Recently, I was at my local farmer’s market meandering the walkways (my usual Saturday morning pomp and circumstance), when I came across a new vendor selling blueberries! I let out a sign of ecstasy. “Yesssssss.” Blueberry season had finally come to central California. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on those plump, indigo, spheres of juicy sweetness. As I elbowed my way to the front of the stall, I chose a petite sample to make sure the goods were–you know–divine! And although, the itty-bitty blueberry didn’t wow me into elation, I just presumed it was early in the season. Despite this, I reached for my money and motioned for the farmer to give me the largest size–3 1/2 pounds of blueberries for $8.00! (I had visions of wheat-free tarts on my mind). But, as my innate toxin radar kicked in, I noticed there was no “organic” sign. And, well, out of my mouth sprang the question: “Sir, you don’t use any pesticides or herbicides on your blueberries, do you?” Of course, I presumed he was going to respond with a, “Hell No,” like any “in-the-know, I care about my dignity” kind of farmer, but to my shock and dismay he responded…wait for it…”Of course we use pesticides, we are conventional blueberry farmers, we have to use pesticides.”
At this point, I thought I had heard the man wrong. I mused to myself, oh he must just be joking or I must be hard of hearing. So I happily reworded my question, trying not to be condescending,
“I’m sorry, did you say that you use pesticides?”
This time his reply was blunt and very clear, “Yes, we use pesticides!” At the same time he said this, he seemed to be keenly focused on the fact that there were many people within ear’s reach. At this point, our eye contact became a stare down. Inevitably, my repeated question only aggravated the man and his response thwarted me from my purchase. Yes, my blueberry tart fantasy bubble was deflated. As I walked away with my money in my hand, and my back to the farmer, I couldn’t help but feel like our small towns farmer’s market was just like the grocery store. Here too, just like the supermarkets, I have to dodge chemicals. I felt cheated.
Okay, so let’s look at the big picture. Is it really important to stay clear of non-organic fruits and vegetables or was I overreacting? Let’s get to the bottom of this issue because this is one important issue that needs attention.
Here are some statistics for you. In the United States, more than 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides and herbicides are sprayed on or added to food crops each year, which equates to 5 pounds of pesticides for each person–man, woman, and child. This is quite a bit of toxins for our liver to filter, wouldn’t you say?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 64 pesticides as potential cancer-causing compounds, with 80% of our cancer risk due to 13 pesticides that are widely used on 15 important food crops including tomatoes, beef, potatoes, oranges, lettuce, apples, peaches, pork, wheat, soybeans, beans, carrots, chicken, corn and grapes.
Numerous pesticide epidemics have occurred since the introduction of pesticides, with the largest happening in 1985. The toxic pesticide Aldicarb, a systemic pesticide that permeates the entire fruit, was used illegally on watermelon crops. This resulted in over 1,000 people in the US and Canada being severely poisoned. Symptoms such as gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, tremors, convulsions and nerve damage were reported. (Murray, 2005) Keep in mind, these were short term effects. There have been no long-term human studies conducted that tell the effects of long-term pesticide exposure. However, in 2011 a group of French scientists led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, found that RoundUp (Monsanto’s brand name for the herbicide Glyphosate) caused severe diseases and tumor growths in rats over two years. I’d say this is enough concern to prompt more research in this area, especially when the World Health Organization found glyphosate to be a probable carcinogen. Unfortunately, glyphosate, without any research backing, is still readily used through out the world on conventional food crops.
But can’t we just wash the pesticides off?
No! The National Resources Defense Council did a survey of fresh produce sold in San Francisco markets for pesticides and found that 44% of seventy-one fruits and veggies had 19 different pesticides. More astounding is they found 50 pesticides being used on conventional broccoli, 110 on apples, and 70 on bell peppers, many of these pesticides can actually penetrate the fruit or vegetable and cannot be washed off. If you think about it, with the average being 19 pesticides on produce (some possibly systemic), even if you soaked your food in apple cider vinegar for 2 hours, you’d be lucky to get some off, but certainly this is not a sure proof method. (Murray, 2005)
Now here is the real cliff hanger. In 2007, a study from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom reported that organic produce had up to 40 percent higher levels of particular nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) than its conventional counterparts. The organic foods were nutritionally superior in 61% of the cases, with an overall average improvement in nutrient content of 25%. (Benbrook, 2008) Moreover, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown. And in 2007, Soil Association found that organic potatoes, oranges, kiwi and carrots were as much as 50% higher in Vitamin C than conventional.
More recent research by, Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, explains why organic techniques may yield superior produce:
“With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients.” – Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set national standards for food labeled “organic.” It doesn’t matter if it is grown in the U.S. or imported, this label means the food is grown by farmers who do not use most conventional pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Moreover, organic meats are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. An organic label cannot be obtained or approved without certified inspectors that come to the farm to ensure the farmer is following all rules necessary to meet the USDA organic certification. This means that organic certification ensures the food production is much more regulated than conventional. Finally, if a company or farmer uses this seal, but does not meet the standards, they are susceptible to a fine of up to $10,000 per violation. (Murray, 2005)
So, getting back to my story, you can see why I felt personally offended that this man’s conventional berries (laced with chemicals), were so delicately tucked in between two organic stalls, both of which had clear signage that they offered organic produce. Does it seem fair the organic farmer doing everything right and everything truly natural, yet must label and pay for certification? However, a farmer using dozens of pesticides and unregulated practices does not need to indicate this? If it weren’t for my awareness of the food issues in America, I would have been paying a much bigger price than $8.00. By tossing back numerous pesticides, I would have been risking my health. Moreover, there are numerous studies that show organic foods are far superior nutritionally than their conventional counterpart. I only hope to spread the word to others in my community, so they too know the misguided truths of consuming non-organic foods on a daily basis. This quote by Dr. Bauman sums up my overall sentiment and message regarding whether to consume organic or conventional food products:
“If you are what your eat, and you don’t know what you are eating, what’s been added, altered, or removed, how can you know who you are or have the health you aspire to?” – Edward Bauman, M. Ed, Ph.D (2010)
So bottom line:
Conventional=multiple pesticide exposure, decreased nutrient value and greater risk of cancer
Organic=significantly less toxic pesticide exposure and higher nutrient values (vitamins and minerals)
It is worth the money in the long run to buy or grow your own organic food and steer clear of the hundreds of pesticides circulating in our food system in the U.S. and abroad. Better yet, if you choose to purchase your fruits and veggies at your local farmer’s market, be sure to ask you farmer if he/she sprays their produce (there are many farmers who do not spray). To make things easier and help you save money, below is a handy chart, which shows what foods are safe to buy conventional because they have the least amount of pesticides: “The Clean Fifteen.” Additionally, “The Dirty Dozen” is listed, which has the highest amount of pesticide exposure, so it is best to buy the organic versions.
Knowledge is Power! If you would like to read the research for yourself on the benefits of organic farming and products, the Organic Center (www.organic-center.org) has two great research papers. The first titled, “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods,” and “Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation: The Organic Option.” https://www.organic-center.org/scientific-resources/publication-archive/
Other helpful sites include:
www.oca.org – The Organic Consumers Association (OCA)
www.ota.com – The Organic Trade Association (OTA)
www.ewg.org – The Environmental Working Group (EWG)
Wishing you Divine Health!
Murray, Michael. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Food. New York: Atria Books
Soil Association. (2007, Oct 30). Comparing organic vs. conventional vegetables and dairy products. Retrieved from http://www.soilassociation.org
Benbrook, M. Charles, (2008). The Organic Center. Publication Archive. Retrieved from https://www.organic-center.org/scientific-resources/publication-archive/
Bauman, Ed. & Friedlander, J. (2015) “Foundations of Nutrition.” Bauman College: Penngrove , CA.
Lippert, Marissa. (2009).”Q. Organic-or Not? Is Organic Produce healthier than Conventional?” Retrieved from http://www.eatingwell.com/food_news_origins/green_sustainable/organic_or_not_is_organic_produce_healthier_than_conventional
(2014) Environmental Sciences Europe. Retrieved from https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-014-0014-5
Cressey, D. (2015) Scientific American. “Widely Used Pesticide Linked to Cancer.” Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer/
Image retrieved from: http://www.activevegetarian.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Dirty-Dozen-VS-Clean-Fifteen.jpg