Why You Shouldn’t Buy Organic Based on the Dirty Dozen [Updated 2019]

Switching to organic kale because it tops the list of the most pesticides on the 2019 Dirty Dozen list ? You can reconsider your opinion. It turns out that “dirty” foods are pretty clean, and organic foods are not free of pesticides anyway.

The USDA, which conducted actual pesticide testing on food samples, came to a more encouraging conclusion in its latest report (released in December 2018 using 2017 data that formed the basis of the 2019 Dirty Dozen list):

This report shows that when pesticide residues are found in food, they are almost always found at levels below EPA tolerances. More than 99 percent of PDP-selected products had residues below EPA tolerances.

But the Environment Working Group used the same data to create a list of “dirty” and “clean” foods and to encourage people to buy organic products. The implication is that non-organic foods are somehow hazardous to your health … but they are not. Fruits and vegetables are good for you, whether organic or regular, and you don’t need a $ 15 shopping guide to avoid secret grocery store poisoning.

The Dirty Dozen rating is not safety related

The Dirty Dozen, which aims to rank the fruits with the most pesticide residues, comes from the Environment Working Group and they publish their methodology on the report website . They basically download test results from the USDA Pesticide Data Program , which samples for pesticide residues, and rate each fruit or vegetable based on six criteria related to the amount of different pesticide residues observed in this type of food. , the percentage of samples with pesticide residues and the total amount of pesticides detected.

Here’s the problem. Some pesticides are significantly more toxic than others, but the EWG scoring system considers all pesticides to be equal and they do not relate pesticide amounts to known safety standards. Two food experts put EWG numbers from their 2010 list (which uses the same methodology as this year) in practice. Their analysis was published in the Journal of Toxicology .

They compared the amount of pesticide in each of the Dirty Dozen foods to aconstant reference dose , which is the maximumdose you can take if you eat that food every day of your life. Just in case, this level is a hundred times less than the amount that experimental animals could consume without any consequences. This is a fairly large margin of safety. So how many of the Dirty Dozen exceeded this highly conservative chronic reference dose? No one:

All pesticide exposure assessments were well below established chronic reference doses (RfDs). Only one of 120 exposure assessments exceeded 1% RfD (methamidophos on bell pepper at 2% RfD), and only seven exposure assessments (5.8 percent) exceeded 0.1% RfD. Three quarters of pesticide / product combinations showed exposure ratings below 0.01% RfD (corresponding to exposure one million times lower than chronic unobservable side effects levels in animal toxicology studies ), and 40.8% had exposure ratings below 0.001% RfD.

So even in the dirtiest of the dozen, the pesticide levels were very, very, very low. This brings us to another fundamental problem with the rating “dirty dozen”: there will always be twelve items on the list. If farmers increase their pesticide use a million times overnight, or move away from pesticides en masse, next year’s list will not reflect your actual risk change. It will still be a dozen points, and Net Fifteen will still support fifteen others.

The ‘Pure Fifteen’ also deserves some attention: in another analysis, the vegetable with the highest dose of pesticides was on this list: cauliflower with more pesticides in excess of 10% RfD than other crops. Let’s stop pretending that the EWG lists tell us something about what’s actually safe in our food.

Organic farming uses pesticides, including very toxic ones

Maybe you want to avoid using pesticides altogether. I can do it. No risk below zero, right? The problem is that the EWG’s decision to buy organic if pesticides bother you will not necessarily reduce pesticide consumption.

Organic farming also uses pesticides . In fact, here is the National List of Pesticides Approved for Organic Certified Farms. It includes some fairly toxic substances like copper sulfate, and many are not limited in terms of how much a farmer can use. The fact that “synthetic” pesticides are more strictly regulated does not mean that natural ones are more beneficial for health: even before rotenone was banned, it was legal for both conventional and organic crops as it comes from plants. and not from synthetic sources. Organic pesticides are n’t necessarily better for the environment .

It would be a moot point if we could compare the pesticides found in organic and conventional foods. You will notice that the EWG only mentions pesticides found in conventional foods: this is because the USDA does not check for organic pesticides .

They use a high-speed method that allows them to test hundreds of pesticides at a time, but the test fails to detect many organic pesticides, including copper sulfate and Bt toxin (known for its role in GMO corn and soybeans, but also perfectly legal in organic farming).

We know that organic foods have fewer synthetic pesticides than conventional foods (not zero, but less). But we do not have complete information on the total amount of pesticides, synthetic and organic, so it would be wrong to say that there are fewer of them in organic products. We just can’t tell.

What are you supposed to do

First, keep eating lots of fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of using them (of any kind) are well known and far outweigh any risks associated with pesticide residues (organic or otherwise).

But how can we ensure the lowest possible amount of pesticide residues in our products? Wherever I looked for an answer to this question, the recommendation was always the same: Buy from local farms, where you can ask how they fight pests and what chemicals they use. For example, apple farms are not organic in most parts of the country, but many employ sustainable pest management practices that reduce pesticide use. I am happy to buy from these farms.

I don’t mind organic foods in general. There are many good intentions behind the organic movement. However, the USDA Organic label does not represent intent. This means a few specific things, such as that food has not been exposed to radiation, that animals are usually not given antibiotics, and that some fertilizers and certain pesticides have not been used. Some of these things may matter to you and some may not. You may also find that some of the things that are important to you are not reflected in the presence or absence of organic certification.

So forget about organic labeling if you’re concerned about pesticide exposure; it just doesn’t tell you what you want to know. Ask questions – or raise your own if you can – and forget the dirty dozen.


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