Pesticide Risk from Conventional Produce Varies Dramatically, New Study Shows
Consumer Reports analysis offers a risk guide for 48 fruits and vegetables; recommends organic produce
When it comes to shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, I usually follow a very basic rule of thumb: For leafy greens, berries, and anything that grows in direct contact with the soil — like onions, garlic, potatoes, and carrots — buy organic. For the rest, go with locally grown, even if it might not always be organic. The idea being to minimize exposure to toxic agricultural chemical residues as far as possible (and support the local farming economy). But it seems my method might not be quite as effective as I’d thought.
Photo by Natalie Maynor
A new study out today shows that the risk from pesticides on conventional produce varies dramatically — from very low to very high — depending on the type of produce and the country where it’s grown. Take green beans. According to the study, one serving of conventional US-grown green beans is 200 times riskier than a similar serving of locally-grown, conventional broccoli. On the other hand, conventionally grown lettuce and onions aren’t so bad after all. At least I had the carrots right!
The study, “Pesticide Use in Produce,” was conducted by Consumer Reports — a organization that works to improve the lives of consumers by driving marketplace change. Researchers at the organization’s Food Safety and Sustainability Center reviewed the risks of pesticide residues for 48 fruits and vegetables from around the globe and have came up with guidelines to help consumers reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals. They also looked at the consequences of pesticide use for the people who produce our food, as well as on wildlife and the environment. (An associated feature report, “Eat the Peach, Not the Pesticide: A Shopper’s Guide,” appears in the latest issue of Consumer Reports and at ConsumerReports.org.)
The researchers analyzed 12 years of data from United States Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program and found residues of two or more pesticides in about a third of the samples they tested, Dr Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center, told Earth Island Journal. The analysis is based on the risk to a three-and-a-half year-old child estimated to weigh 35.2 pounds because children are especially vulnerable to the dietary risks from pesticides. (Their risk is concentrated because they eat more food relative to their body weight than adults.)
In most of the cases, the residue levels were within the limits of what Environmental Protection Agency deems safe for consumption. But here’s the rub: These tolerance levels are calculated for individual pesticides. There isn’t a legal limit on the total number of pesticides that can be used on fruits and vegetables grown in, or imported into, the United States. The effects of these pesticide combinations on human health haven’t ever been tested. (The USDA allows the use of some 900 different pesticides, of which 40 are classified as possible carcinogens.)
This rather scary information doesn’t mean that all conventionally grown food is bad for us. For those who can’t always afford organic, the researchers have come up with recommendations for conventional options, including bananas, cherries, oranges, broccoli, lettuce, and onions, that are just as low-risk as organic (See chart). I’m glad they did. Organic is often more expensive, costing nearly 49 percent more than standard produce.
“While we do think that choosing organic produce is the better option for reducing pesticide use and for a healthier food production system, eating vegetables and fruits is really important for healthy diet, so we don’t want this to scare off people from eating them,” Rangan says.
The Consumer Reports study also looked into the health effects from the use of pesticides that have been documented in farmworkers, who are at greatest risk from pesticide exposure — another key reason why we should try and buy organic. (Read Journal editor Jason Mark’s take on this — Eat Organic: It’s Good for Other People’s Health.)
Much of what is known about the health effects of pesticides comes from studies of farmworkers, who regularly work with agricultural chemicals, many of which are known or suspected carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. Several studies have linked long-term pesticide exposure in this group to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease; prostate, ovarian, and other cancers; depression; and respiratory problems.
Rangan says that her organization has come up with a set of recommendations for the USDA and EPA that might help the agencies better regulate agricultural chemicals. “Primarily, we are focusing on the pesticides that do have clear risk, like methyl bromide and nicotinoids, that are toxic to farmers and are banned in most of the world,” she says. (Methyl bromide, commonly used on strawberry plants, is banned in most of the world but is still used in California. Nicotinoids have been linked to colony collapse disorder in bees)
“What we want in the long term is better food and better production systems which are better for us, better for the planet and better for the people who grow our food,” Rangan says. Organic produce isn’t perfect, but it’s a step forward, she says, pointing out that in last 15 years the organic produce market has grown from 1 percent to 4 percent, making it the fastest growing sector in the food industry.
“An overwhelming majority of people care, not just about what they are putting in their mouths, but about who is growing their food and the environment too,” Rangan says. “We are really glad that people are beginning to make those connections.”