Do I dare to eat a peach? Not a conventional one, says Tribune study

peachesAnother day, another facet to the debate over whether organic produce is worth the extra moolah. Unless you've been living on a remote mountaintop with no wireless, you've probably witnessed the recent frenzy over a UK study [pdf] claiming that organic food has no nutritional benefits over conventional. The study elicited many insightful responses from organic defenders, including The Organic Center, and commentary from Grist and Civil Eats among others. Many cited studies countering the UK finding: Organic food has more antioxidants; organic food has fewer nitrates; organic production is more than just a little good for the environment in which we all live.

Enter yet another study boosting the argument in favor of buying organic -- but also boosting the case for buying conventional produce from smaller local farms if you can't find or can't afford organic. (Though non-organic local food may not always be less expensive.)

Using preliminary data from USDA pesticide-residue tests conducted on produce last year, the Chicago Tribune found the residues of no fewer than fifty different pesticides gracing the skins of conventionally-grown peaches from domestic and foreign sources. Five of the poisonous compounds were present at levels higher than the EPA allows, reported Tribune writer Monica Eng yesterday, and six were not approved for peaches grown in the United States.

That last finding may be because many of the peaches we eat here aren't grown here. Among the fruit tested were peaches from Chile, a country with a history of heavy pesticide use, including of banned compounds. And according to this report from the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, produce imports have skyrocketed in recent years, to the point where one out of every five pieces of fresh fruit Americans eat was grown abroad. (That's twice the number we ate fifteen years ago.) Imported fruit is four times more likely to have illegal levels of pesticides than is domestically-grown fruit, according to the report, in part because the FDA's inspection of imported food is so woefully pathetic that violators aren't caught.

Even at legal levels, the Tribune piece notes that pesticides can do some major damage, particularly over long time periods (like, um, a lifetime of eating fruit). Studies show cognitive impairment in rats exposed to chronic, very low levels of chlorpyfiros, a pesticide present on 17 percent of the peaches tested, and recent epidemiological research included the pesticide in its list of potential triggers of Parkinson's disease. As J. Alfred Prufrock would put it, were he a real person who read the Tribune: "In short, be very afraid."

So how should I presume?

OK, so conventional produce has pesticides on it. That's not exactly news, though the sheer number of compounds that the Tribune analysis found on peaches is pretty shocking. What's more interesting is that the Tribune decided to go beyond the USDA data set and do some testing of its own. It compared the USDA data to data the paper paid to collect on organic peaches grown in California and non-organic peaches bought at farmers markets in Illinois and Michigan.

The findings? Not surprisingly, organic peaches fared the best, residue-free save for the presence of one compound not approved for use on organic produce. (An extension agent suggested that the pesticide could have drifted onto organic peaches from conventional orchards, though the producer also could have been cheating.) But perhaps unexpectedly, the conventional farmers-market samples performed almost as well. They showed the presence of three or fewer pesticides, compared to the fifty that turned up on industrial-conventional peaches.

The take-home message? Farming is a continuum, and there are many stops along the line before we get to factory farm. There are also many smaller operations that aren't certified organic, but that meet or exceed the expectations of organic certification. Because they tend to serve markets that require them to have a wide selection of products, smaller farms tend to be more diversified and reap the pesticide-saving benefits of crop rotation. They may also incorporate habitat for beneficial insects, which further reduces the need for pesticides. Well-managed soil means more beneficial microbes that beat out nasty bugs, meaning less need for fumigants. So even if they aren't organic, these farms are still able to significantly reduce their use of pesticides.

The take-home message rephrased: it takes a lot of poison to keep bugs off an industrial monocrop.

Forcing the moment to its crisis

All this talk of organic nutrition, nitrates, and antioxidants is important, but it's also kind of self-centered. It considers the impact of organic produce only on the final consumer and not on the workers who spend their days growing our peaches and their nights sleeping in homes nearby. These are the other, equally important reasons to buy organic or low-pesticide produce. In an excellent post back in March (scroll down to find it), Twilight Greenaway of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) noted that many pesticides don't show up as residues on finished produce, but that doesn't mean they're not being used or that they're not highly toxic to workers and the environment. Virtually no pesticide residues are detectable on conventionally-grown onions, for example, but onions are treated with massive amounts of soil fumigants each year. And someone has to apply them.

If you're on a tight budget, buying a lot of organic or local produce can be tricky. In that case, you can limit your own and others' pesticide exposure by looking to EWG's Dirty Dozen list or the Organic Center's Organic Essentials and eliminating the worst offenders from your list. But if you can afford it, buy all of your produce organic or local non-organic, not just the ones on those lists. The Tribune and FWW studies give you a good reason to do it for yourself and your kids. Greenaway gives us a good reason to do it for everyone else.

14 Responsesto “Do I dare to eat a peach? Not a conventional one, says Tribune study”

  1. shewrites says:

    Summer is not summer without ripe peaches, best eaten warm off the tree, but a good substitute is a box from Mary Pearson of Marysville, California.  She gets up very early to drive to the farmers markets in Sacramento and Davis so that I can buy her heirloom fruit by the boxful (about $20).  They are so ripe that by the time I get home they are already bruising, requiring that I eat several immediately.  Mary is my hero, she looks eligible for social security, I won't guess her age, and without her efforts, I probably wouldn't be eating peaches at all. I hope you find your Mary Pearson wherever you live.

  2. Farmboy says:

    Elanor,
    Nice coverage of the subject, but you are going overboard to suggest that the Tribune "study" constitutes a firm foundation for determining where to source one's produce.  The Tribune conducted an analysis of one commodity purchased from a handful of venders during one season.  Consumers interested in this subject will gain far more insight into pesticide residue levels by going to the USDA/AMS Pesticide Data Program website and examining the annual reports.  These reports are by far the most comprehensive pesticide residue assesements available and provide data on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables distinguished by domestic and imported sources.  What we see from these studies is that many fruits and vegetables (more so the imported ones, but domestically sourced as well) contain sub-tolerance (legal threshold) pesticide residues, and often from multiple pesticides.  Very rarely is a tolerance exceeded, though it is true that any level of a pesticide for which no tolerance exists (meaning that pesticide is not approved for use on that food item) is a violation of the FQPA and a legitimate concern.  I agree that the detection of residues from five non-approved pesticides on peaches is disturbing.
    Having studied this subject quite carefully (I worked on FQPA implementation in DC), I feel that the human health risks of the pesticide residues commonly found on domestically produced produce are greatly exaggerated.  Yes, pesticides (even ones used in organic agriculture; has there ever been a newspaper story about organic agriculture that did not include the factual error that pesticides are prohibited?) can be nasty, toxic compounds.  By far the greatest risk of exposure to pesticides comes at the time and place of application; farmworkers, farming communities and any wildlife in the neighborhood face very significant acute and chronic risks due to pesticide exposure.  Despite what very estimable experts including Chuck Benbrook have concluded, however, I do not believe that the very low residue levels we see on conventionally produced fruits and vegetables pose a significant human health risk.  The truth is that we regulate pesticides at through residue levels because farmworkers, farming communities and any wildlife in the neighborhood have virtually no standing in Washington DC.  The NGOs who work in this area have found it much easier to mobilize support by scaring consumers - your children are eating rocket fuel!!! - than by channeling the very legitimate concerns of the point-of-application risks.  Think I'm hyperventilating?  Then why is it EWG - nobody has been more effective at affecting change in pesticide regulation than they have - that promotes the "Dirty Dozen" list?  This list as well as the one from the Organic Center tell consumers to disregard the farmworker and environmental damage  of pesticides for which food residues are genuinely negligible.  So much for a systems approach!!!
    American consumers know very little about pesticides, except that they are killing us all.  I refer to this extremely poor risk/benefit analysis as the Legacy of Rachel Carson, whom I genuinely idolize.  Ms. Carson warned the world about extremely toxic, persistent and broad spectrum compounds that indeed represented immediate human health and environmental risks.  Now fifty years later, the compounds that she warned us about are by and large eliminated and the succeeding generations of pesticides have been much less toxic, persistent and broad spectrum.  However, the message that CERTAIN pesticides were a threat to our existence has hazily morphed into fear that all pesticdes, even in the tiniest concentrations, impose this risk.  Fact check - Elanor, you state in your summary of the Tribune article that "chronic, very low levels of chlorpyrifos (not, as the Tribune states "chlorpyfiros) exposure results in cognitive impairment.  The Tribune article says nothing about chronic, low levels of exposure - do you know more about the study in question, or are you making an assumption?  
    The fear of pesticide residues has always been and continues to be the number one incentive that consumers cite for purchasing organic food.  Regrettably, I feel that this reflects a very poorly informed decision that has had extremely detrimental affects on local agriculture.  Dr Lu (cited in the Tribune article) states that pregnant women must absolutely choose organic peaches over conventional ones.  This frame of mind has contributed significantly to undermining confidence in our local food supply and driven countless local family farmers out of work. I trust that Dr. Lu is brilliant, as are many other people who have engrossed themselves in this subject.  Local farmers who wisely and carefully use pesticides (which means not using them when they are unecessary) will always provide the safest and most environmentally responsible food available, not to mention the tastiest and freshest!  And when you get to know farmers, you discover what wonderful, caring, hardworking and thoughtful people they tend to be.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Nice round-up. Thanks for this. I hope it helps end the inane sterility of the organic vs conventional debate, which is as much about what certified organic means as anything else (though of course I know it wont). What matters is how things are grown, and how, as a buyer, you can find out, and all the official schemes in the world are no substitute for a relationship with the grower.

    Did that "organic" grower cheat? Or was it an honest mistake? If he or she didn't have to abide by a set of rules, it wouldn't really matter. You would ask, they would tell. I hope.

  4. Ed Bruske says:

    There's really very little new in this story. Peaches have always topped the list (http://www.foodnews.org/EWG-shoppers-guide-download-final.pdf) for pesticide residues, followed by apples. It's no secret that fruits in the rosacea family are especially difficult to grow with pesticides. To achieve organic peaches and apples, some farmers will dedicate a small portion of their orchards to no-spray, and surround it with a much larger area of trees treated with pesticides. Others employ Integrated Pest Management, which involves close monitoring of the trees and spraying only when specifically harmful pests have made an appearance. The subject is not nearly as simple or clear as the Tribune piece might suggest.

  5. Ed Bruske says:

    correction: it's no secret that fruits in the rosacea family are especially difficult to grow WITHOUT pesticides.

  6. Kara says:

    While I realize that this wasn't exactly a scientific study on a large scale, it was still good to know that conventional locally grown peaches tend to use a lot less pesticides than factory farmed peaches.  I know that peaches are very difficult to grow without any pesticides and so I don't blame growers from using some pesticides, but I am glad that the ones I buy locally are likely to use a lot less pesticides, especially since there are no organic options where I live (which is why i haven't really asked the farmers what they use--it's either buy their peaches or not have any, which I just can't do in the middle of summer!).

  7. Josh says:

    Kara - Can you define the term you used "Factory farmed peaches" I live in Fresno, CA which, along with the neighboring communities, is the largest producer of peaches in the country. Of the 1,100 + peach growers here, there are a few farms bigger than others, but all are family owned and operated. 70% of that nations peaches come from here and they are not "Factory Farms." There are just A LOT of peach growers here because the climate is so perfect for producing  stonefruit. Produce does not come from factories - Lean Cuisines and all other processed foods do. Everything in the produce aisle in the store - anything "Fresh" is the closest you can get to giving your money directly back to the grower local or not - even if you do happen to buy it in a "Mega-Mart"

  8. Geoffj4 says:

    Here is what the California Tree Fruit Agreement - http://www.eatcaliforniafruit.com (An organization made up of California peach, plum and nectarine growers) had to say regarding pesticide residues on peaches.
    Click this link : http://eatcaliforniafruit.com/ppn/retailers/news_display.asp?ncID=235

  9. Hmm... We grow all our fruits and vegetables, as well as meats and eggs, without pesticides. Yes, pesticides kill off the insects and such so you get fewer blemishes but the pesticides are -cides: they will also kill you.

  10. Kara says:

    Josh--I apologize for that term since it wasn't very specific.  At the time I couldn't think of anything better without a huge explanation.  But, I guess what I meant is a farm that using conventional methods and that is mainly growing one crop or one type of crop.  And, I meant factory-farmed not necessarily in a negative way, but rather in the sense that these farms are dependent on selling a few (or one) product(s) and therefore would treat their crop differently than a farm that was dependent on many different products or a small farm that was raising peaches as a hobby more than as a main source of income.   

    Yes, there is a huge difference between peaches from a big chain and Lean Cuisine as far as processing.  But, fresh vegetables or fruit can be factory-farmed in the same way that fresh chicken can be factory farmed--even if neither are highly processed.  If your income is dependent on the success of one product and you are producing that product in large amounts than your farming methods usually differ, in varying degrees, from smaller, more diverse farms.  I also think you have a much different product, (at the very least economically speaking) if you buy something from a local farmer's market from a farmer in your own community than if you shop for fresh produce at a big box store. Yes, your money might go to farmer's either way, but if I buy from the farmer's market, I know that 100% of that money is going directly to the farmer (who is the person I really do want to support!).  Not to mention I can ask how it was raised and even visit the farm if I want.  That isn't to belittle the individual farmer's out in California--it's very possible they are doing great things--but I just am unsure about the whole system even if the end product is similar to that which I'd get at my local farmer's market.

    I still feel like I didn't explain that very well, so I hope it made some kind of sense.

  11. Thanks for pointing out how our supermarkets are increasingly exporting fruits from other countries, most of which have many more pesticides and other chemical residues on them.  I am someone who strives to each as much organic as possible; however, it's not always a cost-effective option because often I find certain products that cost 2-3 times more.  With that being said, for the novice the Dirty Dozen list is a great place to start.

  12. Molly Watson says:

    Thanks so much for this - especially the solid and reasoned explanation that farming is a continuum. There is a lot going on between a small, diversified, certified organic, maybe biodynamic farm and a huge industrialized monoculture operation. As always, knowing where your food comes from and how it was grown is the real take-away.

  13. Sasha says:

    Late to the discussion here, but I just wanted to comment on one of Farmboy's points, which is essentially that pesticide regulation is mostly about protecting farmworkers and that resides have not been proven to be dangerous even at the legal limits. While I do not disagree that farmworkers are at much higher risk of injury and sickness this argument about resides does not hold water. Or rather it reflects one of the key problems in establishing causality which is that it is almost impossible to establish direct causality for something like pesticide exposure given that individuals face multiple exposure to a wide range of environmental toxins operating at multiple scales over multiple time frames. This is essentially the same problem that typically face communities arguing against incinerator citing, or other forms of "environmental racism." However, this epistemic and methodological problem (establishing what we know about the consequences of pesticide exposure) is NOT the same as being able to say that pesticide residues are NOT a cause for concern. In essence we have very few ways to adequately control for the plurality of factors that might cause illness in any given case and this is what makes it so difficult to argue that pesticide resides are truly dangerous (in contrast to the fairly easy to establish notion that exposure to high levels of pesticides while engaging in fumigation is dangerous).

    What this points to, and this is a point I expanded upon in my response to the Failure of Science posts earlier this summer, is the way in which science informs policy in this country. The typical approach in the US has been to assume that, within certain parameters, the inventions of the chemical / pharmaceutical / biotech / etc. industries are safe and that the burden is on those who oppose the use of particular  substance to establish  otherwise. But given the methodological difficulties of doing so, we see this exact argument being made over and over; there is no evidence that it is dangerous so we will assume that it is safe. This is contrast to prevailing trends in the EU which have tended to deploy the precautionary principle; Let's assume this novel substance might not be safe and it is up to you the producer to produce ample evidence demonstrating safety. In other words, if you want to produce this new substance, it is up to you to figure out how to deal with the methodological and epistemic problems of multiple causality, etc.

    That being said, Farmboy I do think you make some very important points regarding the problems that stem from focusing on the dirty dozen and how that obscures what's really going on with farmworkers. It's all to easy for consumers to assume that because they are taking the most stringent steps to protect themselves (not buying off the dirty dozen list) that such outcomes will translate directly across the system. To buy into that logic is pretty much to reproduce the fundamental tenets  of neoclassical economics and modern liberal political thought (I'm talking about John Stuart Mill here, not MoveOn.org when I say liberal), which is that self-interest seeking is THE MOST effective form of political action. As you say, the implementation of pesticide thresholds was driven largely by the recognition that there were a whole range of entities that had no voice and this was an attempt to give them a voice...

  14. farmboy says:

    Sasha,

    If I wasn't clear in my prior post, I do not believe that "pesticide regulation is mostly about protecting farmworkers."   I intended to convey that the legitimate safety risks that farmworkers and farm communities face are swept under the rug because those constituencies are relatively powerless in DC and in ag state capitals.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Pesticide regulation is driven by the fear - exaggerated in my mind, and deliberately so at times - that pesticide residues on food constitute a significant human health risk.  I agree with your characterization of how poor our risk assesment skills are, which would seem to push us towards the precautionary principle (first do no harm) but of course no one makes any money by waiting for all the evidence to come in.  And by the time all the evidence comes in, we have a more complex model requiring more evidence.  No, I do not believe that pesticide residues at the levels routinely documented in the USDA Pesticide Data Program reports constitute a significant human health risk.  Far less of a health risk, in my opinion, than the toxic affects of the garbage soy foods, rancid vegetable oils and skim milk that Americans have foolishly embraced as good for their health.