Dirty Dozen?

Nobody in their right mind considers pesticides safe.  They are, after all, poisons which we have created to kill things, be those things plants, insects, fungi, rats, or whatever.  The idea that we could have foods with no pesticides on them is attractive.  Now I’ve got to admit that, as a general rule, I don’t think that the levels at which most pesticides are found on foods is concerning.  Our methods of detecting poisons are just too sensitive today and so we end up saying that a poison is “present” on a tomato or whatever even if it’s there at a harmless parts-per-trillion level.  Still, I won’t deny that I’d prefer it if there were no synthetic pesticides on any food.

A couple of days ago a report came out from CNN about the “dirty-dozen.”  http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/01/dirty.dozen.produce.pesticide/index.html This is a list of the twelve fruits and vegetables which are most likely to have detectible levels of synthetic pesticide residues.  Along with this list there is a suggestion that, when purchasing these fruits and veggies, you should select those that are organically produced whenever possible.  I don’t have a problem with this list being reported.  In fact, I think it’s a good idea to give people all of the information that we can about pesticides.  While I, personally, am not particularly afraid of conventionally produced fruits and veggies because of the synthetic chemicals which they may contain I appreciate the fact that others might be.  I do, however, have a major problem with the idea that organically produced fruits and veggies are necessarily safer than those produced with synthetics.  You see, organically produced food is not tested for residues of potentially damaging organic pesticides, and those same foods that are slathered by synthetic pesticides in non-organic growing systems are typically slathered by organic pesticides in organic systems, particularly if you’re dealing with foods produced using what has become known as “industrial organic production” which fill most of our large grocery stores with USDA Certified Organic Produce nowadays.  These organic pesticides may be present at higher concentrations than synthetic pesticides and may have similar effects on humans, and even worse effects on the environment than synthetics (though it depends on the exact pesticides used and how often they are used of course).

The myth that organic foods don’t have pesticides used on them is one that really needs to die.  No farmer, organic or non-organic, wants to use pesticides, and sometimes they can get away without using them.  Certain crops are rarely sprayed regardless of whether they’re produced organically or not.  Pesticides cost money and are dangerous, but when faced with the potential loss of a crop producers will do what they need to do to avoid losing their crop, and if that means applying pesticides then so be it.  Organic farmers may choose to use different pesticides, and they might wait longer before they spray (although often they spray sooner because the relative efficacy of their sprays are inferior to synthetic sprays) but let’s not say that organically produced foods are free of pesticide reside.  Just because we’re not testing for it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

9 thoughts on “Dirty Dozen?”

  1. Thank you for raising this issue. It’s a very salient point.

    Do you know of any resources that discuss the various organic pesticides in common use, which ones are potentially of concern, and what crops they are typically used on? With that information available, one could construct an overlapping list, and in particular identify those crops which are likely to carry a toxic load whether organic or not.

    This of course brings up the question of what to do about those foods, othe
    r than avoid them. My first thought would be to try to buy such items from small farms, on the theory that a small farmer is more likely to apply awareness, attention, and IPM as an alternative to sprays. Not that this is foolproof – far from it – but in general it’s going to be easier to manage a small farm without chemicals.

  2. You might try my book “The Truth About Organic Gardening”. It does cover most of the synthetic and organic pesticides used, though it does this more from a gardeners standpoint than a consumers — you won’t find a list of which pesticides are used on which foods for example.

    I support the idea of purchasing foods that are typically high in pesticides from small farms/farmers markets. These farms will often tolerate losses rather than applying pesticides and will often escape insects and disease — or just deal with the loss of one crop.

  3. what is an example of an organic pesticide? how much is safe? what fruits and veggies are often treated with non-synthetic pesticides?

  4. Thank you for making these points. Now some questions. If a pesticide is present is it just on the surface or is it absorbed into the tissue? If on the surface, is washing in plain water an effective way of removing.

  5. Thank you, Prof. Gillman for making these points. Last year in the East, there was a major problem with an early infestation of Late Blight, Phytophthora infestans, on tomatoes causing all tomato growers (organic and conventional) to go heavily into preventative fungicide sprays. Given the relatively cool, wet, season last year, Apples also had to be heavily sprayed to prevent fungal diseases.

    I invite any and all to read the label and MSDS for the preferred organic control, copper, versus the synthetic chlorothalonil used in conventional growing to see which one is safer.

    While we’re on the subject, check out CDC’s guidelines on use of mosquito repellents – that horrible synthetic DEET, versus the natural Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. One is not recommended for children under 3 years of age. One is not recommended for infants under 2 months old. Guess which. Guess which one is cheaper and more effective, too? I’ll take permethrin with a little PBO added over the organic pyrethrum and rotenone, inisecticides, as well. Compare acetic acid (vinegar) volatility with the active ingredient in synthetic contact herbicides to see which is safer to use. The risks of E Coli and Salmonella contamination are greater with use of “natural” cattle and poultry manures used as fertilizer than the synthetic kind. Free range, organic pigs have higher levels of roundworm Trichinella spiralis (trichinosis pathogen)than the conventionally raised ones.

    The more I learn about this stuff, the more disillusioned I get with the whole organic label.

  6. Solve the whole debate by getting a roadrunner to nest in your yard. No pests of any sort left in the yard by the time the chicks fledge!

  7. Good discussion and provides us with much to consider. Backyard gardeners can completely avoid poisons, even if the commercial operations cannot.
    From seed to table, you know how the crop has been handled.
    Sally, I saw a roadrunner eat a hummingbird while we were camping in the SW US.

  8. Environmental Working Group previously published a similar – if not the same – list. As you point out, though, unless you know how food crops are treated as they grow it’s buyer beware.

  9. Because organic farmers aren’t free to use all pesticides, there is also a very high chance that their pesticide choices will be less effective (requiring more applied), more toxic, or both. So it’s an extra farcical argument, aside from the fact that the levels of pesticides reported are so minute. We eat endogenous pesticides in much, much higher amounts, and not all of those are good for us. Toxins are a part of food. They just are. The question is whether the levels and types are a concern, not whether we’re eating them.

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