Another 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.