The dislike of synthetic chemicals

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Organic farmers are the people most likely to demonstrate the practicality of private plant breeding and of self-organising agro-ecosystems (see 11). Organic farmers and consumers of organic food have a general dislike of 'chemicals'. By this, they mean synthetic chemicals, produced in chemical factories. (Water, oxygen, and common salt are also chemicals but no one denies their essential role in living systems). These factory-produced chemicals include all the synthetic crop protection chemicals, such as insecticides and fungicides, as well as herbicides, and artificial fertilisers. In attempting to avoid these chemicals, organic farmers aim to produce food that is almost entirely free of them. I say "almost" because chemists can now detect concentrations of less than one part in a billion, and it is worth understanding exactly what this means. One part in a billion is one cubic millimetre in one cubic metre. A person who drinks half a litre of water every day would require 2000 days to drink one cubic metre of water. In other words, it would take nearly five and a half years to absorb one cubic millimetre of contaminant in that water. The human body is remarkably efficient at removing most poisons, and it would normally have little difficulty in eliminating one two thousandth part of one cubic millimetre of contaminant every day.

Another way of examining this question is to consider the old pharmacists' terms dosis toxis and dosis tolerata. Any medicine is toxic if taken in too large a dose. And any poison is tolerated if taken in a small enough dose. And one two thousandth part of one cubic millimetre each day is a very small dose, by whatever standards one may wish to use.

To aim at a zero concentration of synthetic chemicals is unrealistic. Even if, by remote chance, they were below a concentration of one part per billion, they would still be present at one part per trillion, or whatever. Much the same happens with radiation standards. We are all of us exposed to background radiation for all of our lives. And this has been true for the whole of evolution. That level of radiation is clearly harmless, and to aim at a nil exposure to radiation is unrealistic. We sensibly make sure that we are not exposed to hazardous levels of radiation. The same should be true of synthetic chemicals. That is, tolerances are essential. After all, no organic farm is entirely free of synthetic chemicals, if only because of the drift from sprayers in neighbouring farms.

However, some synthetic chemicals, including insecticides, can be dangerous at very small doses. This is particularly true of chemicals that act as hormone mimics. And the danger is at its most acute for an unborn foetus. There is some evidence that hormone mimics can damage the brain, the reproductive functions, and the immune system of an unborn human foetus and, typically, this damage may not become apparent for years. Certified organic food should be obligatory for expecting mothers. Similarly, young children eat 3-4 times as much food as adults, per unit of body weight. And they drink 4-5 times as much water per unit of body weight. They consequently absorb correspondingly higher doses of toxins, and they are more susceptible to them because of their very active growth processes.

So, let us now look at various categories of synthetic chemicals in order to determine how hazardous they may be.

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