Kendra Klein is senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth (FOE), a nonprofit dedicated to environmental and social justice issues. Klein holds a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from UC Berkeley, and her work at FOE focuses on food and agriculture. In 2019, she co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific study showing that switching from a conventional diet to an organic one significantly reduced pesticide exposure in just six days in both children and adults. The study was part of FOE’s “Organic for All” initiative, which advocates for a world where all people have access to healthy, organic food. Klein joined OPN for a conversation about her work.
Kendra Klein, senior staff scientist, Friends of the Earth
Can you give us a brief background about yourself, particularly in terms of how you became interested in organic agriculture?
One of my first jobs was at an organization called Breast Cancer Action. They are one of the few breast cancer organizations in the country that focuses on true prevention, looking at why people are getting sick in the first place. A lot of that work focuses on the toxic chemicals that we’re all exposed to from consumer products to pesticides. I became very interested in the health impacts of pesticides and also in solutions—and that led me to organic farming. I worked on a number of organic farms in Hawaii and in California, and then I ended up pursuing research related to organic agriculture and food systems solutions for my doctorate work in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley.
Organic For All subject families from Baltimore, MD (left) and Oakland, CA (right)
How did the “Organic for All” study come about?
We were aware of other studies that had done something similar—shift people from a conventional diet to an organic diet and look at the pesticides in their bodies. All of those consistently showed that organic diets can rapidly and dramatically reduce exposure to pesticides. We were interested in expanding that scientific literature by doing a peer-reviewed study, and, in tandem, doing a public education campaign to make the study easily understandable for the public.
So this study was a way to educate the public about their exposure to pesticides and their children’s exposure and then also introduce them to the much bigger scope of the benefits of organic to farmers and farmworkers, to pollinators and the environment, and to the climate. I think people understand that organic is a meaningful label, but I don’t think they really understand its full value.
Can you tell us a bit about the study’s results?
We tested four families across the country in Minneapolis, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Oakland. The families were on a completely conventional diet—or, as I like to say, non-organic diet—for six days and then a 100-percent organic diet for six days. Throughout the study period, we analyzed their urine samples, and we found 14 different pesticide analytes in everybody’s bodies representing exposure to many different pesticides: organophosphates, pyrethroids, neonicotinoids, and the herbicide 2,4-D. All of those analytes dropped in just six days on an organic diet.
On average, the pesticide levels in people’s bodies dropped 60 percent. Some of the biggest drops were in the organophosphates—malathion, which is a probable carcinogen, dropped 95 percent, and chlorpyrifos dropped 61 percent. There’s mountains of scientific data that show chlorpyrifos harms children’s brains; it has no place in our food system. We’ve celebrated important wins in the past two years—it’s been banned in Hawaii, California, New York, and Maryland, but we need a federal ban.
Other important findings were that we tested for neonicotinoids. This was the first organic diet intervention study to do so. This is a newer class of pesticides. We have less data on harm to health because we’ve only been using them in the past couple decades, but the emerging data really point to concern—links to behavioral problems, autism, and other health problems. We found that after six days on an organic diet, the neonicotinoid pesticide clothianidin dropped by 83 percent.
And 2,4-D dropped 37 percent. 2,4-D is one of the five most commonly used pesticides in the US. It made up half of the notorious Agent Orange used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War, which is linked to cancer in veterans and the Vietnamese. The formulation of 2,4-D has not substantially changed since.
Organic For All subject families from Atlanta, GA (left) and Minneapolis, MN (right)
Did any of the results surprise you or particularly stand out to you?
I think that some of the most compelling data was about the organophosphates—seeing malathion drop 95 percent and seeing chlorpyrifos drop 61 percent. We know that those are linked to major health concerns—cancer, autism, Parkinson’s, ADHD, and reduced IQ in children. So to see them drop so rapidly and to know that we have a solution—we don’t have to be exposed to those toxic pesticides because we know how to grow healthy and abundant food in a way that doesn’t rely on those pesticides—is just so important!
What are some of the other initiatives of Friends of the Earth’s vision of “Organic for All”?
There are various ways that this vision is being put into action. One was we were very engaged around organic policy in the last Farm Bill, bringing a broad coalition of farmers and organizations together to ensure that the organic standards remained strong and to advocate for increased funding of the National Organic Program and organic research.
We are also working to increase access to organic foods in California. We are working with other organizations to help school districts expand organic offerings because all children have the right to healthy, nontoxic food.
Friends of the Earth also has a grocery store campaign urging major US food retailers to end the use of toxic pesticides in their supply chains and expand organic offerings. And we encourage people to support farmers markets, CSAs, and independent retailers and food companies that source from local, organic growers.
Friends of the Earth activists
How is Friends of the Earth addressing the issue of making organic food affordable for all while still ensuring that farmers earn a decent living?
We propose changing the rules of the game set by the national Farm Bill by shifting the billions of dollars of subsidies—taxpayer dollars that are right now supporting pesticide-intensive agriculture—to support organic farmers and other farmers who are adopting ecological farming practices. We also need policies that support fair pricing and fair contracts for family-scale farmers. We know that the cheap price of non-organic food is not the real price of production. So much of our conventional food is artificially cheap. What if we flipped the system, and we supported organic and ecological farming and organic food became the norm? That way, we could bring down the price without squeezing farmers.
Working to make organic for all means investing in a food system that is healthier for all of us and healthier for farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities. And it means investing in a system that protects bees, helps mitigate climate change, and safeguards water, soil, and the ecosystems that sustain all life.