Growing your own food is the best way to ensure that you know exactly what went into producing it. However, most gardeners are unable to be completely self-sufficient in food and have to also rely on fruit and vegetables grown commercially. It is this which makes the question of pesticide residues so important – what exactly is on the fruit and vegetables we buy? Should we only buy higher priced organic produce or is it OK to compromise? The best way to answer this is to look at the extent of the pesticide problem...
Pesticides are of particular concern because they are, by very nature, designed to be toxic to some living creatures or plants. Unlike fertilisers, they must contain characteristics that kill or disrupt normal growth of the things they are designed to control. To find out just what is on non-organic produce, take a look at the recently launched What’s On My Food? website put together by the Pesticide Action Network (who have branches in the UK and US). Just click on a food on their list and you get a complete breakdown of all the pesticides on it together with how often they are found and how serious they are. There’s even a comparison of conventional vs organic for each type. Equally enlightening is the EWG’s Food News site.
Government legislation requires that pesticides are tested for toxicity and safety but many groups question the methodologies used. Required tests are usually high-dose exposures designed to measure obvious side-effects in isolation from other factors. What happens in the real world is that we consume pesticide residues in un-tested low-dose combinations over extended periods. Children are thought to be particularly at risk during critical periods of their development. Even if we were to grow all our own food, there is still the issue of pesticides leaching into drinking water.
The objection usually raised is that pesticide levels are kept low and are regulated. Yet even this statement can be misleading. Firstly, safety levels are continually being revised, so just what is ‘low’? Pesticides such as DDT, chlordane and dursban were all widely considered safe and used until the day they were banned and there is considerable variation in what is considered safe by different countries. Many people not only call into question the methodologies but also the motives of the regulatory bodies and companies who produce pesticides (who continue to report large profits). Although seemingly small, the doses really add up. Across the US, 888 million lb of pesticides are applied annually – the equivalent of almost 3lb per person – and although most of this does not remain on the food we buy the cumulative effect of small doses is the real problem.
Organic agriculture is clearly the answer and much is being done to counter the arguments of the big agricultural companies that it doesn’t produce as much food or scale well. In fact, a recent independent report part-funded by the Soil Association found that organic ‘is, perhaps, mainstream agriculture in waiting’ and can match the output of non-organic methods if we reduce our meat and dairy consumption (both sensible steps when reducing the greenhouse gases produced by agriculture). Buying organic almost always guarantees no pesticides (although it has been known for supposedly organic produce to contain pesticides). But not everything is available organically and it often costs more or sells out.
So what are the worst offenders, the things that we should only source organically? The EWG lists the ‘Dirty Dozen’ – those with worst pesticide residues – as:
What surprised me as a gardener is that these aren’t the plants I would expect to be sprayed the most because of vulnerability to pests. I grow several of these myself with very few pest problems and would have expected brassicas (other than kale which is usually less affected) and bush-grown fruit to be the most sprayed. So if you aren’t able to afford organic produce, particularly if you have children, then this list is a great way to prioritize what to grow at home. Home grown fruit is very seasonal, so it’s not a year-round solution but it does give you a guarantee that the harvest will be full of nutritional benefits with none of the chemicals.