Daily News Archive

National Organic Standards Lend Promise to Ridding Food of Pesticides
(Beyond Pesticides, October 23, 2003) Almost as if to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the national organics standards, an article in The New York Times states matter-of-factly that "the availability of organic produce has made it easier to avoid most pesticides [in food]." Meanwhile, consumer, farmer, and environmental advocacy groups assess the new USDA rules on organic food and seem relatively pleased.

The article in the Times, which basically acknowledges that many want to avoid pesticides in food, covers the release of a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Stonyfield farms on the top twelve fruits and vegetables most saturated with pesticides, which they call the "dirty dozen". The report also names twelve fresh foods least saturated with pesticides.

Using 100,000 government pesticide test results, researchers found 192 different pesticides being used on the 46 fruits and vegetables analyzed. On average, says the report, a person who eats all twelve of the "dirty dozen" would be exposed to nearly twenty pesticides per day. Among the most contaminated fresh foods (internally as well as externally) are apples, spinach, grapes (imported) and strawberries. Some of the least contaminated include asparagus, bananas, broccoli, and sweet corn.

The reason to be wary of pesticides, according to the report and most experts, is not their certainty of harm - but rather their uncertainty. "There is growing concern in the scientific community regarding the subtle ways in which small doses of pesticides affect people," says the report. "Because the toxic effects of pesticides are worrisome, not well understood or in some cases completely unstudied, shoppers would be wise to minimize exposure to pesticides whenever possible."

The report offered a seemingly simple solution: Buy organic whenever you can, and when you can't, buy foods that contain consistently low pesticides.

On a high note, there is good reason to believe that certain non-organic foods may become a little less riddled with toxic pesticides in the near future. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently received a request from companies registered for the organophosphate pesticide, dimethoate, to stop its use on certain crops. The pesticide is heavily used in the growing of a number of fruits and vegetables including two of EWG's top "dirty dozen": apples and spinach.

In a 1999 EPA report, dimethoate, along with three other pesticides, was said to be responsible for 90% of pesticide exposures reported in children under six to Poison Control Centers from 1993-1996. It is also among four pesticides that had consistently high rankings of responsibility for adverse symptoms, health care visits, hospitalizations, and fatal outcomes in adults and children. The other three pesticides, phosmet, proetamphos, and chlorpyrifos, are all still in use.

Although availability of organic fruits and vegetables is not as wide as many would like, it certainly is more accessible than it was just five years ago which reflects decades of hard work by organic advocates as well as a growing confidence in its value by consumers and distributors.

It is generally believed that national standards for growing and handling organic food just released yesterday, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was ordered to create more than a decade ago with the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act, will boost the already growing consumer demand for organics.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman referred to the USDA rules, with much input from the public, as "'the strictest, most comprehensive organic standards in the world,'" according to CBS News.

Relations between advocacy groups and the USDA appear to have greatly improved since the USDA came out with its first draft of organic standards in 1997 that would have allowed the use of sewer sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation. After an historic public outcry, these uses were stricken and the USDA went back to the drawing board.

Although advocacy groups say there's still more work to be done in tweaking the rules to get them just right, they mostly agree that great progress has been made and that the integrity of organics has been preserved in the process. GMOs, sewer sludge, and irradiation continue to be banned from organic products as are the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But, public advocates say, the USDA will have to maintain and embody the principals behind organic food, such as ecological balance, biological diversity, and nutritional value, in order to really ensure continued success.

For more information, see the Beyond Pesticides Organic Food program