Organic agriculture advocates see a big upside in a recommendation by a cancer panel that consumers should forego food treated by pesticides.

In a substantial list of recommendations of what individuals can do to reduce the environmental exposure to carcinogens, the panel, in a report, wrote:  “Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues."
The 240-page report is available online here.

Other recommendations include filtering tap water, wear a headset when using a cell phone and checking home radon levels.

The report, titled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” was submitted to President Obama by Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr., an oncologist at Howard University, and Dr. Margaret Kripke, an immunologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The panel’s statement was hailed as important milestone in organic marketing.

“It is monumental for organics, really,” said Barbara Hausman, spokeswoman for the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association.

Hausman said organic growers and the organic community for years have understood the link between organic food and environmental health, but earning the backing of an esteemed scientific panel is invaluable.

While it may take time for the message to have an effect on consumer behavior, Hausman said the presidential panel's report reinforces what the association and organic farmers have been saying all along.

“It is a boost to the whole consumer education efforts,” she said. “They didn’t say the word organic, but what they are signaling out when they are talking about what individual can do, basically the are describing organic agriculture."

Organic agriculture, with its requirements of certification and inspections, is the only farming system that meets what the panel describes, Hausman said.

Charles Benbrook, chief scientist with the Denver, Colo.-based Organic Center, said the report emphasized the role of environmental factors on cancer development like no other report has done. While some critics of the panel’s report have taken exception to the emphasis of the report on environmental factors when more important risks include smoking, eating overcooked meat or alcohol consumption, he said the panel’s message is valid.

“What the panel is saying is that exposure to chemicals in the environment and other toxins may not directly cause the lung cancer that someone who smokes suffers from, but they increased the susceptibility of a particular individual to getting the disease,” Benbrook said.

Bradley Mitchell, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, Ashland, Mass., said he believes the government report could help move the demand need for organic food, particularly if it is endorsed by other authorities.

“For most consumers, I think that price will remain the most influential factor in buying decisions, with quality (taste and appearance) a relatively distant second,” he said.