Exaggerated pesticide warnings could scare us from a healthy diet
Eat fewer apples, strawberries and grapes, and more corn, onions and pineapples, and you’ll protect yourself and your children from “toxic” pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This advice, however, is nothing more than dangerous hogwash.
Every year, the group issues its “study” and “shopping guide” using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual review of pesticide residues found on food. It always includes a “dirty dozen” list of fruits and veggies that contain the highest pesticide residues in the department’s sample.
This year’s list includes: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, kale and collard greens, and summer squash.
The Environmental Working Group has lots of healthy alternatives on its “clean 15 list,” and its report claims “[t]he health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.” Still, the group suggests that people eat fewer of some items stating, “You can lower your pesticide intake by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and choosing the least contaminated produce.”
Eating fewer of these items will not lower health risks, as the Environmental Working Group’s rhetoric suggests. Residues are too low — on even the organization’s “worst” examples — to make any public health difference to children or adults. Accordingly, placing any of these healthy foods on a “dirty dozen list” isn’t simply highly misleading, it’s dirty politics designed to scare everyone from ma to grandma.
Contrary to the Environmental Working Group’s scary depiction, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) press statement on Agriculture Department data reads: “The newest data from the [Pesticide Data Program] confirm that pesticide residues in food do not pose a safety concern for Americans. EPA remains committed to a rigorous, science-based and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people’s health and the environment.”
The Department of Agriculture’s “Message to Consumers” related to its residue report explains further: “This report shows that overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and that overall pesticide residues found on baby food are lower than the levels found on other commodities.”
The Agriculture Department notes further in its questions and answers that residues at levels above the Environmental Protection Agency tolerance standards occurred in just 0.27 percent of the samples. That means 99.73 percent of the samples met the agency’s very stringent standards. This is consistent with past Department of Agriculture reports, which barely find any residues, year in and year out.
Unfortunately, the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide may discourage consumption of listed healthy fruits and vegetables, which could undermine public health. Eating a large amount and a wide range of fruits and veggies is one of our best defenses against cancer and other health problems. The quarter of the U.S. population consuming the least amount of fruits and vegetables has a cancer rate twice as high as the quarter of the population consuming the most, according to one study. Accordingly, the World Health Organization recommended in its 2000 World Cancer Report increased intake of fruits and vegetables to reduce the cancer-incidence rate by 30 percent across the board.
As a partial solution, the Environmental Working Group suggests buying organic food, yet organic food is often more expensive and not a reasonable option for consumers on fixed budgets. There isn’t any compelling body of evidence demonstrating that organic food is any safer, as recently reported in a Stanford University study and another study in the journal Pediatrics.
If we all ate organic food, the environment would suffer because organic farming is less productive. If we abandoned high-yield farming with pesticides, farmers would need to plant about 10 million additional square miles to produce the same amount of food, notes researcher Dennis Avery in “True State of the Planet.” That is more land than all of North America (about 9.4 million square miles), leaving no space for wildlife conservation.
A consumer’s best option is to ignore the Environmental Working Group and follow the Agriculture Department’s advice of eating more fruits and vegetables. The department explains: “Health and nutrition experts encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables in every meal as part of a healthy diet. This is affirmed in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and My Plate, the federal nutrition graphic that shows that people should fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables.”
Angela Logomasini is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.