|Organic farming advisor and activist Amigo Bob Cantisano at Ecofarm
In a rousing speech at Ecofarm, the organic farming conference, Amigo Bob Cantisano, one of the founders of CCOF, accused the state and federal government of fraud in testing food for pesticide residues, claiming that state officials test only 181 out of 1,048 active ingredients.
“This pesticide residue testing that they tell you everything’s okey-dokey – it’s not,” he said. “Not one of the top ten most widely used pesticides is tested for.”
Cantisano, who has been battling cancer for the last six years, said he was concerned about health effects of pesticides. “We’re all being mollified that all that conventional food, which most of us are eating most of the time is safe. It’s not,” he said.
Official procedures for determining food safety are flawed from start to finish, Cantisano said.
Cantisano said he came to his conclusions after repeatedly touring the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), where, he said, the testing machines are unable to analyze two thirds of commonly used pesticides.
Gaps in measurement
Firstly, Cantisano complained, the testing process for residues begins with washing produce for 15 seconds, a process which he says doesn’t reflect the way consumers treat produce.
“These are all water soluble pesticides,” he said. “The majority of the pesticides are washed off before they ever get into the [testing] machine.”
Secondly, the government tests aren’t performed on pesticide combinations or on the inert ingredients.
“There are 1,058 active ingredients in pesticides used in California,” Cantisano said. “But that doesn’t count tank mixes, that doesn’t count the products which are multiple mixes together,” he said. “The government doesn’t test the inert ingredients.”
In the recent glyphosate cases against Monsanto and Bayer for Roundup and other herbicides, university researchers in France and the U.S. have found that the inert ingredients are more toxic than the listed active ingredient – glyphosate – alone.
“It’s documented that inert ingredients in many pesticides are as toxic or sometimes more than the pesticides themselves or increase the toxicity of the active ingredients combined and inert ingredients to much greater toxicity levels,” Cantisano said. “No inert ingredients are tested for on a routine basis by the government.”
Inerts are routinely used as 75 to 90 percent of the ingredients in pesticides, he said.
Thirdly, Cantisano said the CDFA tests for only 343 of the listed 1,058 active ingredients, according to lists provided to him by CDFA officials, of which he claims only half are actively used.
He said 16 of the 343 were metabolites or byproducts of pesticides that break down, bringing his count to 327 substances.
Furthermore, he said, 146 of the active ingredients have not been registered in the state for 10 years and are no longer being used on California farms.
“So if you do the real math,” he said, “it’s actually not 343 of the 1,050 pesticides, it’s a 181.”
“That’s what they’re testing for on a regular basis. This represents less than 17% of the active ingredients used in California agriculture. So the vast majority of stuff applied in farming is never ever measured.”
“Of the top ten, including sulfur and the other nine, which didn’t even include glyphosate – which is probably way up there now – but at any rate, they don’t test them. The lab analyzes three of the top 20 and nine of the top 50 pesticides used in California….They’re not looking, folks. And when they look, they wash it first and then use this equipment that doesn’t find it.”
Fourthly, Cantisano also said the solvent used to extract the pesticides produces inconsistent and inaccurate results.
“The efficacy of the solvent to extract the pesticides ranges from a high of approximately 90% of the active ingredient to a low of less than 10%. So some pesticides – they only get a very small portion of the extractant. The solvent is not able to pull it away from the produce. So the machine can’t identify it.”
Cantisano called for the organic farming community to step up efforts to support the use of fewer pesticides in all forms of agriculture and to fight for improved and more accurate testing.
“Farm workers need to be protected, the environment needs to be protected. Two hundred million pounds of pesticides are being sprayed right now on farm land in California. Just keep that in mind. All this work you’re [organic farmers] doing and all this coalition building, and all these organic farmers – we’re just pissing in the wind.”
“We need to increase the consumption of organically grown food. We need to increase the growing of organically grown foods. We need to encourage – start it up again – the development of biological and non-toxic pest management,” he added. “I’m telling you that even a cursory look at this shows that pesticide residue testing is fake.”
Health effects of eating food with pesticide residues
Cantisano said communities were at high risk of diseases from pesticide use on food crops. “There’s a cumulative effect. Our livers, our kidneys are all paying the price for this. Pancreases, too.
“All this cancer stuff is from trying to clean your blood out…you are constantly being assaulted every time you eat something. Even though they told you there’s nothing on there, we’re being fooled and the health system and your body – my body right now dealing with cancer – is dealing with this stuff, but we’re not capable of fully dealing with it.”
Cantisano was deeply inspired by Dr. Van den Bosch, a Berkeley professor whose life was cut short by an apparent heart attack just after giving a galvanizing three hour interview on talk radio on KGO on pesticides, Cantisano said in a followup interview. “He was naming names of what he called the pesticide mafia.”
“Van den Bosch was just about to embark on a nationwide speaking tour to promote his new book, The Pesticide Conspiracy, published by Doubleday [in 1978], when he died jogging at Berkeley High School’s running track, where he usually ran everyday,” Cantisano continues. “This scared me and a whole lot of people from speaking up about this issue.”
“Twenty five years ago I wanted to talk about this,” he said in his speech on the podium, “but I was afraid of being killed, like Dr. Van den Bosch from U.C. Berkeley’s Division of Biological Control. I just didn’t have the balls then,” Cantisano said.
Van den Bosch, a world renowned scientist in the field of biological control, was widely credited with being the founding father of the integrated pest management (IPM) program in California, but his career ended with his death at the age of 56. Later his lab disbanded. “All the copies of his book back then were taken off the market immediately,” said Cantisano. (The book is now available as a reprint).
Cantisano, who is 67, has been a farm advisor to more than 800 organic farms and vineyards. He said he himself almost died last month from his battle with cancer. “That’s why I am speaking out now,” he said. “We need young people and middle aged people to continue the fight.”
An expert on organic farming as well as organic vineyards, Cantisano has helped dozens of wineries grow wine grapes organically, advising Frog’s Leap, Tres Sabores, Long Meadow Ranch, Preston, Martorana, Skipstone and many more over a 40+ year trajectory in the organic movement.
“I urge us to work more – more farmers together, more farm workers together, more scientists together, more environmentalists together. And in your lifetime: please clean this damn place up,” he said in his closing remarks.
A group of attendees signed an email list to come up with ideas to increase awareness and develop programs to broaden education about the issues Cantisano raised.
Cantisano founded the Ecological Farming Association or Eco-Farm in 1981 when a group held its first conference in Winters. The group says it has reached more than 60,000 people with its educational programs. It also gives out awards to prominent organic and ecological farming visionaries including Robert Rodale, Vandana Shiva, and Alice Waters.
New science research studies support organic health claims
On other fronts, new scientific reports released this winter from prominent authorities echo the health risks of pesticides in the food supply and mishandling of risk assessments by regulators at the EPA.
In January, Consumer Reports and the Washington Post reported on a recent French study (published in the respected medical journal JAMA) that people whose diet is mostly organic reduced their cancer risk by 25 percent. The study followed 70,000 people over a four and a half year period.
In January, a noted health researcher, Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences board on agriculture, cited discrepancies in EPA’s data sources, using data submitted by pesticide makers that conflicted with data from peer reviewed scientific journals. His article, published in the peer reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe
, says the EPA overlooked critical data on glyphosate.
In his article, Benbrook wrote, “the EPA relied mostly on registrant-commissioned, unpublished regulatory studies, 99% of which were negative, while IARC relied mostly on peer-reviewed studies of which 70% were positive (83 of 118).”
Benbrook also says the EPA looked only at glyphosate on its own, while the UN’s IARC experts looked at formulated products that contained glyphosate (the listed active ingredient in Roundup) in combination with inert ingredients.
In addition, Benbrook said the EPA looked at general population health risks, not specialized risks for workers or residents who used glyphosate based products on a regular basis.
[Representatives from Pesticide Action Network and CDFA did not respond to requests for comment on Cantisano’s remarks.]