T Nation

Plant Toxins v. Synthetic Pesticides

I am asking this in hope that there is someone here who has the background in botany, agricultural science, etc that can answer it.

Now plants produce toxins to ward of those who would eat it.
Agriculture has over the years, I imagine, reduced those toxins (or not) and introduced pesticides to ward off insects.

Now, it occurs to me that organic farming methods must have grown crops in such a way that they produce more natural toxins to ward off insects (since they are not using synthetic pesticides). So my question is, are these natural toxins, in some cases, just as bad (or worse) than synthetic pesticides?

I will admit that I have been an advocate of organic farming and try to eat
organic whenever possible, but something I’ve read suggested that I should ask myself this very fundamental question.

I have never heard of organic produce containing more natural toxins. Is this your opinion? If so I don’t think it is accurate. I could be wrong though. Have you read any recent studies? I used to read up on organic farming methods and I grew a flower garden without synthetics quite successfully however this in no way qualifies me as an expert. I would like to hear what someone with experience has to say.

Well pesticides have been around for only what, 50 - 60 years now? I don’t remember hearing about people having problems eating vegetables before that.

If you start seeing a bunch of dead rabbits around your local farmers market, then I would start worrying.

Coming from a biology/chem background (although I guess I did work in an agronomy lab one summer) here.

My guess would be that any toxins a crop produces would be an all or nothing thing, and those toxins would either hurt us (never heard of a monthly limit on corn or tomatoes, unlike fish. Food allergies are a different thing) or do absolutely nothing to us (we’re pretty different from insects and fungi.)

Bugs are pretty small, go through major changes in their life cycles, and don’t have sophisticated detoxifying systems, so any toxin they’re not equipped to deal with is probably going to be devastating in small amounts. Also, I’d imagine any selective toxin would immediately be hybridized into commercial seed.

Pest control in organics is done by spending more time/money per plant - things that would be impractical on a large scale. Removing diseased plants, erecting barriers, more careful storage etc. Also rotating crops far more often so diseases can’t get a foothold - requiring different equipment or that work be done by hand, or that you have to grow a less profitable crop 2 out of 4 years. I’m sure crops sometimes get wiped out too, again increasing prices when times are good.

Quick post - hoped that made some sense.

Yes the OP is correct in saying that organically grown crops tend to produce higher levels of natural toxins than conventional crops.

Organic crops grow relatively slowly, which allows them to build up the chemical defences in order to withstand attacks from pests and diseases.

Conventional plants on the other hand are provided with an abundance of nutrients, which allows them to grow unnaturally fast, resulting in reduced accumulation of defence toxins.

I am sure that genetics also plays a role as well, ie breeding programs for organic crops can involve selecting the plants that are most resistant to pest and disiese. In many cases this can be due to higher toxin concentrations.

One thing to remember though is that in some cases, moderate levels of certain toxins in crops can actually have a positive impact on human health.

[quote]CthruPants wrote:
Well pesticides have been around for only what, 50 - 60 years now? I don’t remember hearing about people having problems eating vegetables before that.
[/quote]

I agree with this.

Humans have been eating organically grown plants for millions of years.

[quote]Regular Gonzalez wrote:
CthruPants wrote:
Well pesticides have been around for only what, 50 - 60 years now? I don’t remember hearing about people having problems eating vegetables before that.

I agree with this.

Humans have been eating organically grown plants for millions of years.

[/quote]

Yes, that’s true. My point is not to say that organically grown plants are MORE noxious than non-organic ones. My point is that the argument often given for eating organic fruits and vegetables is that it is somehow toxin free, which is false. If I am going to pay $3 a pound for organic apples at Whole Food, there better be some benefit!

Now, there still may be some good reasons to prefer organic. For example, are intensive commerical practices of big agrobusiness such that the soil vegetables are grown on are impoverished and this leads to fruits and vegetables less nutritious than organic ones. At the moment, I don’t know. This is not my field.

[quote]AmandaSC wrote:
I have never heard of organic produce containing more natural toxins. Is this your opinion? If so I don’t think it is accurate. I could be wrong though. Have you read any recent studies? I used to read up on organic farming methods and I grew a flower garden without synthetics quite successfully however this in no way qualifies me as an expert. I would like to hear what someone with experience has to say.[/quote]

[EDIT]
No, it’s not just my opinion. Read this article and there is a link to the study within the article.

http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/06/synthetic-v-natural-pesticides/

[quote]entheogens wrote:
I am asking this in hope that there is someone here who has the background in botany, agricultural science, etc that can answer it.

Now plants produce toxins to ward of those who would eat it.
Agriculture has over the years, I imagine, reduced those toxins (or not) and introduced pesticides to ward off insects.

Now, it occurs to me that organic farming methods must have grown crops in such a way that they produce more natural toxins to ward off insects (since they are not using synthetic pesticides). So my question is, are these natural toxins, in some cases, just as bad (or worse) than synthetic pesticides?

I will admit that I have been an advocate of organic farming and try to eat
organic whenever possible, but something I’ve read suggested that I should ask myself this very fundamental question.[/quote]

I have read of this criticism of organic farming but it seems to be the lesser of two evils.

Many of the substances which act as natural defenses in food crops --like some flavenoids-- have beneficial effects in humans. Of course many plants do have naturally toxic substances, but I think if you get some variety in your diet it should be the safer option in general.

There is more to growing organically than just removing pesticides and/or praying the plants can ward off insects without being genetically modified…

Oftentimes, you can use ecology to your advantage and use farming practices, such as polyculture, to develop and ecosystem that will attract insects’ natural predators (spiders, birds, etc.).

Above that, there are natural ways of dealing with pests, including diatomaceous earth and beneficial nematodes.


http://www.arbico-organics.com/organic-pest-control-beneficial-nematodes-info.html

Simply planting a wind-breaking tree garden around your farm (to reduce wind erosion) can create a habitat for birds to feast on pests. Good stuff to read about.

[quote]entheogens wrote:
So my question is, are these natural toxins, in some cases, just as bad (or worse) than synthetic pesticides?[/quote]

Yes. Some plant toxins have been rejected for use as pesticides because they are too dangerous for humans. Here are two examples:

My friend’s father nearly died and suffered permanent brain and liver damage from toxins in artemesia (wormwood) he was taking as a supplement because he believed it was ridding him of parasites and destroying cancer cells. The toxin in wormwood is thujone. Thujone is a volatile organic compound (VOC) also present in herbs such as sage and oregano. In fact, a certain amount of air-polluting VOCs are emitted from California sage bush here in southern CA.

Thujone does kill parasites and cancer cells, as well as insects, but the problem is it will also kill basically any living cell. (A healthy person’s liver will detoxify a small amount in a few minutes, though.)

Another highly toxic chemical, though I forget the name off the top of my head, is produced by walnut trees, and is contained in walnut shells. Apparently walnut trees will tend to have bare ground all around them, from their natural toxin killing off nearby plant competitors. Walnut shells used in horse bedding cause horrible skin ulcers in the horses. Nasty stuff.

So the truth is that plants can contain and emit toxic substances. The whole idea that something is automatically good and wonderful if it occurs in nature, but automatically horrible and dangerous if it’s “synthetic” is completely false. EVERYTHING is a chemical made up of molecules; every molecule, when taken into the body, has a certain effect on the body. The body neither knows nor cares whether the molecule was synthesized by a plant or by a laboratory.