Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Pesticide Residue Conflict Puts UDSA in the Middle

In September, a USDA press release announced a round of new USDA grants of "Funds to Enhance the Competitiveness of Specialty Crops."  Most appear to be great projects, and it is nice to see healthy food getting government dollars.

The Atlantic, however, did some digging into the grant recipients - When Big Ag Attacks: Government Sponsored Pesticide Propaganda.  As reported,  One California grant goes to:
"Partner with the Alliance for Food and Farming to correct the misconception that some fresh produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues by providing the media, the public and various target audiences with scientific information concerning the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables." 
According to the organizations' website, Alliance for Food and Farming was formed in 1989 and currently has a membership of approximately 50 farmers or farm groups who represent producers of U.S. fruit, vegetable and other specialty crops. The Atlantic, however, refers to it as a PR front, with directors from corporate agriculture.

In July 2010, Alliance launched a website blasting an Environmental Working Group's website and specifically its, Shoppers Guide to Pesticides.  The Shoppers Guide lists the fruits and vegetables most likely and those least likely to contain pesticide residues.  EWG specifically recommends "that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic,” but cautions consumers to consider pesticide residue in the selections they make.

The Alliance website, Safe Fruits and Vegetables challenges the EWG guide, stating that it is:
(a) misleading to consumers, (b) an impediment to public health because it discourages consumption of fresh produce and (c) lacks scientific evidence that the pesticide levels found pose any risk. As a result, there is no reason why a consumer should use this list to guide their purchasing decisions for fruits and vegetables.
Apparently, the Alliance now has funds from the USDA for additional testing.  Two facts are disturbing about this grant.  First, the grant specifies that the testing is supposed to "correct the misconception" about pesticides in produce.  Isn't that bad science per se, as it pre-determines the desired outcome?  And second, it turns out that the USDA may be funding research to refute its own research. 
EWG analysts have developed the Guide based on data from nearly 89,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce conducted between 2000 and 2008 and collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
I'd like to see USDA stick with funding good research, not research designed to promote one crop or one method of farming over another.  Isn't that what good science is all about?   Funding a grant for research with a pre-designed outcome just reinforces public cynicism.  Let's put research dollars into reducing and eliminating pesticide residues, not into public relations campaigns.


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