July 15, 2012

Fresh Food Reflections: Pesticide Residues, Choosing “Organic” Produce and More

The Environmental Working Group recently released its eighth annual Pesticides in Produce report (the report that lists the “dirty dozen” you’ve probably heard about). First, here are some notable findings from this edition of the report:
  • 98 percent of conventional apples have detectable levels of pesticides
  • Domestic blueberries tested positive for 42 different pesticide residues
  • 78 different pesticides were found on lettuce samples
  • Every single nectarine USDA tested had measurable pesticide residues
  • As a category, grapes have more types of pesticides than any other fruit, with 64 different chemicals
  • 13 different pesticides were measured on a single sample each of celery and strawberries
Industrial Peaches, Conventional Fruit, Pesticide Residues

We’ve turned the average piece of produce into a chemical cocktail. Often, the reaction to learning about the scary state of pesticides on conventional produce is to avoid the “dirty dozen”—those fruits and vegetables tested to have the highest levels of pesticide residues when grown industrially. Some even reach for the organic option the next time they’re at the grocery store—but only for those dozen foods. In many ways, these reactions are a big step in the right direction. But I would urge people to look even deeper into their produce choices, ultimately thinking about what is best for our health and the health of our environment and local communities.

In avoiding just the “dirtiest” conventional foods from the grocery store, it’s as if we’re sending the message that pesticides and unsustainable agricultural practices are OK, so long as the pesticides don’t end up on the final product and don’t affect our personal health. But what if herbicides, pesticides and fungicides were still used on a crop, and the crop just isn’t prone to holding residues of those chemicals? Do those chemicals still negatively affect the land and the environment in which they were used? Do (probably underpaid) agricultural workers still have to handle these dangerous pesticides? And, in taking an even broader view, are giant chemical companies still making billions in profits and is the EPA still too lax on what chemicals it approves in the first place? These are all questions that come to mind as I think of avoiding certain conventionally grown foods and not others.

Let’s say, then, that one chooses grocery store produce that is certified USDA organic in an effort to avoid all of those nasty chemicals. I do think this is a significantly better option, but choosing certified organic produce comes with its own set of questions. First, how much can we trust the organic certification process these days? A recent New York Times article, Has Organic Been Oversized?, sheds a horrifying light on how the national organic review board is now saturated with corporate influence. Plus, a lot of organic farms are growing bigger and bigger, following practices that are quite a bit in line with large monoculture systems (they just use biological, approved pesticides rather than chemical pesticides). Of course, this is not true of all organic farms. But because organics has become a booming industry in the past decade and there are hefty dollars to be made, the landscape of organic farming is changing. Some even refer to “Big Organic” these days in the same way that they refer to “Big Ag” or “Big Pharma.” If the farm is big enough that it’s supplying a mainstream grocery store chain, it may not be the small-scale, sustainable setting one might imagine when picking up organic produce.

USDA Organic Label

And, organic or not, grocery store produce always raises these questions: How long did this food travel to get to me? Is it even in season? If not, how sustainable is it, even if it wasn’t grown with pesticides?

There’s so much to think about when we make our food choices. And while I commend the Environmental Working Group for bringing to light that many foods do have dangerous pesticide residues on them, I see their work as a stepping stone to looking more in depth at the fruits and vegetables we bring into our homes. 

So, if “conventional” produce isn’t the way to go, and supporting large-scale organic farms shipping out-of-season produce to my grocery store isn’t necessarily the way to go, what options are there? Actually, a lot.

Here’s my Fabulous Four of healthy, sustainable fruits and vegetables:

1. Buy direct from local farmers


First of all, farmers markets rock, of course. Know them, visit them, love them. (Although, don’t assume that just because a farmer sells at a farmers market that he or she grows organically—ask.) However, if you think of the farmers market as simply a cool place to go on a Saturday to take a stroll, enjoy the morning sunshine, buy one cool-looking heirloom tomato and one piece of pumpkin bread, expand your mindset: Farmers markets are a site of meaningful exchange. They are the grocery store; they are places where you can say, with your pantry shelves in mind, “How much for three full boxes of apples?” When you need a lot of something, you can also try to go directly to a farm to buy it or pick it yourself. Doing so will generally save you money, it’s practical, and, in my opinion, it’s really fun. The Internet makes direct-from-the-farm purchasing easier than ever. Use sites such as Local Harvest, Eat Wild and PickYourOwn.org to find growers in your area.

2. Grow your own


I know, I know—I love gardening, so of course it’s easy for me to say that everyone should just get out there and grow some food. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gardening is a gateway drug. It starts with a green bean and it ends with someone looking at her next rental or home purchase with a keen eye toward how many hours of sun the soon-to-be-tilled-under yard gets. Even if you think food gardening sounds complicated or too time-consuming or too dirt-under-the-nails-ish, try it and then see where the journey takes you. You could become a gardening addict in a summer’s time. I think the best place to start if you want to get into growing some food at home is talking to other gardeners—grandparents, friends, your eccentric aunt, etc. Gather advice from these people first (I’m happy to help, by the way!), and then hit up the Internet and/or gardening books for beginners if you want more tips. Apartment dwellers and those with small yards: Seek out a community garden spot (check CommunityGarden.org) and consider growing in pots if you have a sunny balcony or patio. If you have a family member who lives nearby and has a sunny spot where a garden could grow, ask if you can grow there and offer to split the harvest with the property owner in exchange. If you work somewhere that has a lawn area, ask your boss if you can start a company community garden. If you live an apartment complex that has a lawn area, ask your apartment manager about starting a garden for any residents of the complex who want to participate. What I’m getting at is that if you want to garden, don’t take no for an answer. There has to be some dirt out there for you somewhere.

3. Choose organically grown and not necessarily “certified organic” 


Some of the small-scale growers I know who are the most hardcore about sustainability actually refuse to go through the USDA to get organic certification because they think that system is corrupt and that the government standards aren’t strict enough. Some farmers, on the other hand, grow organically and want to get certified, but they simply don’t have the time or money to do so. So, just because something doesn’t have a big “Organic” label on it doesn’t mean it’s bad. My best advice is to ask questions. If you go to a u-pick farm, ask if they spray. Ask what they spray. Ask how often they spray. Ask what types of fertilizers they use (chemical fertilizers or composts, manures, etc.). If you’re buying at a farmers market, ask the same questions. I don’t think it’s weird or pushy to ask these questions, and most growers will be happy to answer them; in fact, growers who are pumped about the sustainable way they’re doing things will be thrilled you asked.

4. Preserve, preserve, preserve


If you love blueberries and can imagine yourself buying blueberries at various times throughout the year, here’s what to do: Buy blueberries only once a year. When they’re in season. At that time, buy a shit-ton of blueberries. Buy buckets and buckets of blueberries and put those puppies in the freezer. If you love tomatoes and imagine yourself buying tomatoes at various times throughout the year, do the same thing. Buy big boxes of tomatoes and freeze them, can them, make tomato sauce out of them. What I’m describing used to be the way everyone thought of fruits and vegetables because we didn’t yet transport fruits and vegetables all over the world with ships and semi-trucks. Now that we do, it seems silly to only buy blueberries once a year—we can have blueberries whenever we want! The modern food system has made spoiled brats out of us all. Let’s reject this bratdom.


The barrage of “What’s Sustainable and What Isn’t?” questions that comes with every single food item—including our fruits and veggies—can elicit one of two reactions: It can discourage or it can inspire, spurring one into thoughtful research and hopeful action. I’ll raise my mug of locally brewed beer to the latter.

Middle photo by USDA; top and bottom photos by stock.xchng