(Beyond Pesticides, March 12, 2009) An updated database on pesticide residues on chemically-produced food released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) supports one of the important benefits of eating organically produced and processed food –a safer diet. At the same time, consumers choosing organic food support production practices that: (i) ensure cleaner air and water; (ii) improve soil health and sustainability; (iii) reduce escalating global warming; (iv) protect bees and other pollinators; and, (v) create safer workplaces for those who grow and harvest food.
When organic foods are not easily accessible due to cost or availability, Beyond Pesticides recommends that consumers buy organically produced commodities for those foods they eat most often (e.g. children’s juice) and for those foods that contain the greatest amount of pesticides. EWG’s recently released 5th edition Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides is a tool to help individuals avoid produce containing the highest amount of pesticides. However, research indicates that regulators know much less than they should and do not collect residue data on most of pesticides’ toxic breakdown products (metabolites), inert ingredients, and contaminants. Additionally, pesticides that are untested by EPA for certain health effects of concern (e.g. endocrine disruption, behavioral impacts) may be dismissed as “cleaner,” but turn out to be among the most hazardous to fetuses and children when the agency, in the case of endocrine disruption, gets around to adopting and enforcing its long-overdue testing protocol, or decides that its evaluation of behavioral and low-dose sub-lethal effects must be improved.
Many experts believe that because of the complexities and cost associated with a truthfully complete assessment of health and environmental impacts associated with chemical-intensive agriculture (tied to the resulting food, air, water and land residues), and in light of the proven commercial viability of organic systems, most of the toxic pesticides on the market today and the chemical-intensive farming practices that they support are outdated and not sustainable, forcing unnecessary hazards (present and still to be evaluated) on people and the environment. They argue that toxic pesticide use must become the exception rather than the rule, ending the false regulatory assumption that hazardous chemicals are necessary for cost-effective food production, so that people do not have to sacrifice their health and the environment in order to eat.
Based on EWG’s data from nearly 87,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce conducted between 2000 and 2007 and collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Pesticide Data Program) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Shopper’s Guide lists the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” fruits and vegetables to determine which conventionally-grown produce items have the have the highest pesticide load and which have the lightest. If consumers get their USDA-recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables from the 15 most contaminated, they could consume an average of ten pesticides a day. Those who eat the 15 least contaminated conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables ingest less than two pesticides daily. EWG uses the data to conclude that consumers can reduce their pesticide exposure by 80 percent by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating only the cleanest.
According to EWG’s “Dirty Dozen,” conventionally grown produce to avoid include peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears.
Because residues are found throughout conventionally grown products, a diet based on organic foods is essential. A study published in 2008 finds that children who eat a conventional diet of food produced with chemical-intensive practices carry residues of organophosphate pesticides that are reduced or eliminated when they switch to an organic diet. Another study finds that converting the nation’s eight million acres of produce farms to organic would reduce pesticide dietary risks significantly.
There are numerous health benefits to eating organic, besides a reduction in pesticide exposure. According to research from the University of California, a ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce finds that they have almost double the quantity of disease-fighting antioxidants called flavonoids. A study out of the University of Texas finds organically grown fruits and vegetables have higher levels of antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals than their conventionally grown counterparts. A comprehensive review of 97 published studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic and conventional foods shows that organic plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains) contain higher levels of eight of 11 nutrients studied, including significantly greater concentrations of the health-promoting polyphenols and antioxidants. The team of scientists from the University of Florida and Washington State University concludes that organically grown plant-based foods are 25 percent more nutrient dense, on average, and hence deliver more essential nutrients per serving or calorie consumed. A study by Newcastle University, published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture, finds that organic farmers who let their cows graze as nature intended are producing better quality milk.
Driving pesticide risks downward is important because recent science has established strong links between exposure to pesticides at critical stages of prenatal development and throughout childhood, and heightened risk of pre-term, underweight babies, developmental abnormalities impacting the brain and nervous system, as well as diabetes and cancer. Research shows that organic farming eliminates a significant source of toxic chemical contamination in the environment from groundwater pollution and runoff to drift. Organic farming also protects the farmworkers and their families from chemicals that have been shown to cause a myriad of chronic health effects, such as cancer, endocrine disruption and a series of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease.
Disputing the myth that organic methods are less productive, a three-year study of worldwide organic versus conventional farm yields finds organic farming to produce as much as, and even exceed, the crop and animal yields of conventional farming.
Organic farming conserves natural resources by recycling natural materials and it encourages an abundance of species living in balanced, harmonious ecosystems. Organic farmers are required by the National Organic Standards to minimize soil erosion; implement crop rotations; provide for the humane, general welfare and health of farm animals and prevent contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant and animal nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances. Even though the popularity of organic produce has grown tremendously in recent years, farmers in the U.S .are not nearly keeping pace with consumer demand for organic products, estimated to be growing by 20 percent a year.
Data from The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST), perhaps the longest running agronomic experiment (began in 1981), shows that organic farming is one of the most powerful tools in the fight against global climate change. Carbon sequestration in organic no tillage (no till) farming systems is two to four times greater than in chemical-intensive no till systems. At the same time, the Rodale data shows reduced energy needs on the organic farm (37 percent less than conventional) with consistently high yields.
Beyond Pesticides advocates choosing local, fairly traded organic goods whenever possible. In addition to protecting your own body, this decision positively impacts the health and well-being of workers, reduces environmental contamination and reduces exposure people who live, work and attend schools near agricultural fields – including the vast majority of our farm fields, which do not grow produce. For more information on organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food pages.