by Jill Krueger, Network for Public Health Law
I am always a little puzzled when I hear organic foods trumpeted as a good personal choice without a corresponding call for policies to make it easier for farmers to grow organic foods.
For example, the President’s 2010 Cancer Panel report on reducing environmental cancer risks recommended that, to the extent possible, individuals choose foods grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and free-range meat. In a chapter discussing exposure to contaminants from agricultural sources, the Panel included quotes calling for agricultural policies like those contained in National Organic Program regulations. Nevertheless, the Panel did not make any policy recommendations to support organic farming. The report only called for more research on vulnerable populations, such as farmworkers, to determine environmental influences on cancer risks, and urged that identified risks be remediated to the maximum extent possible.
Reviewing the same body of peer-reviewed studies, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) recommended a unified set of policies to support organic farming that would invest in research, provide appropriate disaster assistance, support increased production, assist farmers who choose to transition to organic farming methods, and reward environmental benefits.
No doubt one explanation for the differences between the two sets of recommendations is that the Cancer Panel recommendations were issued by objective experts, while the OFRF recommendations were issued by advocates.
But I think there are other factors at work here.
When it comes to environmental health—and public health in general—we do not always have a complete and conclusive evidence base. The question becomes what do we do when confronted with partial but alarming evidence.
For example, the President’s Cancer Panel report discussed research which shows that leukemia rates are consistently elevated among children who grow up on farms or with parents who are pesticide applicators, but noted that it is difficult to determine which chemical agent cause the cancer. One response might be to conduct further research to attempt to isolate a particular chemical agent. Another approach might be to enact policies to assist people in growing foods organically, since organic regulations prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The latter approach does not penalize conventional farmers, but it does foster environmental change. It also does not negate the importance of research data; a next step would be researching the effectiveness of the policy.
I want to stress that sound research is a key element of policy formation. Early on, proponents of organic farming recognized the need for research in order to evaluate and improve organic farming methods, as well as to guide policy development.
Private institutes were among the first to prioritize research in organic farming. The Rodale Institute has compared organic and conventional farming methods in its Farming Systems Trial for over 30 years. A thirteen year trial at Iowa State University has achieved similar results. The OFRF has funded research for nearly twenty years, and supported development of a National Organic Research Agenda.
The scarcity of research that the OFRF reported on in 1997, is becoming less and less the case today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture completed its first Organic Production Survey in 2008, and the 2011 survey is underway. The last two farm bills have included dedicated research funding resulting in the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. Support for organic-related research may also be available under the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The National Research Council recently released a study on sustainable agriculture and an online community for organic researchers is fostering important new collaborations.
Of course, publicizing research studies is also critical and that too is beginning to pick up speed. In 2011, USDA sponsored a national Organic Farming Systems Research Conference to highlight the latest peer-reviewed research. This followed on the heels of a number of regional organic research symposia. The Organic Center and the Organic Trade Association publicize emerging peer-reviewed organic farming research on their websites and in the media.
Like the advocates of organic agriculture, public health professionals often need to take steps to avoid the pattern in which policy proposals are discounted or never advanced due to an alleged lack of scientific support, or emerging research is dismissed, disputed, or claimed not to exist. While we certainly need sound evidence to make health policy decisions, we cannot always wait until the evidence is exhaustive. We can make prudent decisions on the available evidence, as long as we support research to evaluate those decisions.
This information was developed by Jill Krueger, senior attorney for the Network for Public Health Law – National Coordinating Center at the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law.