Today's New York Times featured an op-ed by Bridget Stutchbury, a biology professor at the University of Toronto and author of Silence of the Songbirds. Her book follows in the footsteps of Silent Spring and documents the rapid disappearance of migratory songbirds -- by her account, a 50% decline in the last four decades -- as a result of increased pesticide use in Latin America. U.S. demand for out-of-season produce in the winter months is the driving force behind the increase abroad. Stutchbury documents the regular use of Class I (highly toxic) pesticides by foreign producers of produce, rice, and other crops. She urges consumers to choose organic produce as often as possible.
Stutchbury's op-ed comes on the heels of an excellent study by The Organic Center, a Colorado-based research institute headed up by preeminent pesticide expert Chuck Benbrook. The study focuses on the extent to which consumers' pesticide exposure risk can be reduced by converting U.S. cropland to organic production, which would in turn increase the amount of organic produce consumed.
A fascinating if minor aspect of the report is its analysis of pesticide residue levels on conventional imported produce compared to domestically-grown conventional fruits and veggies: residues on imported produce were present at higher levels and were more toxic than the pesticide residues on domestic produce. (Organic produce, whether imported or domestic, had significantly lower residue levels.)
As if we needed another reason to eat as much in-season, organic, and local produce as possible, the Organic Center study and Stutchbury's op-ed provide us with another. From the study:
There are clear and in some cases dramatic upward spikes in pesticide residue levels [on conventional produce] during the winter months, when imports account for a large share of perishable fresh fruits and vegetables in the marketplace. For this reason, the list of [available] foods accounting for the greatest pesticide risks per serving differs in the summer, when mostly U.S.-grown produce is consumed, in contrast to winter months, when imports account for a large percent of sales, especially for perishable fruits and vegetables....
In other words: If you can't choose organic all the time, you're better off going with domestically-grown in season produce than anything imported. (Now we just need Congress to implement mandatory country-of-origin labeling so we can tell the difference.)
The Organic Center has created a handy wallet card [PDF] to help consumers avoid the non-organic fruits and vegetables with the highest and most toxic pesticide residues. This list is based on the most updated science; some of the pesticides in use when the Environmental Working Group developed its well-known pesticide wallet card have been or are being phased out. It also breaks the list into domestic and imported produce. Imported bell peppers blow all other items out of the water when it comes to pesticide risk; domestically-produced green beans, interestingly enough, have a higher risk than other domestic crops, and cranberries are also high-risk. Who knew?
One additional thought: The Organic Center study focuses on the health benefits to consumers of eating produce with reduced pesticide levels, while Stutchbury's op-ed focuses on the impacts of pesticides used abroad on migratory birds. The health of the workers who apply pesticides is another factor well worth our consideration. Whether they're in Latin America or the Central Valley, workers on conventional farms are unquestionably exposed more often to more toxic pesticides than those working on organic and other low-input farms.
The study notes that by increasing our consumption of organic produce, we reduce our and our children's exposure to toxic pesticide residues -- and important health benefits ensue. I can only imagine that the benefits to workers and their children are that much greater.
Benefits from avoiding pesticide exposures begin approximately six months before conception and run through young adulthood, and indeed for some health problems, throughout life. This is because many of the developmental deficits triggered by prenatal and early pesticide exposures increase the risks of chronic diseases, and metabolic and neurological problems that erode well-being much later in life.
I discussed some of the other health impacts in workers and their families -- including increased incidences of hormone disruption, developmental delays, autism, and other disorders -- in this post.