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The data we are collecting through our flagship project The Heartland Study will someday be used to make a chart like this that maps the relationship between herbicide exposure and health outcomes. What stories will our data tell?

Archived Blog Posts
  • A man spraying pesticides California’s Bold Plan to Transform Pest Management Systems is Long on Ambition and Light on Details

    By: Chuck Benbrook, HHRA ED By: Mark Lipson, HHRA Director of Policy and Regulatory Engagement We welcomed the invitation from California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for members of the public to offer comments and guidance as the State begins to take concrete actions needed to achieve the goals set forth in the new report Sustainable Pest Management: A Roadmap for California. Reviewing the 94-page Roadmap report reminded us how many constituencies, forces, and factors are pushing and pulling farmers, pest managers, and government agencies in multiple directions that are rarely aligned. This Roadmap document describes a very different pest management future that will hopefully become the “de facto” way pests are managed on and off the farm by 2050. If successful by 2050, prevention-based biointensive Integrated Pest Management (bioIPM) will be the norm and there will be minimal if any use of high-risk “Priority Pesticides”. Some thirty-two years ago, DPR hired Chuck Benbrook to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of DPR’s programs and policies to assist in the integration of DPR into the newly-formed Cal-EPA. The resulting report, Challenge and Change: A Progressive Approach to Pesticide Regulation in California, came out in March of 1993. It provides dozens of recommendations intended to do many of the same things that the 2023 Roadmap report hopes to bring within reach. The fact that most pest management systems in California have become more, not less reliant on pesticides over the last 30 years suggests that DPR’s and CDFA’s efforts to achieve Roadmap goals are going to entail heavy lifting, mostly uphill. For this reason in HHRA’s comments, Mark and Chuck describe the nature and substantial scope of changes in laws and policy that will be required to track progress toward Roadmap goals and hopefully, someday, achieve them.

  • Europe is Growing Organic Production, Will the US Follow Suit?

    Advocates calling for change in US Ag Inc often struggle to point to successful models through which farming and food chains have evolved toward safer and more sustainable production systems. The surest way to largely eliminate the impacts of prenatal pesticide exposure on birth outcomes and children’s development – HHRA’s foundational goals – is converting US farmland to organic production. We are often asked how such change can come about. Convincing answers to this key and important question are few and far between in the US, but some key lessons are emerging from efforts in Europe to expand organic farming and food supply chains. The Cilento organic food bio-district in Italy was established in 2009 and is thought to be the first-ever in the world. Overcoming challenges faced by organic farmers in marketing their produce was a primary driver. Municipal actions expanded demand for organic food and ingredients via public food-purchasing programs. The lure of scenic rural landscapes and strong support from the agrotourism industry for organic food and farming created new market demand. Today, organic farming is thriving in the Cilento district, profit margins have expanded, and enhanced soil health is supporting higher yields at lower costs on many farms. An action by a city council led to the formation of the Södertälje organic food system in east-central Sweden, some 35 kilometers from Stockholm. The goal was to expand the supply of organic products for public food-procurement programs as a way to advance health and environmental quality. The municipality’s Diet Union developed new food products and recipes in the context of a “Diet for a clean Baltic” to promote health and reduce food waste. Restaurants and cafeterias began using smaller plates to cut down on waste, an intervention that has proven to be surprisingly effective. In south-eastern France the mad cow disease outbreak across Europe was the trigger of action leading to the Mouans-Sartoux organic food system. The initial focus was on supplying organic beef to school canteens, coupled with municipal government support for regional sustainable farm research and food education programs. A multi-faceted effort to provide organic food to children led to greater awareness of the diversity of benefits arising from organic farming. New efforts emerged to reach other vulnerable segments of the population with organic food (e.g. the elderly, pregnant women). These three region-based organic food systems in Europe are case studies in a just-published paper by Lilliana Stefanovic (2020), a scientist in the Department of Organic Food Quality and Food Culture at the University of Kessel in Germany. Imagine that. An academic department focused on organic food quality and culture. How long might it take for such a department to take hold at Iowa State University, in the heart of American farm country? The Stefanovic paper addresses how local organic food systems in Europe can contribute in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set forth by the United Nations, and especially SDG 12, “responsible consumption and production.” Her analysis concludes that local and place-based organic food and farming districts can make important contributions in transforming food and farming systems to promote human and animal health, and soil health and environmental quality. Two drivers played key roles in all three case studies: relatively short distances to population centers, and significant support for organic supply chains from public food-procurement programs, and especially those feeding children. And just a few months ago, the Italian government pledged to invest 3 billion euros (about $3 billion US) to convert at least 25% of the country’s farmland to organic systems by 2027. The funds will come from Common Agricultural Policy payments supported in part by a tax on pesticide sales. There are about 16.6 million acres of arable land in Italy. Reaching the 25% organic goal would entail the transition of around 2 million more acres to organic, given that a little over 15% of Italian farmland is already managed organically. If $3 billion in transition payments were spread over 2 million acres, average payments would be around $1,500 per acre. A multi-pronged effort in Italy is planned to simultaneously grow the supply of organic foods and demand for them. Investments will be made in the infrastructure needed to support profitable regional organic food supply chains, while increasing the supply of value-added, premium foods for sale throughout Italy, Europe, and for a few commodities (especially olive oil), the world. Such bold pledges and audacious goals have come and gone in many countries with little concrete and sustained change to show for the resources invested. But perhaps the time is right in Italy for acceleration in the transition to organic farming in light of the many scientific studies showing that organic farming can both slow global warming and render farms more resilient in the face of drought and flooding. What about here in the USA? The USDA has recently pledged to invest $300 million in a new Organic Transition Initiative. This program will provide new funding via many USDA-program channels to encourage the transition of farms to organic production. While a major increase in USDA funding dedicated to expanding organic production, $300 million over several years is a small share of the approximate $20 billion in annual federal spending on farm commodity and crop insurance programs. It is also instructive to compare the $3 billion investment in Italy to reach their goal of 25% of farmland in organic by 2027 to the $300 million investment just announced by USDA. The Italian program, if it actually happens, would provide about $1,500 per acre transitioned to organic. The USDA’s investment of $300 million translates into about $4.30 per acre across the approximate 70 million newly transitioned acres necessary for 25% of the US cropland base to be managed organically. Current disparity in public support for and investment in the transition to organic farming in the US versus Europe arises from vastly different public awareness of the benefits likely to stem from the transition of more farmland to organic production. Many public and private institutions […]

Connecting Dots: Musings on What Data Can Teach Us

Apr 6th, 2021
The data we are collecting through our flagship project The Heartland Study will someday be used to make a chart like this that maps the relationship between herbicide exposure and health outcomes. What stories will our data tell?

Once in a while two data points are arrayed in a graph, setting off the bright light of insight. A good example appeared in “The Morning,” David Leonhart’s daily New York Times online synopsis of the news of the day.

The chart below appears in his March 12, 2021 newsletter in a section entitled “Follow-up: A Covid Mystery”:

By: The New York Times | Sources: Health agencies and hospitals, C.I.A. World Factbook

Imagine how the dots would move around if the variable “Covid deaths per million residents” were corrected for the quality of each country’s healthcare services and the number of deaths prevented per Covid case.

This chart drives home what public health experts have been stressing throughout the pandemic: Chronic health problems linked to obesity such as hypertension and diabetes dramatically increase the risk of serious Covid infection, sometimes leading to hospitalization and a greatly elevated risk of death.

The power of this graphic arises in part from the underlying accuracy of the data it rests upon. There is little (but some) ambiguity at the national level in data on Covid deaths, and obesity is well defined and an easily tracked indicator of a nation’s health status.

The Heartland Study, HHRA’s flagship project, will assess whether prenatal herbicide exposure levels are increasing the severity or frequency of adverse birth outcomes. Our work is focused on the 13-state Midwest region where herbicide use and exposures are rapidly rising. Our goal is to enroll and bring 2,000 mother-infant pairs (MIPs) through the Heartland Study protocol.

In a few years The Heartland Study team will produce the data needed to produce a graph like the one below, but with 2,000 data points, one for each MIP.

Complex metabolic and physiological dynamics link an individual’s obesity to an adverse Covid outcome and much more careful research is needed to sort out why some people are able to recover from Covid and others succumb to it.

The same clusters of complexity will apply when The Heartland Study science team looks for connections between herbicide exposures and birth outcomes in the mother-infant pairs moving through our research protocol.

Challenges Unique to The Heartland Study

The two basic measures at the heart of The Heartland Study— “Adverse Birth Outcomes” and “Index of Prenatal Herbicide Exposures” — will require complex calculations and methodological breakthroughs. No one has cracked these nuts before, but it is time to tap modern science in a fresh effort to do so.

The Heartland Study is focused on two primary adverse reproductive outcomes: failure to conceive and pregnancy loss (aka spontaneous abortion or miscarriage). Plus, we will look for links between prenatal herbicide exposures and several adverse birth outcomes ranging from common outcomes like preterm delivery of low birth-weight babies, to birth defects and developmental delays, learning disabilities and behavioral problems as children grow up. How we plan on doing so is explained in our four-year protocol.

On the exposure side of The Heartland Study equation, our team faces a bushel of challenges. First, herbicide use and exposures are rapidly changing. Can we collect and analyze data fast enough to keep up with changing public health outcomes?

Pregnant women and children in the Heartland are exposed to several herbicides at varying levels nearly year round. These herbicides vary in toxicity by orders of magnitude, and might be interacting in ways science has not recognized. Creating an integrated measure of exposure across multiple herbicides is going to be a difficult challenge.

We also expect exposure levels and impacts to vary depending on where women live (out in farm country where herbicide use is widespread and nearby) or in cities and suburbs. We also expect variability between the heavy herbicide spray season (April-August) and the little-or-no spraying season (November through March). Such variability poses challenges, but also opportunities to sort out the factors most strongly influencing adverse birth outcomes.

Heartland Study science will be accepted as credible only to the extent we can come up with clear, robust and accurate measures of adverse outcomes and herbicide exposure. We know this task will be more challenging than measuring obesity rates and Covid deaths at the country level.

But we have access to powerful new tools like genetic sequencing and metabolomics to integrate with other cutting-edge experimental systems and our vital, clinical data on what we hope will become 2,000 mother-infant pairs. Where will each MIP each fall in the above graph? Will new insights emerge from the patterns revealed?

Our search for pattern is underway. The endgame is new ability to recognize which herbicides farmers need to move away from so a crop of healthy new Americans will hit the ground running every year across the Heartland.



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