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Killer Kale and Sad Strawberries

March 21, 2019

The green that some people love, and others love to hate, is under attack. This time from science. Well, that might be overstating the methodology of the Environmental Working Group, and its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

Okay. It’s definitely overstating the methodology.

Nobody pays attention to the details anymore. It’s all just flashy headlines. Every year the EWG publishes a list that includes the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” made up of fruits and vegetables ranked by their synthetic pesticide loads. This year, kale is extra dirty.

The idea is to help consumers create a short list of which conventionally raised produce they can feel good about buying, and prioritize where to spend limited dollars on pricier organic fruits and vegetables.

Fundamentally, I salute the effort. It’s a great reminder about just how many pesticides can be used in conventional farming. We see abundance at the supermarket and give little thought to how all that produce arrives from so far away looking as beautiful as it does.

However, some of the data behind the EWG report itself is weak, and it leads consumers to false conclusions. Most notably about the alternatives to conventional produce.

Remember this: Organic produce DOES NOT mean it is pesticide free.

Forget about pesticide drift and cross contamination. That can certainly happen. But more importantly, there are pesticides and herbicides that are approved for organic production. These are not synthetically derived pesticides, but they are equally effective at killing living organisms.

Are they safer? Maybe. It depends on how you evaluate the term safe. Some may have to be sprayed more often, and thus result in greater quantities of pesticides being introduced to our environment. These are large complex systems, and I make no claims of being an expert. Be wary of those who seem to think the know exactly how Mother Nature works.

The bottom line is that no pesticide is completely safe, and that everyone should take steps to minimize exposure to any pesticide.

But we still have to eat.

The EWG is an interesting thought piece, and it’s not a terrible tool. But it is limited at best. If you start digging deeper into the numbers, you’ll learn that pineapples and frozen sweet peas which are towards the top of the “Clean Fifteen” are scored based on data from 2002 and 2003 respectively. So if the pineapple farmers haven’t increased their pesticide loads in the last fifteen years, you’re in luck.

For those of us who have been following these matters for years, there is nothing surprising in the report. Apples, strawberries, and stone fruit have long been laden with heavier pesticide loads, as have dark leafy greens, celery, and potatoes. The fussies have been making a concerted effort to buy organic versions of these crops for years.

What I always struggle with is where to draw the line. Years ago I remember finding the numbers these scores were based upon, and doing a tighter evaluation produce by category, looking at natural breaks in the pesticide load scores to find a statistically significant drop. Of course, I can’t find that now.

Regardless of the scores from the EWG, the pesticide loads from your local farms and farmers who are growing food directly for consumers—as opposed to the commodity market—will likely be different. There was a great story on Indian Ladder Farms in The New York Times. It’s not an organic apple farm. But in this 2017 piece, the paper quoted Peter G. Ten Eyck II who said, “All I’m trying to do is grow so that my grandchild can pick an apple off a tree and take a bite out of it and be O.K. That’s where I want to be.”

Frankly, that’s all I want too.

Know your farmer.
Know your farm.
Fear no food.

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