Local Food Part 3 – Is Our Food Pesticide-Laden?

Local Food Part 1 – Too Many Choices

Local Food Part 2 – How the Organic Label Can Let You Down

By Arwen McGilvra-

According to a Consumer Report survey most consumers believe that the organic label on produce currently means that no toxic pesticides were used (81%.) In fact if you ask most people they will tell you they think that organics means no pesticides were used. So what is the big deal about pesticides and organics anyway? Is conventional food so soaked in toxic pesticides that the price of organics is worth it?

The article Why People Aren’t Buying into Organic Food Products makes commentary on tests of pesticide residue on produce.

“Many devotees of organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides,” writes Henry I. Miller in Forbes. “But that’s a poor rationale: Non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, to be sure, but more than 99 percent of the time the levels were below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators—limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.”

He adds that just because a farm is organic doesn’t mean the food it produces will be free of potentially toxic elements. While organic standards may preclude the use of synthetic inputs, organic farms often utilize so-called “natural” pesticides and what Miller calls “pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer” that can also end up making consumers sick and have been linked to cancers and other serious illnesses (like their synthetic counterparts).

So organic pesticides can be as toxic as their synthetic counterparts, and as we saw in Part 2 being labeled organic does not equal pesticide free (see also the list at The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.) Scientist will tell you it’s not the fact that some may be toxic it’s how much does it take to make a substance toxic. Which is also know as “the dose make the poison.” Mark Lorch Senior Lecturer in Biological Chemistry at University of Hull puts it this way.

Whether a chemical is man-made or natural tells you precisely nothing about how dangerous it is. Sodium thiopental, for example, is used in lethal injections but it’s about as toxic as amygdalin, which turns up in almonds and apple seeds. What makes one of these chemicals dangerous and the other part of your healthy five-a-day is quite simply the quantity that you consume.

Melinda Wenner Moyer also point this out in her Slate.com article Organic Shmorganic:

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Toxicology, Carl Winter, a pesticide and risk assessment specialist at the University of California-Davis, and his colleague Josh Katz took a close look at the fruits and vegetables that topped the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list—a top 12 list of what the non-profit group considers the most highly contaminated conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables sold in the United States…

What did they find? Well, let’s start with apples, which the EWG considers the most pesticide-laden fruit or vegetable out there, and look at the pesticide that is most commonly found on them, called Thiabendazole. Winter and his colleagues found that, each day from conventionally-grown apples and apple-based products, Americans typically consume a dose of Thiabendazole that is 787 times less than the EPA’s recommended exposure limit. Put another way, you’d have to eat as many apples and apple products as 787 Americans eat in a single day combined in order to be exposed to a level of this pesticide that approaches the EPA’s exposure limit.

For other fruits and vegetables, Winter and his colleagues found even less reason to worry. For Captan, the synthetic pesticide most commonly found on conventionally grown strawberries, Americans are exposed to 8,180 times less of the chemical per day than the EPA’s limit. Overall, Winter and his colleagues reported that the EPA’s exposure limits were more than 1000 times higher than the daily exposure estimates for 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable comparisons they made.

 Safe Fruits and Veggies - Carrots
Image from safefruitsandveggies.com

Let those numbers sink in for a minute…. What this means is that a child could consume 154 servings of Apples in one day without any effect even if the Apples have the highest pesticide residue recorded for Apples by USDA. For an adult that number would be 787 servings. If you are still concerned about residue you may be interested in this FDA report

A 1990 report in the EPA Journal by three chemists from the agency, Joel Garbus, Susan Hummel, and Stephanie Willet, summarized four studies of fresh tomatoes treated with a fungicide, which were tested a harvest, at the packing house, and at point of sale to the consumer. The studies showed that more than 99 percent of the residues were washed off at the packing house by the food processor.

The FDA’s simple tips for removing residue are the same as your grandmothers wisdom.

  • Wash produce with large amounts of cold or warm tap water, and scrub with a brush when appropriate; do not use soap.
  • Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage.

To sum it all up survey after survey and study after study shows that Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Frankly even if pesticide residue were a problem, we just aren’t eating enough fresh produce for it to be a factor. We should worry about increasing our daily intake first.

You can take the next step by shopping locally and getting to know the farmers who are growing your food. Remember they are probably feeding it to their families too. Ask them simple questions like “How do you suggest I store and prepare this?” “What pesticides do you use?” or “How do you manage pests?” “When was the last time this was sprayed?” “Do you wash these or do any other prep before bringing them to the market?” We have a resource for you so you can find the markets and farm stands in your area. Check out our local foods page.

Arwen McGilvra is a farm girl, whose family owns a multi-generation farm here in the Willamette Valley. Currently the farm raises seed crops, mostly grass seed. But in the past they’ve raised everything from strawberries to flax (which was used to make linen parachutes for WWII) to onions. She’s a member of American Agri-Women and it’s local affiliate Oregon Women for Agriculture. Passionate about farming and science, Arwen also enjoys gardening. Professionally she is a content manager and web developer known as The Tech Chef.

Suggested articles & sites

Safe Fruits and Veggies

Raw Produce: Selecting and Serving it Safely

Calculate Your Risk from Pesticide Residues

A Treatment for Chemophobia