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Organic Farming Can Enhance Food Safety: Report

FOSTER, R.I. -- Organic farming practices can reduce the risk of dangerous mycotoxin contamination in foods, particularly grain-based products, according to a report released yesterday by the Organic Center, a nonprofit organization based here. The report, "Breaking the Mold: Impacts of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems on Mycotoxins in Food and Livestock Feed," analyzes scientific studies and literature comparing the incidence of mycotoxin contamination in organic vs. conventional foods.

Although most fungi aren't harmful to people, there are more than 300 species of fungi with the ability to produce potentially dangerous mycotoxins, which are secondary metabolites produced by fungi under certain environmental conditions. When present in the food supply, they can pose mild to severe health risks to humans.

Most often found in grains and grain-based products, nuts, spices, milk, and apple juice, mycotoxins, whose growth can be stimulated by wet conditions succeeded by hot and dry periods, costs U.S. agriculture between $630 million and $2.5 billion yearly, mainly due to market rejection of grain with mycotoxins at levels above government or company standards.

"Our analysis found that conventional samples of food contained mycotoxins about 50 percent more frequently than the organic samples in a set of comparison studies, at average levels a little over twice as high," noted Organic Center chief scientist Charles Benbrook, the study's author, in a statement. "While mycotoxins can be a problem in both conventional and organic farming systems, the data gives us new insight and hope that organic farming methods can work to enhance margins of food safety."

Despite claims that organic food and animal feed are more frequently and heavily contaminated with mycotoxins because organic farmers aren't permitted to use synthetic fungicides, the report found that organic agricultural practices often lessen the prevalence of serious fungal infections, and hence mycotoxin risks, in the food supply, since such practices promote diversity in the microorganisms colonizing plant tissues and living in the soil, and reduce the supply of nitrogen readily available to support plant and pathogen growth. According to the report, conventional farming practices raise the risk of fungal infections through a lack of diversity and dependence on monocultures, and because of heavy use of fertilizers delivering plant nutrients in a readily available form.

The center's report came to the conclusion that the advantages of organic farming practices equal if not exceed any disadvantages in terms of mycotoxin prevention on well-managed organic farms. One example cited was that organic production of small grains, especially wheat, can lessen the frequency and seriousness of mycotoxin contamination compared with conventional farms, even those conventional wheat farms that use fungicides.

The report encourages more systematic testing of mycotoxins across the entire U.S. food system. Currently, no U.S. government agency routinely tests food for mycotoxins. "The organic community should not wait for others to take on the challenges inherent in understanding more fully where and how mycotoxins enter the food supply," noted Benbrook. "More systematic and routine monitoring is an essential first step."

The Organic Center's mission is to generate credible, peer-reviewed scientific information and communicate the verifiable benefits of organic farming and products to society.
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