I think a lot about my food, where it comes from, and what the quality is like. So when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their most recent "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" (a list of produce with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues, respectively), I scribbled it down in the little green notebook I carry everywhere, between the grocery lists and subway directions. Make sure to buy organic when getting apples, celery and strawberries. Conventional is okay for onions, sweet corn and pineapples. Got it.
Except it's not quite that simple. Because often the produce with the least chemical residues (and therefore the least risk to the consumer) is the most dangerous for the farmworkers doing the planting, tending, and harvesting. Tom Philpott, who writes about food and agriculture issues for Grist and Mother Jones, explains that demand from consumers for less pesticides left on fruits and veggies when they get to the store has pushed growers to rely increasingly on fumigants. Prior to planting, the beds are covered with plastic and pumped full of poisons that kill everything (good and bad) living in the soil. Because fumigants are volatile and highly reactive, they break down quickly and don't show up on produce. But they are also very dangerous for the farmworkers who handle them, and have been linked to central nervous system disorders, lung and kidney problems, and birth defects. After all, what do you expect from pesticides originally designed as chemical weapons?
So is buying organics the answer?
Yes and no. Yes, because organic farmers are prohibited from using non-natural pesticides and herbicides, so no one has to handle these chemicals, and the soil and surrounding environment are able to maintain healthy biodiversity. I had the pleasure of witnessing this even on our little five acres in Oxnard. And no, because organic certification has nothing to do with the actual levels of pesticides found on produce. At the farm I worked on last year, a single lane dirt track was the only "buffer zone" separating our organic field from the neighboring conventional one. The Santa Ana winds would regularly blow dust for miles across the Oxnard plain, carrying with it everything that had been applied to other fields. Buying organics is a start, but it doesn't do much for farmworkers, most of whom have very little choice about where to work. They may be washing organic celery in the morning and picking conventional strawberries in the afternoon.
In the end? It may not solve everything, but I always feel better when I can talk to the person who grew it.