Amanda Weisbrod

In 2016, 22.9 million U.S. adults reported having cancer at least once in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancer is the second-most common cause of death behind heart disease in the U.S., taking 185.1 lives out of a population of 100,000 in 2016, according to the CDC website.

Everyone knows someone, has heard of someone, or has even been that someone battling the slow and suffocating growth of cancerous cells. Some are victorious, others, sadly, are not.

But what if there were a way to reduce cancer risk by simply changing an everyday habit?

A French study published in October 2018 by the American Medical Association in its monthly peer-reviewed medical journal claims there is.

The NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study analyzed the relationship between the diets and new cancer diagnoses of more than 68,000 French adults from 2009 to 2014 and found a diet high in organic foods is linked to a 25 percent reduced risk of developing cancer. Most notable was the correlation between organic food consumption and the risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which the data shows as decreasing by 86 percent for those who most often consumed an increased amount of organic food. The study speculates the lack of residual pesticides in organic foods as a possible catalyst for this result.

“Because of (organic food’s) lower exposure to pesticide residues, it can be hypothesized that high organic food consumers may have a lower risk of developing cancer,” the study states. “A recent review concluded that the role of pesticides for the risk of cancer could not be doubted given the growing body of evidence linking cancer development to pesticide exposure.”

The NutriNet study admits it has some limitations to its findings, such as the likelihood of participants already being health-conscious individuals, the qualitative nature of the data, the short follow-up time, and the chance of residual confounding, which is the distortion of a conclusion by additional, unseen factors even after the study has been controlled.

Charles Benbrook, an organic food analyst and holder of a PhD in agricultural economics, and his daughter, Rachel Benbrook, a consultant specializing in science communication and data analysis, penned a response to the study and its limitations in the March newsletter for the Seattle-based Puget Consumers Co-op, the nation’s largest community-owned food market.

“The French team, however, deployed sophisticated methods to control for such lifestyle factors and other possible sources of bias,” they wrote. “Even if high levels of organic food consumption would reduce overall cancer risk by only 5-10 percent, that still would be a phenomenally important breakthrough.”

The Benbrooks’ article — titled “Eat organic, lower cancer risk by 25%?” — supported the French study and specifically called on Washington state, which is the third leading state in organic food sales, behind California and Wisconsin, to spearhead the organic agriculture movement.

“It’s worth highlighting the agricultural sector in Washington state stands to gain the most of any state when the public and private sectors catch up with science and the market opportunity knocking on the door,” the Benbrooks wrote. “From the state’s booming organic apple industry, to the remarkable diversity of small- and large-scale organic vegetable farms, Washington farmers and food businesses are showing the country how well organic farming systems can work when serious resources are invested in the people and infrastructure needed to capture economies of scale at all points along farm-to-consumer food chains.”

Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs and quality standards at Puget Consumers Co-op, said Oregon, as the fourth-leading state in organic food sales, could also step up to the plate and make a difference.

“Washington and Oregon are agriculture states and conventional agriculture dominates. When you see this kind of research, you have to wonder why there wouldn’t be a seismic shift,” said Bialic, who has been working at PCC for 27 years. “I would like to argue that for states with high organic value like Washington and Oregon, we set goals to increase our organic agriculture to see benefits not just for people, but also for the environment.”

Charles Benbrook, who resides in Enterprise, said transitioning to organic agriculture from traditional farming methods “won’t prevent all cancer but will almost certainly lead to fewer and less serious cases.”

“The substantial decrease in pesticide dietary exposure (by eating organic food) is well documented, and likely the major factor (of the reduced risk in cancer), as noted by the French team,” he wrote in an email. “The switch will cost virtually nothing compared to what we are spending on health care and preventable morbidity and mortality, while leaving farmers and rural communities better off.”

Valerie Tachenko, owner and operator of Val’s Veggies in Medical Springs, said she farms using organic methods because of the health benefits, but her operation isn’t an official, USDA-certified organic farm.

“You have to add a lot more to the price (of organic food) to keep up with the certification because there’s a lot of paperwork and money going into it,” she said. “To me, it’s more important to know your farmer and how they grow than it is to have your organic certification.”

Tachenko, who sells her organic veggies at the La Grande Farmers Market, said she mostly agreed with the health benefits proposed by the French study.

“I do not think their hypothesis was scientifically documented, but I do know eating organic makes you stronger and healthier so you can fight off other things,” she said. “Other than that, I do agree with what they’re saying because of my own overall experience with (eating) organic and what it does for my health.”

The organic farmer, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005, said she accepts the fact she will always have cancer in her body, but eating organically and as close to all natural as possible is one way she fights its growth.

“We don’t use any fertilizers or pesticides or any kinds of chemicals on (our crops) at all, because whatever you put on is going to come through the vegetable,” she said. “I feel strongly against using pesticides.”

But the farmer said she wouldn’t want to force organic food on anyone through legislation. She would rather have a grassroots effort led by consumer demand and education than more laws in the books.

“It’s a lot better to educate, to train and to teach, and then people make their own decisions. It will last a lot longer and make a bigger difference in their life than making a law,” she said. “Organic (farming) is where it is because it comes from the grassroots and people make their own choices. It’s not because the big companies are doing it, it’s because consumers are demanding it. I think if we educate our consumers, they will demand more organic food and more availability of it.”

Tachenko gives the Baker City Food Co-op as a good example of consumer-led change in the organic food market. She said when the co-op started in 1976, one of its members approached the local Safeway to warn them they would be selling organic products, but the grocery store didn’t think of them as competition. Now, Safeway has a large selection of organic food, and Tachenko attributes that to an increase in consumer demand for organic products.

“The organic food market needs to grow organically. That’s how you make something last,” she said. “Once you start regulating and bringing in all of these rules, pretty soon it’s not a viable option for anybody.”

Bialic, though, thinks a shift at the government and legislation level needs to take place in order for real change to happen. She points to the environmental advocate Kate Greenberg, the first woman appointed to the position of agriculture commissioner for the state of Colorado, as evidence.

“Washington and Oregon should pay attention and follow the model of Colorado and appoint an organic agriculture commissioner,” Bialic said. “When we’re facing challenges like climate change and epidemic levels of diabetes and cancer, you would think we’d pay attention to the science that we have. We need to advocate and agitate in our state legislatures.”

One group in California is already making moves to change agriculture legislation at the state level.

California Certified Organic Farmers, a nonprofit focused on advancing organic agriculture, is pushing a public policy roadmap to get the state’s organic farmland up from 4 percent to 10 percent by 2030, although Charles Benbrook said he is skeptical this is much of a change at all because acreage of several key fruits and veggies are already beyond 10 percent organic in California, and “these are the most important crops to shift to organic in terms of public health because these crops are the source of most of the pesticide exposure and risk from conventional produce.”

“I think the California produce industry could be 30 percent organic by 2030, and in Washington, 70 percent by 2030 if the government, food industry and retailers openly and honestly explained to consumers the trifecta of benefits that society will enjoy as a result — safer and more nutritious food, a healthier environment, and way fewer farmworker poisonings,” he wrote in an email. “There is zero doubt about the farmer response — when the demand for organic is there, farmers will expand organic acreage, become more efficient, expand choices and lower costs.”

Benbrook emphasized that research on organic agriculture needs more funding and support in order for meaningful change to come about.

“Since the U.S. government has invested very little in the necessary research, the (conventional agriculture) industry will be able to sustain the debate (and) confuse the science for years to come,” Benbrook wrote. “Like I said, what are we — especially Washington state and Oregon — waiting for? Permission from the pesticide industry?”

Contact Amanda Weisbrod at 541-963-3161 or aweisbrod@lagrandeobserver.com

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