. Pretty much all case if Bruce Ames is
correct about the >99.9% of pesticide consumption comes from the
plant manufacture itself.

… “natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive
in animal cancer tests.” This is inexcusably taken out of context and a
slap in Dr. Ames’ face of his life’s work. Ames was discussing where
the pesticide was identical (such as spinosad) and the difference was
whether the source was organic versus synthetic manufacture. In that he
is correct the chemical is the same and the cancer risk the same. He
is testing a pure product. He also excluded the contaminants that WILL
be present in either batch (organic versus synthetic) that could either
have synergistic or antagonistic properties to the pesticide’s
mutagenicity and carcinogenicity capabilities.

But the authors try to insinuate citing authority that organic
pesticides as a class are equally likely of causing cancer as synthetic
ones. Shoddy!

Next they create a new class to comment upon: “Some consumers think that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP)
requires certified organic products to be free of ingredients from
“GMOs,” … the methods used to create so-called GMOs are an
extension, or refinement, of older techniques for genetic modification
that have been used for a century or more.”

This may very well be true that some organic produce buyers think it
guarantees GMO-free food. And it is great this article sets that
possible confusion clear.

But then they go on to demonstrate their ignorance in equating man made
hybridization with genetic manipulations. GMO food WILL contain
bacterial proteins present inside every cell of the food that is not
present in any hybridized varieties. It may also contain proteins from
other non-bacterial species that were targeted to produce some outcome
in the plant. A small subclass of people WILL have food allergies to
these proteins. If pollen is produced and released by these GMO they
will pollinate any available compatible species and incorporate these
genes (at least for a few generations if selective pressure is not
present) into the progeny.

I defend GMO. I abhor several practices of corporate GMO producers as
well as misinformation practices of GMO opposers. I really do not need to read a
couple of ignorant journalists equate crossing cultivars to create new
cultivars with GMO implying therefor that GMO is equally as safe or
problem free. The new cultivars are stable, the GMO cultivars are not
and most never will be stable. GMO will succeed if farmers and other
growers believe the long term experiences bring more profit than
non-GMO. Otherwise it will disappear.

I don’t think average consumer understood what organic means. What they want is less pesticide, less chemical used on the crop plus not a GMO product.

1 Like

For those who truly want to have their cake and eat it to there are fruit such as mulberry , blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry etc that require no spray in almost every case. The majority of us who grow apples etc need to use some spray.

Blackberry and especially Raspberry will require a spray to kill the SWD (fruit maggot) in most of the country. We did not have to spray blackberry for more than 30 years, but with the introduction of SWD into the US a few years ago we now have to spray. The entire small fruit industry is in a panic over SWD. The USDA as well as state agriculture schools are spending hundreds of millions of dollars investing a solution other than a chemical spray twice a week during the ripening of the fruit.

so between the two, who’s right and who’s wrong? Or which one is more recent/supersedes the other?

Or it’s just a combined analysis vs stratified analysis.