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Pesticide Residues Found on 45% of Organic Fruits and Vegetables
by Barbara Minton
(The Best Years in Life) Are consumers who pay a premium for food labeled as organic really getting their money's worth? Rick Holley, an expert in food safety at the University of Manitoba, says that if the money is being spent to avoid pesticide residues and have access to food which is healthy, the answer is probably "No". His statement follows a report from a food inspection agency in Canada that found 45 percent of the organic fruits and vegetables they tested in the past two years contained pesticide residues.
This finding comes on the heels of a USDA assessment that found nearly 20 percent of organic lettuce tested positive for pesticide residues. Spinosad, a pesticide marketed by Down Chemical, was found in high concentrations. It is a chemical created from a soil bacterium that destroys the nervous systems of insects. In the USDA tests, ten times more spinosad was found on organic lettuce than was found on the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables tested.
Other potent natural chemicals frequently found on organic produce include pyrethrin, derived from chrysanthemums, and azadirachtin, derived from the Asian neem tree. Residues from some of the less hazardous synthetic pesticides can also be found on organic produce, especially in the U.S. where the standards for the use of the word organic are less stringent than in Canada.
Additional findings from the tests in Canada
*Most of the fresh produce sampled was imported, with only one-fifth grown in Canada. Of the domestically grown samples, about 43 percent tested positive for at least one pesticide, which was slightly lower than the 46 percent found on imported samples.
*It is difficult to have a zero pesticide residue any longer, because pesticide traces are now found almost everywhere in the environment. There are reports coming out now that show pesticide in fetal cord blood.
*Take particular care when buying produce grown in Mexico and labeled as organic. An "organic" pepper imported from Mexico was found to contain minute amounts of 10 of the 13 pesticides for which it was tested. An organic tomato imported from Mexico contained 2 of the 4 pesticides it was tested for, and both pesticides exceeded the allowable limits.
*Pesticides can get into organic produce through contamination of water or soil by pesticide spray drift from neighboring farms. But Holley reports that some of the larger residue measurements found suggest an "organic" producer deliberately used a pesticide that is not allowed.
This may come as a shock to buyers of food labeled as organic, who for the most part seem to think anything carrying that label is grown strictly without the use of pesticides.
What does the word organic really mean?
In the U.S., the National Organic Standards Board controls the criteria for the use of the word organic. According to them:
"Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on the management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
"The word organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principle guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
"Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues: however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
"Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”
That's it. As you can see, there is plenty of wiggle room here.
The USDA puts it this way: "Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."
This sounds pretty good, but then they backtrack on their own definition by adding categories. Items in the category at the top of their list are the ones many people think they are getting when they spend the extra money for an item labeled as organic, but in fact they are not. Only items labeled as "100 percent organic" qualify for this category. Do you ever see anything labeled this way?
If you go to a health oriented grocery store, a healthy image store like Whole Foods, or even many conventional grocery stores, you will probably see items labeled simply as organic. These items fall into the second category, which requires the items to be only 95 percent pure. It is also important to realize that salt and water are exempted from consideration in these categories.
The lesser evil is still the best
Now that the rose colored glasses are off, unless you can grow your own produce or buy from a local grower you trust, buying organic is probably still the best idea even if you aren't really getting your money's worth. Mark Kastel, a farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute says that even with nearly half the organic samples showing pesticide residues, its a dramatically lower figure than in conventionally grown produce.
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