True or false: Organic produce is always grown without pesticides.
If you answered true…sorry, but you’ve got it twisted. Surprising, right?
The truth is that many organic farmers rely on pesticides and herbicides—substances used protect crops from insects, weeds, and infections—from a relatively small list that’s regularly vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But that doesn’t mean that organic food is unsafe to eat. Here’s the lowdown about pesticides in organic food.
Why do we use pesticides again?
Even with the best farming practices, it’s hard to control every potential pest problem in food production. “Pests threaten farmers’ livelihoods,” says Mary Ann Rose, PhD, director of the Pesticide Safety Education Program at the Ohio State University Extension, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. “We’d all like pesticide residues to be zero, but it’s not realistic. It would be very difficult to produce the amount of food we do in the United States without it.”
Pesticides and herbicides help control the potentially harmful mold, mildew, fungi, weeds, bacteria, insects, and rodents that can damage crops or carry plant diseases. “Each farm’s ecosystem is unique and responds differently to pest control methods. For some organic farms, pesticides are the best option,” says registered dietitian-nutritionist Malina Malkani, RDN, CDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of Solve Picky Eating.
That said, organic farmers only use pesticides after other preventive, less invasive measures fail, Malkani adds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which certifies organic farms, requires organic farmers to emphasize prevention over treatment, focusing on pest-control measures like insect traps, the careful selection of disease-resistant varieties of certain crops, and the use of predator insects and beneficial microorganisms to help control pests that may damage certain crops.
Here’s why buying organic when you can is so dang important:
What pesticides are used in organic produce?
The USDA manages the list of approved pesticides allowed in organic produce. Most pesticides used in organic farming are natural (or non-synthetic), which the USDA defines as substances that have been produced or extracted from a natural source, like plants or other living organisms. The only chemical changes in natural pesticides come from naturally-occurring processes such as composting, fermentation, heating, or enzymatic digestion.
“In general, pesticides approved for organic production are lower in toxicity than conventional pesticides, and most are derived from naturally-occurring substances,” says Dr. Rose.
Pesticides approved for use in organic farming include neem oil, made from the neem tree, and pyrethrin, which is made from chrysanthemum plants. A few synthetic chemicals are also allowed in organic farming. Examples include copper sulfate, alcohols, chlorine products, hydrogen peroxide, and soaps.
Conventional farming, on the other hand, allows many more synthetic—i.e., man-made—pesticides and herbicides. Some are similarly virtually nontoxic, notes Dr. Rose, while others are extremely toxic. Risks aren’t always universally agreed upon; the weed killer glyphosate, for example, is commonly used in conventional agriculture in the U.S. but was controversially declared “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer and has been largely banned in France and Germany. Newer conventional pesticides tend to target a very specific process in the plant, often making them effective in much smaller doses than organic pesticides.
How freaked out should I be about this information?
Despite the fact that even organic produce depends on pesticides, eating organic will likely expose you to fewer pesticides in your diet. A comprehensive 2014 paper looking at 343 studies found that organic produce had four times less pesticide residue than conventional produce. Another 2012 review study by Stanford researchers found organic produce was 30 percent less likely to have pesticide residue than conventional produce. This same study and other research also suggest that an organic diet appears to decrease levels of pesticides in our urine.
Even foods with pesticide residue shouldn’t necessarily be panic-inducing. While high amounts of pesticide exposure has been associated with increased cancer risk and other health effects, the EPA regularly tests samples crops to ensure pesticide residues fall within safe limits. A 2017 EPA report looking at more than 10,000 samples of conventional and organic food found that more than 99 percent were within safe and acceptable limits, and more than half of the samples had no detectable pesticide residue.
“How much you’re exposed to is as important as the absolute toxicity of the pesticide,” says Dr. Rose. “Our risk from anything is a function of both the toxicity and the exposure, or dose. It’s true of every substance.” Eating fruits and vegetables on the regular, even ones that have trace amounts of pesticides on them, is likely nowhere near as harmful as being exposed to them as part of your job (like gardeners or farmworkers who spray their fields with pesticides).
Malkani adds that organic farming practices are healthier for the environment and animals and tend to enrich instead of deplete the soil of nutrients. “The reason to purchase organic goes beyond pesticides—it’s also a way of agriculture that supports a more biodiverse, sustainable ecosystem,” says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, the Plant-Powered Dietitian.
So what should I do if I’m worried about pesticide exposure in organics?
No one wants to eat pesticides. But try to keep things in perspective. As mentioned above, pesticides go through rigorous registration process by the EPA that assesses their impact on human health and the environment, says Dr. Rose; certified organic farmers use an even smaller subset of pesticides mostly derived from natural sources that are in general lower in toxicity.
Most of us should worry more about eating more fruits and veggies in the first place, notes Malkani, who adds that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Cancer Society and American Medical Association all say the health benefits of a fruit and vegetable-rich diet far outweigh the potential risks associated with pesticides.
Malkani says the following steps can help further reduce your exposure to pesticides:
- Always wash fruits and veggies under running water (forget the store-bought produce soaps; they aren’t worth the money)
- Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables like cabbage
- Clean the fiber-rich edible peels of foods like apples and carrots with a scrub brush
- Scrub the inedible rinds of produce (like melon) to reduce residues that can enter the food when it’s cut
- Different crops require different pesticides, so eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables minimizes your risks associated with specific pesticides and provides a wider range of nutritional benefits
If you’re still concerned, hit your local farmers market to get the inside scoop from the source. Some organic farmers don’t use any pesticides at all—even approved ones, notes Palmer. “Get to know the people who produce your food and find out how they produce it,” she says.
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