In 1984, Elizabeth Ryan bought a farm in New York's mid Hudson Valley. The farm and orchard had been managed conventionally for many years, but Ryan decided to severely restrict the use of chemical pesticides. Her farm is now run under a preventive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, which uses chemicals only as a last resort. "When I see my customers, I am reminded that I am directly accountable for the way I grow my food," she says.
Unfortunately, pesticides are part of the mix. Of the 300 pesticides approved by the federal government, 73 (including some of the most frequently used) are "probable" or "possible" carcinogens. Cancer, however, is not the only health problem linked with pesticide-ridden food. Pesticides known as organophosphates and carbonates are neurotoxins that can cause nervous system damage.
Children are at a heightened risk from pesticides, because they eat more food relative to their body weight and because their nervous systems are still developing. And according to the National Research Council, children eat more fresh fruit than adults, which can expose them to multiple pesticides. An alternative is to go organic, which means eating food that was produced without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. "Certified Organic" products, which have been approved by state-certified organic boards, carry a guarantee that the product was grown and handled according to strict procedures.
Most people don't make the switch to naturally-grown overnight, but if you want a good place to start, here's a list of 10 foods to buy organic for the sake of both personal and planetary health:
Baby Food: The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1993 that federal pesticide standards provide too little health protection for infants. Building on those conclusions, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) commissioned laboratory tests of eight baby foods made by industry leaders Gerber, Heinz and Beech-Nut. Some 16 pesticides were found, including three carcinogens, five possible carcinogens, eight neurotoxins, five endocrine disruptors (which can mimic or interfere with hormones) and five very dangerous "toxicity one" chemicals. More than half of the samples-53 percent-had detectable pesticide levels. Organic baby food is widely available (Earth's Best and Well-Fed Baby are two supermarket brands), and you can also make your own by cooking, pureeing and freezing organic fruits and vegetables.
Strawberries: The fresh, sweet strawberries you buy in the supermarket are the single most heavily contaminated fruit or vegetable in the U.S., according to another 1993 EWG study. Seventy percent of all strawberries tested contained at least one pesticide, and 36 percent contained two or more. Strawberries are also laced with endocrine disruptors. According to Consumer Union's Pest Management at the Crossroads, strawberries can receive a dose of 500 pounds of pesticides per acre. Out-of-season strawberries are the most likely to have been imported, possibly from a country with less-stringent pesticide regulations. Organic brands include Golden River Farms, Cascadian Farms and Boulder Fruit Express.
Rice: An incredible 70 to 80 percent of the world's calories come from rice. Because rice allergies are practically non-existent, rice is a primary ingredient in baby cereals and snacks. Both water-soluble herbicides and insecticides have contaminated groundwater near rice fields in California's Sacramento River valley. The herbicide 2,4,5-T, used as a defoliant in Vietnam, was commonly sprayed on rice fields until it was banned in 1984. Many different types of rice are available organically (from Eagle Agricultural Products, Lundberg Family Farms and MacDougall's Wild Rice). And like most grains, rice can be bought in money-saving bulk.
Oats and other grains: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends six to 11 servings of grains daily. Oats are a fundamental grain in crop rotation, used by farmers to maintain soil health and break pest cycles. But oats aren't always as "wholesome" as cereal advertising suggests. In 1994, the FDA found illegal residues in a year's worth of General Mills' popular Cheerios cereal. By that time, millions of boxes were already on supermarket shelves. (General Mills allowed the boxes already in stores to be sold, but voluntarily withdrew the contaminated product awaiting shipment.) Organic growers provide a tremendous variety of grains; in addition to oats, these include millet, quinoa, barley, couscous, amaranth and spelt.
Milk: Milk comprises nearly a quarter of the non-nursing infant's diet. Many dairy companies inject their cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH)-a genetically engineered hormone used to boost milk production. Some 79 percent of rBGH-treated cows get clinical mastitis, a common infection of the udder. The more antibiotics used to treat these cows, the higher chance of antibiotic residue in the milk given to children. Fueled in part by the rBGH controversy, organic milk sales have reached $50 to $60 million annually, and organic milk is widely available in supermarkets.
Corn: Every year, Americans eat an average of 11 pounds of corn, which is one of the four crops that provide the basis of 90 percent of the manufactured food in American supermarkets. About 50 percent of all pesticides, by weight, are applied to corn in the U.S. While corn has only five percent of the pesticide contamination of cherries and strawberries (see above), switching to organic makes sense because corn is such a dietary staple. Many processed foods made with organic corn are now on the market. When buying fresh corn, look for ears that were locally grown, because they're much less likely to have been treated with post-harvest pesticides.
Bananas: Bananas are often the first fruit given to children, and remain one of the most popular fruits throughout our adult lives. But the toxic pesticides used during banana production include benomyl (linked to birth defects) and chlorpyrifos (a neurotoxin). In Costa Rica, a major exporter, only five percent of cultivated land is taken up with bananas, but they account for 35 percent of the country's pesticide imports. Organic brands include Ginger Ridge Farms, Made in Nature and Eco-Fruit.
Green Beans: The Environmental Protection Agency has registered more than 60 pesticides for use on green beans. EWG laboratory tests on baby food found three pesticides in green bean samples, including both neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors. Green beans imported from Mexico are the worst offenders-9.4 percent of the crop is contaminated with illegal pesticides.
Peaches: A recent FDA study cited peaches for above-average rates of illegal pesticide violations (five percent of the crop was contaminated). Over-tolerance violations in peaches are so common that the FDA routinely misses them-including a sample contaminated at eight parts per million (80 times the official tolerance level) with the pesticide pronamide.
Apples: Domestic apples have more than 65 percent as much pesticide contamination as strawberries, and that's after the heavily publicized 1980s battle that banned use of the carcinogenic growth regulator Alar. Now there are other things to worry about when biting into a nice crisp apple. The fungicide captan and the insecticide chlorpyrifos are just two; they were among the 48 pesticides found most frequently in FDA testing of 2,464 apple samples . Luckily, apple growers are leading the IPM movement-some 70 percent of Northeast orchards are managed that way.
It looks like an apple a day may no longer keep the doctor away. Eating organic produce-or at least produce grown through the IPM process-is one way to put pesticides in your past. National Organic Harvest month might be a good time to start.
Article originally published in E/The Environmental Magazine
By Francine Stevens and Betsy Lydon
Environmental Working Group
1718 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20009
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