Dr. Charles (Chuck) Benbrook has been on a lifelong mission researching how farming systems affect our food and human health. Among his latest endeavors is the creation of the website Hygeia Analytics, an open resource that aims to deepen insights into the roots of good health.
With the development of his digital outreach, Benbrook and a team of physicians and scientists founded the Heartland Health Research Alliance (HHRA) in June of 2020. The nonprofit is outfitted with a team of international scientists focusing on key public health pressure points at the intersection of ag systems, diets, and consumers—from pregnant women, newborns, children, the elderly, and people dealing with chronic or degenerative diseases.
Dr. Charles (Chuck) Benbrook has been on a lifelong mission researching how farming systems affect our food choices and impact human health.
Benbrook’s career started after grad school with an aim “to work on ag’s impact on the environment and public health at a Montana university, live in the woods, and flyfish.” What has transpired over the past 40 years is a life dedicated to helping farmers find better ways to manage pests.
Following a stint in the Carter administration during the late '70s, Benbrook transitioned to a staff director role on the House Ag Subcommittee. The Subcommittee had jurisdiction over the federal statute that governs the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides in the US.
Dr. Chuck Benbrook
“Early on it was clear to me that organic farmers had tapped into some magic powers in managing pests,” Benbrook said. “How could they bring crops to harvest with essentially no pesticides applied when just across the fence line, a neighboring conventional farmer might need to spray 10 different pesticides 20 or more times?”
Benbrook said he wanted to learn what successful organic farmers were doing that allowed them to manage pests with almost no pesticides and what conventional farmers were doing that rendered them so dependent on “modern chemistry.”
“Early on it was clear to me that organic farmers had tapped into some magic powers in managing pests.” -Dr. Chuck Benbrook
“I wanted to develop analytical tools that would help farmers, the food industry, and policymakers understand the enormous benefits to society if the pest-management magic embedded in organic farming systems could be replicated or mimicked across the bulk of the American ag landscape,” he said.
Pesticide exposure is causing or contributing to far more serious problems than most people realize, “Benbrook said. “And it’s not just impacting the environment. I could bend your ear for hours about recent science linking prenatal pesticide exposures to a long list of reproductive, developmental, and genetic impacts that are picking apart the health of far too many Americans.”
“I wanted to develop analytical tools that would help farmers, the food industry, and policymakers understand the enormous benefits to society if the pest-management magic embedded in organic farming systems could be replicated or mimicked across the bulk of the American ag landscape.” -Dr. Chuck Benbrook
The effects of pesticide exposure led Benbrook to create the Dietary Risk Index (DRI), a newly minted analytical tool that is part of Hygeia Analytics.
In development for over 30 years and supported by millions of dollars in donations from aligned organizations, the DRI makes it easy for anyone to track the relative risks stemming from pesticides residues in food and which pesticides account for the most risk—by food and over time.
Programmed to compare pesticide residues inorganic produce, nuts, meat, and more to their conventionally grown counterparts, the DRI also tracks residues in domestically grown crops compared to imports of the same item.
The DRI makes it easy for anyone to track the relative risks stemming from pesticides residues in food and which pesticides account for the most risk—by food and over time.
Benbrook said there is nothing available anywhere in the world like the tables comparing residues in organic and conventional foods.
One of the goals of Benbrook’s work is for the organic produce industry to recognize where there are residue risks, so growers, certifiers, and retailers can deal with them more effectively.
“The birth of a child—and assuring that child’s healthy growth and development—is the number one reason in drawing new shoppers to organic produce. Let’s empower moms and dads with timely, accurate information on where and how to keep pesticides out of their kid’s food,” he said.
Benbrook believes scientific studies show that organic produce is delivering on its promise to nearly eliminate dietary exposure to pesticides. Consumer trust, however, is hard to win and can be quickly lost. “I am offering this system to help the organic industry track the rare high-risk samples of organic food that are slipping into the supply chain—and kick them off the bus,” he said.