Forestry professor warns of chemicals in food

People in today’s world are surrounded by more chemicals than they realize, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies professor John Wargo GRD ’84 said in a lecture Wednesday: The government approves more than 2,000 synthetic chemicals each year, many of which end up in the food supply.

In a talk at Kroon Hall, Wargo discussed his work researching the dangers of synthetic chemicals in food. The lecture was the first for the Yale Colloquium on Food, Agriculture and the Environment, which will meet each week until the end of April to discuss research in the three fields.

Wargo became interested in the subject of agriculture and environmental toxicity in the early 1980s, he said. Soon after the birth of his daughter, he read a report on toxic chemicals that commonly turn up in human tissues, originating in materials such as food flavorings, water proofing agents and synthetic fragrances. These chemicals are unregulated by the federal government and are more readily absorbed by children, Wargo said, and this realization led him to study human diets and how they often expose people to carcinogens.

Because children’s diets are made up of very few foods, Wargo said the government should pay attention to the chemicals that make their way into those specific foods. He scrutinized federal regulation of chemicals and dietary guidelines. He added that governmental research considers only one chemical at a time and ignores the impact of the chemicals when they come together in a children’s diet.

In addition, Wargo said individuals should think broadly and ecologically about contaminants in the food supply. The government should test for such chemicals before they enter the food supply, Wargo said.

“We are conducting an enormous scale, uncontrolled experiment on our own bodies,” Wargo said. “We live in a world of plastics.”

Wargo cited governmental regulation and increasing social awareness as constructive methods for addressing the problem, even if they are focused only on the most harmful foods. Wargo added that he is excited about the possibility of food production certifying processes that are free of synthetic chemicals — similar to organic agriculture.

Joshua Brau FES ’12 SOM ’12, who attended the talk Wednesday, cited the problems of food and agriculture as the reason he came to Yale to study the environment.

“In my view, the food system is one of the fundamental environmental problems of today, but compared to others, particularly energy, it gets little attention,” Brau said. “It has implications for public health, and any way that we can be talking or learning about it is a positive thing.”

Former Yale faculty member Jerome Silbert, who is now the director of the Watershed Partnership, an environmental group based in Guilford, Conn., said lectures such as Wargo’s are valuable for people in his field too.

“I’m here because I have a vested interest in water toxicity,” Silbert said.

The idea for the colloquium sprung from two factors, said Emly McDiarmid FES ’78, the Environment School’s Director of Admissions: Prospective students showed interest in food, agriculture and the environment, and a large number of faculty members have been working on research on these issues through Yale’s agrarian and environmental studies programs.

“There is an unusual energy converging on food, agriculture and the environment at Yale, and [the colloquium] is one product of that energy,” Wargo said.

The colloquium is sponsored by the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Environmental Studies department, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the Agrarian Studies program and the Yale Sustainable Food Project. Future speakers for the colloquium include Melina Shannon-DiPietro, the director of the YSFP, and Environment School Dean Sir Peter Crane.

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