Struggling with infertility is a crushing experience. It is humiliating and painful, both physically and emotionally, because treatments often involve a litany of invasive tests and surgeries. Infertility patients take several rounds of powerful drugs, followed by careful monitoring, more procedures, more drugs, and an agonizing waiting game. Couples trying to get pregnant via methods such as in-vitro fertilization suffer a major strain on their work schedules, sex life, and finances.
I know this because I underwent infertility treatments for years. The first time, despite some setbacks, it worked, and I gave birth to our daughter in 2000. The second time, we were not so lucky. After a few years of failed attempts, including a devastating ectopic pregnancy, we stopped and did something we had talked about before we were married: adopting a baby. In 2005, we brought home our second daughter from South Korea. (Now that they are teenagers, I joke to my husband that I’m glad we couldn’t have more.)
In October, the journal JAMA Internal Medicine posted a paper authored by several Harvard University researchers claiming that pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables could adversely affect pregnancy outcomes. The findings were based on surveys completed by 325 women undergoing treatments at a Boston fertility center to gauge how often they ate organic fruits and vegetables. The researchers then used dubious methods to tie pesticide intake to pregnancy success or failure, and concluded that women who ate non-organic produce had an 18 percent lower chance of getting pregnant through assisted technologies, and a 26 percent lower probability of giving birth, than women who didn’t. They suggested that switching to organic could improve a woman’s chance of having a baby.
Those clickbait results were too enticing for the media to ignore or fairly scrutinize, even though the scientists acknowledged that their report is the first of its kind. A New York Times headline warned, “Pesticides Tied to Problems in Assisted Pregnancies,” and one of the study’s authors, Jorge Chavarro, told the paper that infertility patients who “really want to eat peaches or spinach, it makes sense to switch to the organic version.” Chavarro also told CNN he was “surprised” by the findings and that he is “now more willing to pay the extra money for organic apples and strawberries than I was when we started this project.” (It’s odd that Chavarro was “surprised,” since he also authored a 2015 study claiming that pesticide intake from non-organic fruits and vegetables lowered sperm count. I emailed him several questions about the study, and asked if either he or Harvard’s School of Public Health receives funding from organic interests. He did not respond.)
The study has not been peer-reviewed or reproduced, and the researchers did not actually measure pesticide levels in each respondent, rather, they estimated them.
Organic interest groups and fearmongering quacks (such as Joseph Mercola, who has repeatedly been disciplined by the FDA), cheered the study, inflating the results to apply to all women trying to have a baby. Stacy Malkan, an activist with U.S. Right to Know, an organic-industry front group, wrote in the Huffington Post that “for those of us who are concerned about fertility, cancer and raising healthy children, science is suggesting we switch to an organic diet to reduce pesticide exposure and vote for politicians who are willing to stand up to the pesticide industry.”
There is one slight problem: the science is bunk. The study has not been peer-reviewed or reproduced, and the researchers did not actually measure pesticide levels in each respondent, rather, they estimated them from the women’s recollections of what they had eaten and a federal database on pesticide residues found on popular fruits and vegetables. In a blog post, Terence Bradshaw of the University of Vermont listed the study’s many flaws, including the use of recall questionnaires that asked respondents what they had eaten for the past three months, and for relying on an undisclosed model:
Sorry, that’s poor form for such a groundbreaking research paper, and indicates not only a lack of transparency but also a lack of scientific rigor. It’s an activist-science fishing mission fed to a receptive media, and they have gobbled it up and spit it out. The saddest part of the story is that reputable media outlets with stretched staff and few reporters with scientific background and time to apply it are just parroting the press releases accompanying the paper.
This was an observational, case control study. That means that the independent variable of concern, in this case, pesticide residue intake, is not under the control of the researcher. That doesn’t invalidate the study, but it immediately makes it a weak one.
One reason I cover the organic industry is to expose its dishonesty and shamelessness. Organic executives and activists will exploit any vulnerable group — from parents of children with autism and other ailments to people suffering from major health issues — to sell their overpriced food. Here, a bogus study embraced by the media and touted by organic special interests will sadly compel women who are trying to get pregnant to pay more for organic food, the same women who are already spending a fortune just to realize their dream of motherhood. Of all the brazen tactics used by organic promoters to scare people into buying their products, this one hit a little too close to home.
— Julie Kelly is a writer from Orland Park, Ill