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AgMag BLOG

Feeding your mind, saving the planet >>

Shoppers have a problem with pesticides

Thursday, July 28, 2011

If the thought of eating weed-killer with your watermelon makes your cringe, you’re not alone. Nearly 60 percent of Americans prefer organic over conventional foods. And a third of those who favor organics do so specifically to avoid eating pesticides, according to a new survey conducted jointly by Thomson-Reuters and NPR.

Those who preferred organics said they were motivated by desire to:

  • Support local farms: 36 percent
  • Avoid pesticides:  34 percent
  • Protect the environment: 17 percent
  • Buy better-tasting food: 13 percent

That’s good news. People should, when possible, avoid eating pesticides. They’re bad for your health.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, side effects from pesticide exposure range from “mild symptoms of dizziness and nausea to serious, long-term neurological, developmental and reproductive disorders.” Children are at greater risk because their organs are still developing and because they eat more, relative to their body weight.

It is also well documented that farmworkers are intensely exposed to pesticides and suffer health damage from these toxic substances.

But the produce and pesticide industries claim on their website, http://www.safefruitsandveggies.com that we shouldn’t be worried about pesticide residues on our food. They disparage customer concern, saying it’s based on misleading information. Instead they assure: “almost every substance — even water or oxygen — can be toxic at some level.”

If you are looking at their website to find some hard scientific evidence, you’re in for a disappointment. Their “Read the Science” link takes you not to the latest scientific evidence but to an industry-commissioned science “review” that (surprise!) concludes that there is a “lack [of] scientific evidence that the pesticide levels found pose any risk.”

If the lack-of-evidence-of-risk line doesn’t bring you any comfort, you’re not alone. Independent scientists haven’t dismissed the issue as irrelevant; in fact research in this area is building.

Three separate studies published in April concluded that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides was linked to diminished IQs in children.

A 2010 study funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in Pediatrics, a research team at the University of Montreal found that children with higher levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine were much more likely to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

And in a study published in 2006, scientists at Emory University, the University of Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fed 23 children conventionally-produced food for three days and then an all-organic diet for five days. Following the switch, pesticide metabolites in the children’s urine decreased dramatically—showing that changing to an organic diet does in fact significantly decrease pesticide exposure.

Given the emerging research, it is really no surprise that the organic sector has exploded. As the Thomson-Reuters/NPR poll shows, a major force behind the surge in sales for organic food is the sensible desire to eat food that does not contain toxic chemicals.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales were almost $29 billion in 2010, up 7.7 percent over the previous year.  Sales of organic produce in 2010 totaled $10.6 billion, a whopping 11.8 percent jump from the previous year. By contrast, U.S. food sales generally were flat.

Whether conventional or organic, everyone agrees that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is vital for health. If you’re able to buy the organic versions for some or all of your produce, you’ll substantially lower the levels of pesticides in your body.

Of course, you can’t see pesticide residues on the fruits and vegetables for sale at the supermarket. And the produce and pesticide industries surely aren’t making that information readily available and easy to find for concerned customers. In fact, they have been lobbying federal officials to whitewash the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program.

But don’t worry. EWG has your back.

Each year we crunch federal pesticide residue testing data and rank the most popular fruits and vegetables based on the least and most pesticides residues. You can download the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce and take it with you on your next trip to the supermarket (or snag our Android or iPhone app).