ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Considering Local in a World of Pesticides

By Samuel Fromartz

While you chew over the Time magazine cover story on local and organic foods, consider the latest report from the USDA on pesticide residues. The watchdogs over at Beyond Pesticides - an NGO long fighting against pesticides in our food supply, homes, workplaces and, yes, golf courses - reports on the latest pesticide data from the USDA.

Every year, the USDA grinds up food samples around the country and then measures the pesticide residues it finds. Beyond Pesticides looked over the Pesticide Data Report:

In fruits and vegetables, 73 percent of fresh and 61 percent of processed produce had detectable residues. Drinking water analyses primarily found widely used herbicides and their metabolites; forty-eight different residues were found in untreated intake water and 43 in treated water.

It doesn't end there. Sixteen percent of bottled water samples had pesticide residues. So did 22 percent of soybeans, 75 percent of wheat, 98 percent of apples and 99 percent of heavy cream.

Milk generally contains pesticide residues, primary DDE (the substance that DDT breaks down into when it is metabolized). Why does it show up in milk? Because long-lasting pesticides like DDT concentrate in fatty tissues. This is still the case, even though DDT has been banned since 1972. Since it exists in the soil, plants take it up and then it is consumed by cows. (The FDA, however, says these detectable levels do not pose a health risk). DDE was in 85 percent of milk samples, which is about the same level when the USDA last tested milk.

The PDP report, incidentally, is one of the data sets that Environmental Working Group relies upon to find the foods with the most pesticide residues. They take this data, crunch the numbers, and then come up with a list of the foods with the highest and lowest numbers. That way you can try to make an intelligent choice about what organic foods to buy if you can only afford a few items.

Studies show organic food has lower pesticide residues. A widely publicized study in 2002, looking at 94,000 food samples from 1994-1999, found that organic had about two-thirds less residues than conventional food. It would be interesting if this study were repeated, especially now that so much more food is available organically.

In light of this rather consistent body of data, I've argued elsewhere that the choice between local and organic is a false one: both are good choices for different reasons. And both are such a tiny fraction of the food supply that choosing between them is virtually meaningless.