Helping Our Peninsula's Environment

 

How Can I Find Genuine Pesticide-Free Food?

(c) Copyright 2001-2009 David Dilworth

 

Pesticides are explicitly intended, designed, manufactured, and applied as deadly killing poisons. Pesticides are intentionally applied to most food we consume in the United States.

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 Free1."

It might be even more surprising to learn how some of our food contains illegal pesticides - highly deadly pesticides banned years ago.

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.

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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. Blueberries), and

2) Food Sources (Safeway, Trader Joe's, farmer's markets or private farms.)

In general, your Food Species decision will be better informed as it includes both theory and actual data of testing food for pesticides. (See Environmental Working Group's Report)

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 alternate produce, I choose nectarines, oranges, broccoli, grapefruit, kiwis, and watermelons.

Here's a useful article on when organic produce might not be worth it.

Food Sources

In theory a store or market can offer pesticide free, or nearly pesticide free foods.

Unfortunately, all food, including so-called "organic" food, is so rarely tested for pesticides 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. If any market did test their foods, and their foods truly are pesticide-free - it would be a strong selling point.

Here's an article entitled "10 Things Your Health Food Store Won't Tell You"

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 of pesticides as conventional produce.

At 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.

 

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. Its is so focused it can not even tell you if the target pesticides' degradation products are present.

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. Ask which persistent pesticides their soils were tested for.

PESTICIDE DRIFT

"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 - 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?

Possible (not certain) exceptions to the drift danger might be 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, hydroponic farms often use large doses of man-made chemicals as well. 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 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.

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Finally here's a website that claims to explain what the different kinds of "ecolabeling" of products means for specific products.

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1 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.)

 

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This Page Last Updated February 4, 2009