French men getting less sexy? As sperm counts slide, activists point to pesticides, scientists to vegetables

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In 2012, a report claimed that French men were less manly – their sperm counts declined 30% since 1985, it found. A speculative comment by a researcher, that maybe it was ‘endocrine disruptors’, led environmentalists to declare that pesticides were turning French men into slightly less manly French men. There was no evidence for it, but activists often look for problems to match to their solution so they jumped on the result. Anti-agriculture people blamed pesticides, anti-smoking people blamed cigarettes, anti-alcohol people blamed too much wine, etc.

It may be they had lost sperm count because they ate too many vegetables. Or at least vegetables with not enough pesticides.

It’s not a secret that vegetarians have lower sperm quality than people on a normal diet and a new report added evidence to earlier findings. A retrospective study led by Dr. Eliza Orzylowska of Loma Linda University Medical Center and discussed at the 70th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine used semen analyses of 26 vegetarians, 5 vegans, and 443 meat eaters between 2009 and 2013 found that vegetarians and vegans have significantly poorer sperm concentration and motility than people on a normal diet. They weren’t infertile, but their boys were just not as robust.

Does that explain the French? Perhaps. The authors of the 2012 paper did a new study in 2014 and said they factored out things that could also be impacting French sperm, like cigarettes and alcohol. What did environmentalists claim must be the culprit? You guessed it; pesticides again.

Except pesticide use has gone down in France, not up. 1985 was just a few years removed from peak pesticides in agriculture – 1979 showed 1.46 billion pounds of pesticides used per year worldwide. The United States leads the world in food production and reached its pesticides peak in 1981, with 632 million pounds, but now yields are dramatically higher while pesticide use is lower. Companies in that business have had flat revenues for years.

Where I live, in California, wine grape pesticide use has declined almost 25% since the 1980s, though business is bigger than ever.

That drastic decline is not just in overall usage, it is also in detection in samples: Today pesticide residues are much lower than in the past, a scant one-half of one percent of tests show levels above tolerance, and studies in both Canada and the US show that high levels of pesticide residues are more likely to be in organic food than conventional.

What does that drop in pesticide use correlate to, if we are doing a retrospective epidemiological paper? The drop in French sperm quality.

So, extending the often bizarre logic of campaigning advocacy groups, if you want to have more kids, you should eat more meat…and if you must eat vegetables, make sure you eat the ones grown using pesticides.

Hank Campbell is president of the American Council on Science and Health(ACSH) and founder of Science 2.0. He’s an award-winning science writer who has appeared in numerous publications, from Wired to the Wall Street Journal. In 2012 he was co-author of the bestselling book Science Left Behind. Follow him on Twitter @HankCampbell.

  • Hank,
    Interesting use of some familiar data. Although a positive correlation is a very weak indicator of causation, a strong negative correlation is a pretty good reason to question a hypothesis such as “pesticides reduce sperm counts”

    • Doug

      We didn’t have details of the French methodology, so as the trolls haven’t got here yet I can play the Devil’s Advocate, suppose ingestion of pesticides during puberty cause a lack of sperm in later life? If the tests are done each year using men of the same age and general health . . . . . .
      Hehehehehe, sometimes it’s fun to put logic into random pieces of data. Maybe the pesticide residues in the soil caused Global Warming and the decline in residues account for the lack thereof since 2000, perhaps the decline in smoking is to blame for earth not getting hotter?

      • And reduction is pesticide use has put people off cigarettes?

  • agliterate

    Bwaaa haaa haaa! Just as good as “obviously, the incidence of (autism, allergies, cancer, fill in the blank…) has gone up because of … GMO’s!” Same exact pseudo-science. Thanks for pointing out the “correlation” fallacy with this great example!

  • Purple Smiley Hana

    Huhhhhhhhh?????? Wowww…..

  • Rob Wallbridge

    “studies in both Canada and the US show that high levels of pesticide residues are more likely to be in organic food than conventional.”

    Actually, Hank, the available data says the exact opposite.

    And as many have been very quick to point out in defence of herbicide use on GMO crops, pounds applied per acre is a poor measure of potential toxic impact.

    But maybe I should just start ignoring the obvious factual and logical flaws of your posts and enjoy them as a satirical take on scientific writing.

    • Hank Campbell

      I understand why an organic farmer in Canada is in a panic about research showing organic food has more pesticides than conventional food.

      Clearly the Canadian government was on your side, since they buried the report and it took the Canadian version of a Freedom of Information Act request to get it.

      Don’t worry, people are not going to stop overpaying for your product because of a blog post, just like people overpay for lots of supplements and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

      • Rob Wallbridge

        Brilliant, Hank! Unable to come up with any data or facts to support your assertions, you resort to a shill accusation! Once again, you are doing a masterful job of demonstrating anti-science behavior.

        I hate to spoil the fun, but here are the facts from the Canadian data:

        Percent of non-organic samples testing positive for residues: 78.4%

        Percent of non-organic samples violating maximum residue limits: 4.7%

        Percent of organic samples testing positive for residues: 45.8%

        Percent of organic samples exceeding maximum residue limits: 1.8%

        Source: http://bit.ly/1ozmwc6

        So Hank, please explain to us how 45.8 is higher than 78.4, and how 1.8 is higher than 4.7.

        • I don’t really care which is higher for pesticide residue. Organic food isn’t supposed to have any synthetic pesticide residue in it.

          Apologists for the Canadian organic sector claimed the abysmal results were caused by pesticides drifting over fence lines. But this is statistically and scientifically impossible.

          Half of all Canadian organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides due to fraud, plain and simple.

          • Rob Wallbridge

            Thanks for joining the fun Mischa, and demonstrating another fine tactic. Unable or unwilling to account for data that clearly contradicts previous claims, you decide to move the goalposts.

            The original challenge still stands. Explain how 45.8 is higher than 78.4, and how 1.8 is higher than 4.7.

            While we’re waiting for Hank (or anyone else) to do that, provide evidence for your claim that it is “statistically and scientifically impossible” for the majority of the results to have been caused by incidental contamination (which, unlike your simplified and exaggerated version is the actual explanation provided).

            I’m here to discuss facts and data, not to repeat exaggerated claims and throw around unfounded accusations. (Nor am I here to post (or read) sexist, misogynistic comments, for that matter.)

          • hyperzombie

            Look Rob, how can the organic industry market their foods as being free of synthetic chemicals when half of them fail that test? And at least 2% were directly sprayed with banned pesticides?
            How does the Organic industry get away with this, if I was marketing “Sugar Free” candy and a half my candy had sugar in it, and a few percent exceeded the limit for sugar, there would be hell to pay.

          • A crucial correction here hyperzombie…

            2% of the samples exceeded levels that would allow them to be sold as organic… according to American standards. Canada has no such threshold level in its organic standards, which is why there were no prosecutions or de-certifications on this 2% level.

            What’s more, ALL of the samples that tested positive were likely sprayed directly (i.e. fraud), for the reasons I explain in my comment above.

          • You and Hank can duke that question out all you want Rob. I want to know why half of all organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides.

            You should be ashamed of an industry that lumps your good organic food in with fake organic food.

          • Rob Wallbridge

            The link I provided as a source for my data provides some insight into the causes of contamination. There’s also a fairly extensive body of scientific literature on the movement of pesticides in the environment.
            You’ve countered this information with your own assertion but have failed to provide any evidence to back it.
            So while I wait for Hank to give me a lesson in “Math 2.0”, perhaps you could work on supporting your own claims.

          • Try providing less links and more argument Rob.

            Spray-drift dissipates logarithmically. That’s why we have 25′ buffers on our organic fields. We arrived at that knowing that potential contamination levels approach “effective nil” at that distance.

            As such, it is impossible that the contamination of HALF of all Canadian organic food with prohibited pesticides is the result of anything but fraud.

        • Warren Lauzon

          You missed the point, which was about PROHIBITED pesticides for organics. Just like the US, there are zero actual field inspections for organic compliance – it is 100% all just paperwork. Nobody ever actually checks it.

          • Rob Wallbridge

            Oh really? 100% paperwork. So the inspector who visits my farm every single year, and the additional inspector who sometimes shows up to do surprise audits – they’re just figments of my imagination? The thousands of acres I viewed while working as an organic inspector – they were all dreams? Try some facts on for size, Warren.

          • Warren Lauzon

            Was going by what I was told by another previous organic inspector. He stated that none of the crops were actually tested, that only the paperwork was inspected.

          • Rob Wallbridge

            Here’s an account of a typical organic inspection: http://bit.ly/188SZkg

          • Warren Lauzon

            Interesting. I see that was in Canada – do you know if the inspection system in the US is any different?

          • Rob Wallbridge

            The U.S. system is very similar – I performed dozens of organic farm inspections in the northeastern U.S. in the early 2000s.

          • How many samples did you collect for testing Rob?

          • There is no field testing to ensure organic farmers are not using prohibited substances in either the United States or Canada.
            In the US there is some end-product testing, which is useless. In Canada there is no testing of any sort. It is quite literally 100% paperwork.
            To repeat, there is no organic field testing in Canada of the USA. None.

          • This is hilarious Rob.
            A basic soil test does not tell us if prohibited pesticides were used.
            Further down in this article, you say it’s too expensive to perform field tests on organic crops – which it most-certainly is not. But in any case, how could you use a link to this article as proof that there is any testing for synthetic pesticides when even you admit in this article that there is none?

          • hyperzombie

            Oh really? 100% paperwork. So the inspector who visits my farm every single year, and the additional inspector who sometimes shows up to do surprise audits – they’re just figments of my imagination?

            Was your paperwork in order? Surprise paperwork inspections don’t mean a thing. Was any testing done to ensure that you were not using any prohibited chemicals? If the organic industry has so many inspections explain this?

            “Percent of organic samples testing positive for residues: 45.8%”

          • Quite right hyperzombie! You’re asking the right questions. Rob will not answer because he knows his fields have never been tested for performance-enhancing drugs, i.e. synthetic pesticides.

          • Merely viewing an Olympic athlete isn’t going to tell you if he’s using performance-enhancing drugs Rob.
            Please tell us how many times your CFIA-accredited certifier has actually done a test on your crops for prohibited pesticides.

          • Quite right Warren. All 100% paperwork; no field testing.

      • Quite right Hank. The very pro-organic Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had to pry the embarrassing results out of the CFIA showing that almost half of all CFIA-certified-organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides, a clear indication of rampant fraud!

    • Oh come on Rob. Half of all USDA and CFIA certified-organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides. You know that. What data are you talking about?

    • David Gandar

      Good point Rob, that high level claim is made often and not backed up by studies. In fact it is almost routine on pro-GMO sites like this one to see “Many studies have shown … blah blah” but I haven’t seen a single study noted that compares.

      • Roundup (glyphosate) is the most-commonly used herbicide. It is prohibited for use in organic agriculture, and is only detectable for 14 to 28 days. As such, the only way to check to see if an organic farmer is using Roundup is to test his crops in the field. There is no such field testing in the organic industry anywhere in the world. As such, we have no idea how many organic farmers are cheating with Roundup. The same holds true for many other prohibited substances.

        This, combined with the comment above in which I explain that pesticide-drift dissipates logarithmically, proves conclusively that ALL of the positive results finding prohibited-pesticide residue in almost HALF of all Canadian and American organic food, are the result of fraud.

        • David Gandar

          Hmmm. I guess the real conclusion from that is where pesticides & herbicides are used a lot they will appear everywhere. Do we need a more rigorous certification standard for organic?

          • No. You’ve got it backwards.

            Where pesticides and herbicides are used, there is scant likelihood that they will drift over into neighboring organic crops as long as organic farmers have their buffers in place.

            As herbicide spray travels over a 25′ buffer, it approaches effective nil, or zero. That’s why organic farmers have buffers on their fields.

          • David Gandar

            OK thanks

          • Anytime friend!

        • Matt

          At the very least we can take additional comfort that in general we are taking in a reduced pesticide load when eating organic.

          Are these organic crops/produce sourced from canada and USA or from places, or perhaps China for example known for repeatedly a source of food safety issues.

          Personally I think the industry corruption itself is the problem, not the concept of avoiding pesticides.

  • David Gandar

    I would like to know what research helps understand what IS causing the dramatic reported increase in child allergies, child intestinal disorders, and child leukemia. Rather than blaming GMOs, or try discredit anyone concerned about pesticide use as “activist”, none of which helps.

    • Warren Lauzon

      One of the problems is that for many things, people cannot even agree that there really is an increase in the disease, or just in the reporting and diagnoses.

      • David Gandar

        I’m not sure that isn’t an excuse for poor analysis, or worse. The increase in incidence of gut inflammations, allergies and child leukemia, in several countries, can be explained just by better reporting? Too coincidental to be credible.

        • Warren Lauzon

          “Gut inflammation” and allergies are too general a term to have any stats on, but child leukemia – all types – have been stable for the past decade at least.

        • The increase in incidents of “gut inflammations, allergies and child leukemia,” etc… all coincide with the introduction of the USDA’s National Organic Program which, coincidentally, also coincided with the introduction of the first GMO crops. As such, one could just as easily be the cause of these ailments as the other.

          Improperly-composted feces found in manure causes all sort of ailments, including permanent kidney failure and death.

  • Isn’t red meat and soy good for sperm count, testosterone and vitality?

  • cosmosma

    “. . . and that pesticide-exposed greenhouse workers had boys with smaller penises and testicles . . .” ‘Nuff said. (Published 2008) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290975/

    • Hank Campbell

      So a tiny study sample found tiny penises on sons born to mothers who wore protective gear and had greenhouse safeguards while pregnant and you blame the pesticide?

      You might just as well blame pruning, since that was the other common factor in their occupation.

      They don’t list the 200 pesticides or the 120+ active ingredients in use, and they used unpublished statistics for their baseline. They just conclude pesticides led to tiny penises in 4 more kids
      and that is good enough for you. Not only do I know where you stand on science, I know how you vote.

      • Warren Lauzon

        Actually there are a tiny number of non-food trees that can cause health problems from pruning :P
        But in the study referenced I would be more likely to look at the some other factor, even if the basis is true. A few years back some workers claimed skin irritation from chemicals used in producing IC chips. Turned out was actually an ingredient in the anti-static mats.

  • A Pedant

    “26 vegetarians, 5 vegans, and 443 meat eaters”
    The sample size of vegetarians and vegans seems too small to draw any meaningful conclusions from, but I’m not a scientist so what do I know?

    • Cody Lupardus

      Not sure about the 5 vegans, but 26 certainly is enough to discard a null hypothesis. But it is not enough to provide good evidence for a null hypothesis. In this case, they are dismissing the null hypothesis that vegetarians have the same sperm quality as those who include meat in their diet, meaning they probably have a p-value under .05 (which is commonly used as a threshold for these types of tests, although depending on how many p-values they measured and how they calculated them could be misleading- http://xkcd.com/882/)

      Although I think I remember something in stats 101 that your sample size needs to be at least 10 to run certain statistical tests. So the 5 vegans may or may not be enough to run whatever statistical tests they used to make the comparison.

  • Warren Lauzon

    I suggest that we form a company to sell pesticide pills to the French, we could call it “Sperm Viagra” and make millions.

  • Matt

    What about bio accumulation of pesticides in the environment, even if yearly amounts have declined how long does it take for the multiple chemical components of the pesticide compounds to break down?

    Are some of the current pesticides/herbicides/fungicides being used have a greater estrogenic effect than older less used or no longer used pesticides/*/*.

    • Good4U

      Not even close. Bioaccumulation rates of currently used pesticides are much lower than they were, more than 45 years ago. Try again.

  • rel0627
  • Connie

    Here is a link to a journal from The Endocrine Society, the actual scientist that study endocrine disorders, with 485 sources to studies in their field. Section 5 is about male reproductive and development health with a section on semen quality. Info on pesticides too. So ask a scientist you tell the public. I follow your blog and this is what I get? I guess helping me understand agriculture only applies to how the science sways with the industry you are trying to support. This post is a fing joke. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2726844/

  • Liquid

    Or you can read the actual science on Organophosphates: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15257517

  • Debbie Mansperger

    Have you seen this piece of crap and the editorial accompanying it? http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/03/27/humrep.dev065.short?rss=1 They torture the data until they come up with what they were looking for.

  • myname

    Thanks for spreading more ridiculous disinformation with this article of cherry picked facts and correlations. Cancer is up roughly 10000%, thanks for doing your part you little twit of satan.

    • Good4U

      Bzzzzt! Wrong again. Cancer rates are actually down vs. 1985 figures. Where have you been for the past 32 years?

  • Borsk Fey’lya

    Trollin’ trollin’ trollin’!