The public was widely alerted to the danger of toxic food by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. As of 2013 a large and constantly growing number of people take measures to avoid food with any pesticides.
However, the agricultural chemical manufacturers do not just sit back and accept pesticide free food as a valid consumer choice. They quietly and constantly spend millions upon millions of dollars to undermine and deface the government authorized term “organic.” And they have succeeded.
Three things Wrong with “Organic” Labeling
1. Today many people who believed they were buying pesticide-free and man-made chemical-free food because it was labeled “organic,” are shocked to learn that “the label ‘Organic’ does not mean “Pesticide Free.”
Any food may be legally sold as “organic” (under the California Organic Foods Act of 1990) even if it contains as many as 15 prohibited pesticides, each of which can contaminate the food at up to 5 percent of the amount allowed by the Federal EPA (FIFRA) pesticide tolerance level for non-organic foods. (California Health and Safety Code Section 110825.)
2. It might be even more surprising to learn how some of our food contains illegal pesticides – highly deadly pesticides banned decades ago.
3. Other products are falsely sold as “certified organic” but grown with non-organic chemical fertilizers for years.
The Salinas/Gonzales based “California Liquid Fertilizer” company sold “organic” fertilizer containing ammonium sulfate, but the farms and products using that chemical were NOT De-Certified by California Dept of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the US Dept of Agriculture or CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). CDFA knew the fertilizer was tainted in 2004 but did not order the product off the market until 2007.
This article is not about finding foods with merely fewer pesticides and chemicals than normal foods, or about improving farming practices, it is about finding food to eat today — which is truly pesticide and chemical free.
In my opinion there are two types of decisions you need to make carefully to avoid eating pesticide poisoned food.
1) Food Species (Strawberries vs. Blackberries), and
2) Food Sources (such as Trader Joe’s, CSAs, farmer’s markets or private farms.)
I use food species information to decide which foods not to eat. Consequently, I now almost never eat strawberries, spinach, celery, apples, or peaches.
For safe produce, I choose watermelon, broccoli, grapefruit, kiwis, avacadoes and sweet corn.
These fruits — domestic cantaloupe, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, pineapple and watermelon — and these vegetables — asparagus, avocado, cabbage, eggplants, mushrooms, onions, frozen peas, sweet corn and sweet potatoes.
In theory a store or market can offer pesticide free, or nearly pesticide free foods.
Unfortunately, food is so rarely tested for pesticides, including so-called “organic” food, the label is only a very rough indicator – with no guarantees. No market that I know of ever regularly tests its foods for pesticide or chemical residues.
Hint for Entrepreneurs: If any market did test their foods, and their foods truly are pesticide-free – it should be a strong selling point.
Food grown on California certified “organic” farms can legally be contaminated by as much as one/twentieth (1/20th) the amount of pesticides allowed on uncertified food that you may find at a ordinary supermarket.
When tested, so-called “organic” foods have about one-third the number (not the amounts) of pesticides as conventional produce. That’s better, but a long way from pesticide-free.
Testing for Pesticides in Food
The equipment normally used to test for pesticides in food is called a mass spectrometer. This device can only test for one extremely specific pesticide at a time, say DDT. Its is so focused it can not even tell you if the target pesticides’ degradation products are present (such as DDT’s breakdown product DDE).
The good news is there is a new type of test which can examine a broad range of pesticides and degradates, whole families of pesticides in fact. This type of test is called an Immunoassay. It uses biological materials that glow when the pesticides are present. The test only costs about $200 each making them reasonably affordable and comparable to the myopic mass spectrometry. This test is already commonly used in the dioxin industry.
How Do Pesticides Get Into Organic Food?
Organic produce can be polluted by pesticides in soils and by pesticides drifting through the air or seeping through groundwater.
Persistent Pesticides In Soil
Organic crops can be polluted by pesticides in soils. Organic farming laws typically only require soils to have no pesticides applied for three consecutive previous years. But some pesticides, such as Dieldrin, which was banned in 1974, can last in soils for decades. Other pesticides like Atrazine are widespread in the Midwest groundwater and well water where they can be absorbed by crops.
So What Do I Do?
Ask the farmer if you can see their soil testing reports. Clean farmers will want to know the health of their soils and will have had their soil tested for pesticides. Clean farmers will also be proud of the fact that their soils are clean. Read the report to see which persistent pesticides their soils were tested for.
“Organic” farms can also be polluted by pesticide drifting from other properties.
Pesticide drifting 2 to 3 miles is common. When pesticides are sprayed as a fog (droplets of 5 microns) from a height of only 10 feet it can take them an hour to drop to the ground. In a 3 mile per hour wind (a virtually unnoticeable gentle breeze) pesticides will travel about 3 miles in an hour. EPA typically allows pesticide applications in winds up to 15 miles per hour. This means those droplets can drift 15 miles, or more, before they reach the ground.
Few people realize that pesticides have drifted and damaged crops more than 50 miles from where the poisons were applied.
“In central Washington, 2,4-D applied to wheat fields drifted 10 to 50 miles and damaged vineyards.” Air Pollution Control Association Journal 28:1015-1020, Robinson, E. and L.L. Fox 1978
Think of all the places where pesticides are used within 15 (let alone 50) miles of your home (agriculture, schools, county and state roads, house sale tents – your neighbor’s prize roses).
If pesticides can drift 50 miles and damage crops, it is reasonable to be concerned that any pesticide use within 50 miles upwind of where your food is grown (or where you breathe) could find its way on to your food.
Do you know which directions are upwind from your home? Have you seen a “Wind Rose” for your area? It graphically depicts the direction and strength of winds in your area. Most meteorologists aren’t even taught this term. It is especially important to know when the majority of pesticides are applied to crops (or highways or golf courses) in your area and what direction the wind is blowing when it is done.
So What Do I Do?
Find produce grown at farms where crops are grown many miles upwind of any pesticide use or in sealed greenhouses. When I asked recently, one fellow at Whole Foods showed me the only produce which they claim is pesticide free – greenhouse grown, hydroponic tomatoes. However, even hydroponic farms often use large doses of man-made chemicals. On the other hand CSAs often choose areas that are well protected from pesticide drift.
Upwind Of Agriculture May Not Be Good Enough
It is important to live and find food grown upwind of agricultural lands.
I live some 15 miles upwind of the 10 million pounds of poisonous pesticides (that’s only the disclosed amount of active ingredients) used on Salinas Valley crops every year. Thankfully the wind almost never blows from the East or Southeast.
But our Peninsula faces other pesticide threats including those used on the six Carmel Valley golf courses, and pesticides sold for home use (to my neighbors and to upwind neighbors of Carmel Valley’s “organic” produce farms). Those can be even deadlier than agricultural pesticides; they have essentially no regulation or oversight and can also drift in the wind and groundwater.
My personal conclusion is to avoid those foods which have been found to retain the pesticides most deadly to humans. Then to find foods that you can confirm are grown in tested soils or greenhouses and far upwind of agricultural lands using pesticides, highways (Cal-Trans sprays a lot in Monterey County) schools (that’s another frightening story for parents) and cities.
If you buy from a Farmer’s market – take a map and ask them for the exact map location where their crops are grown. Then call the National Weather Service to determine the winds (wind rose) in that area. Thankfully, but only in California, your County Agricultural Departments has information which can then help you determine which pesticides are used upwind of that land.
How to Make Our World BetterAt every opportunity – let every elected official you meet know that Pesticide-Free food laws (as opposed to simply “organic” laws) are way overdue.
While you’re at it, let all the people and markets where you buy food know that “Pesticide-free food” is very important to you.