One apple a day keeps the doctor away. But it depends on where it comes from. The moment I started questioning the positive health effect of my wonderful bowl of fresh fruits and vegetables, was the moment I started reaching for the organic. My new perceptions of that delicious bowl of mine were swinging between a pile of nutrients and vitamins, then throwing me into the dark shadow of a bunch of synthetic chemicals. The truth is somewhere in the middle. But let’s be honest, we don’t know what exactly goes into our bodies. Neither how much pesticides lurk in our daily bite of natural vitamins.
My favorite apples, for example, seem to be on the Dirty Dozen™ list of the EWG Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. In the annual ranking of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residues, you will find nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. With strawberries and spinach on top of the list. What’s the risk and is organic food the only alternative? You can decide for yourself.
Fruits and vegetables in my diet
What we should never doubt, however, is the fact that our bodies need fresh fruits and vegetables. They not only supply vital nutrients and fiber. Studies evidence that eating enough of them can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and some cancers, as well as control body weight to avoid obesity. (1) In June 2011 the US Department of Agriculture created a federal symbol named MyPlate. It reflects the healthy eating patterns recommended by the institution.(2) Similarly, the Harvard School of Public Health created the Healthy Eating Plate based on the latest science about how our food, drink, and activity choices affect our health. Both graphics devote ½ of your plate to fruits and vegetables.(3) That is half your meal. Half.
Pesticides – what’s so bad about it?
Should half your daily food intake contain pesticides? Preferably – no. Unfortunately, there are nearly 500 approved active substances – components of plant protection products in the European Union. There are more than 350 000 current and historic pesticide products registered in the United States alone.(4) Pesticides are not an invention of modern agriculture. Ancient Sumerians applied elemental sulfur to protect their crops from insects. Throughout centuries more and more chemicals were developed and added to the palette (and many more were dropped, of course) to reach the colossal 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides used worldwide yearly!(5)
And here comes next – should you worry about it? Sounds like something to worry about. There is some institutional control. Pesticides must pass an approval procedure managed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States. Also, there are “tolerance” values, which account for the amount of a given pesticide that can remain in or on a food without adverse health effects. In Europe, the European Commission and the Member States approve pesticides and determine legal limits for pesticide residues on foods – so-called maximum residue levels (MRLs). Is that enough? One of the main weak points of the system is the lack of adequate assessment of risks caused by the presence of multiple pesticide residues in food (so-called Cumulative Risk). Though, institutions are working to solve the issue.
As history has shown, more is needed to protect consumers health from pesticides side effects.
Pesticides have been linked to neurologic and endocrine (hormone) system disorders, birth defects, cancer, and other diseases.(5) Research also shows that people in the US have levels of certain pesticides in their bodies that exceed the EPA’s levels of “tolerance”. Besides, human health effects of low dose, chronic exposure to many of these pesticides is listed as “unknown”.
Also, many of the pesticides might have endocrine-disrupting properties. Endocrine disruptors can be dangerous even at low doses blocking the action of hormones and causing reproductive disorders, birth defects, and hormone-related cancers.(6)
Sadly, children are the most vulnerable group. Due to lower body mass, rapid development, and the fact that they eat more food relative to their body weight, children are far more susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides. Toxins can remain longer in their bodies, and they can do more harm. Data shows that the average American child between the ages of six and eleven carries unacceptable levels of the organophosphorus pesticides, chlorpyrifos and methyl parathion. All of them known to have neurotoxic properties. Even small amounts of pesticides may alter a child’s brain chemistry during critical stages of development. And this can start from the womb. Researchers found that women’s exposure to pesticides during pregnancy may be the cause for negative impacts on their children’s IQ and neurobehavioral development, as well as for attention deficit hyperactivity. (7)
Farmers are at high risk, as well. They are subject to intensive exposure in their working environment. Not to mention all hundreds and thousands of cancer lawsuits against huge pesticide manufacturers, the latest of which placed just weeks ago by farmers who have developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma allegedly caused by glyphosate-based weedkiller. The active ingredient Glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen,” according to a 2015 report issued by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Some individual countries (e.g., France, Sweden) have been moving to ban glyphosate based on the IARC decision, while other countries (e.g., Japan, Canada) have continued its usage based on a conclusion that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.(8)
The environment has been suffering from an overwhelming chemical burden. As much and even more than we do. Research shows that only 1% of the pesticides go to the target crops. The rest 99.9% are freely flying in the air and draining in our watersheds leading to irreversible damage. Let’s not forget the sudden and drastic decline in bee populations. Pesticides are the main suspect for causing this disaster, directly or indirectly. The widespread use of pesticides leads to insects or plants becoming resistant to the chemicals farmers use against them. They also pollute surface waters, groundwater and contaminate soils.(9)
And if you think you can simply wash those nasty chemicals away from your precious fruits and vegetables, I have bad news for you. Many of the pesticides are systematic. This means they are absorbed by the roots of the plants, then penetrating their cells.(10) Of course, you should wash your fruits and vegetables to eliminate bacteria and dirt, but this can’t really protect you from pesticides.
What does the organic label prove?
Obviously, conventional produce is not as safe as we’d like it to be. How about organic fruits and vegetables? Can we trust it? Yes. Are there any underwater rocks to stumble upon? Yes.
The truth is more research needs to be done to prove organics are the best alternative for both humans and the environment. Though, latest research has shown many of the benefits of certified organic versus conventionally grown produce. This includes slightly better nutritional values, lower (or no) risk for especially sensitive groups – children and pregnant women. Organic farms maintaining higher biodiversity, hosting more bees, birds, and butterflies. They also maintain higher soil and water quality.
The USDA certification requires that organic farms apply only natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods, to the fullest extent possible. Organic produce may only be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest.
Also, you won’t find GMOs in USDA organic certified produce as the organic standards prohibit it.
Don’t be deceived. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean zero pesticides. Farmers may use pesticides on organic produce but strict requirements guard what exactly and in what situations they may apply it. Organic pesticides are only allowed to be used as a “last resort”. In instances when a farmer has to use a synthetic substance, the substance must first pass approval according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment. Only 25 synthetic products may be used on organic farms.
Also, the calculations might turn out to be not so perfect for the environment. Studies show organic farms usually yield about 19-25% less produce. Thus, taking into account efficiency per amount of food produced, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions parameters might be worse in organic than in conventional farms. But don’t let this consideration throw a shadow on the fact that sustainable organic agriculture applies most eco-friendly methods including crop rotation and intercropping to break pest cycles, and allow the soil to naturally replenish itself.
The Bottom Line
Pesticides won’t eradicate starvation out of this world, but they can do harm to us who consume them. There are at least two ways to avoid taking in too many pesticides.
The first one is, look for organic. Buy organic as often as possible – this will definitely lower your pesticide intake. Identify the USDA-certified organic label. Research local organic farms and visit them, if possible. This will give you the chance to talk with the farmer about pest control methods applied. Some organic farms aren’t certified organic but don’t use any pesticides at all. So ask – the best way to find out!
Smartly mix organic and conventional produce
Second, not everyone can afford organic every day, all the time. Organically grown produce is as much as 49% more expensive than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. So, what can you do? Don’t completely exclude conventionally grown fruits and vegetables if it means lack of fresh produce in your plate. A study shows that a 2012 study estimated that increasing fruits and vegetable consumption could prevent 20,000 cancer cases annually, and 10 cases of cancer per year could be attributed to consumption of pesticides from the additional produce. We’ve already mentioned some of the benefits of fruits and vegetable rich diet including a lower risk of stroke, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
You can choose to smartly mix organic and conventionally grown produce that contains fewer chemicals. For example, EWG maintains a list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues. This year it includes sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwis, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and grapefruit. These foods contain relatively few pesticides with low total concentrations of pesticide residues.
Choose wisely and enjoy your balanced day!