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A bug's life - good or bad

by Gloria McCutcheon
(Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- "The only good bug is a dead bug" is a common statement I hear quite often when I mention my work in entomology. I have trained hundreds of professional women across the nation this year on the role of insects in food production. The sessions earned me the name of "The Bug Lady," but they also helped me realize that many people are not making the connection between their food, bugs, pesticides and their health.

Pesticides enable farmers to grow apples without worms, greenbeans without bugbites scarring them, and ears of sweetcorn without bugs in the kernels.

The fewer pesticides that farmers use while still producing undamaged fruit and vegetables the better it is for the environment and human health. The role of entomologists, or insect specialists, is to show farmers how to produce fruits and vegetables with the fewest pesticides possible, with the goal being to produce undamaged, healthy food with no pesticides.

One of the problems of using pesticides in food production is that residues of these pesticides can remain on the fruit and vegetables as they move to market. Our government monitors this. The percentage of food samples with detectable organophosphate (OP) pesticide residues rose from 21 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 1996 and dropped again to 19 percent in 2001, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Report on America's Children and the Environment (Feb. 2003). There is still much work to be done, and the EPA is adopting stringent restrictions on the use of organophosphate pesticides.

Organophosphate insecticides are frequently applied in the production of foods that children eat. Because children have a smaller body mass than adults, they may be exposed to higher levels of pesticides, especially in certain types of food. Studies have shown that a high exposure to organophosphate pesticides can cause problems with the nervous system.

The Pesticide Action Network reported earlier this year on pesticide breakdown products analyzed in preschool-aged children. The study, conducted at the University of Washington, found that the concentration of pesticide products was six times lower in the urine of children who ate organic produce (no pesticides) compared to those who consumed conventionally produced fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, the Pesticide Action Network concluded that eating organic fruits and vegetables could significantly reduce children's pesticide loads.

Studies also have found that organic produce may provide greater health benefits than conventional food. Recent data indicate that there is 52 percent more vitamin C in frozen organic corn than in conventionally grown corn (The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Jan. 2003). Another study indicated that the increased levels of salicylic acid (also in aspirin) found in organic vegetable soup can bolster the immune system (European Journal of Nutrition, Feb. 2002).

Entomologists play an important role in getting some of these health benefits to the consumer. For example, we can decrease the amount of organophosphate pesticides applied to our food by taking a closer look at some "good bugs." Because beneficial insects are major players in food production, it is important that conservation and enhancement of these critters be planned carefully.

As entomologists, we stress the importance of knowing how to conserve and enhance the beneficial insects while regulating populations of pest insects. We do this by using insecticides that are environmentally sound, such as those that are biologically based. Also, beneficial insects such as predators and parasitic wasps can help regulate aphids, caterpillars, stink bugs and whiteflies, which can harm our crops. Conservation of the good bugs can help decrease the amount of pesticides needed to kill the pest insects in food production.

The use of pesticides for food production is only considered a concern for farmers until it begins to affect consumers' purses or choices in the grocery stores. Applications of conventional insecticides are expensive, cause environmental pollution, and may result in resistant pest populations.

It is encouraging that Healthy People 2010, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, lists as Objective 8-24 "to reduce exposure to pesticides as measured by urine concentrations of metabolites." School boards and legislative delegations across the country should be mindful of food safety and conservation issues as they study environmental policy.

It is obvious that many economic and social concerns relate back to my tiny little six-legged friends, as well as their impact on the environment. So, it is all in a bug's life, good or bad, friend or foe.

Gloria S. McCutcheon, Ph.D., is Professor of Entomology at Clemson University and is a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Thomas Jefferson Institute, Columbia, Mo., administered by the Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, Minn., and supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.