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Organic food 101: keeping pesticides out of your food

by pkline — last modified Apr 03, 2013 04:22 PM
“Our food choices have a direct effect on the health of our environment and those who grow and harvest what we eat. That’s why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices, protection of farmworkers and farm families, and stewardship of the earth." Beyond Pesticides
  • Organic food 101: keeping pesticides out of your food
  • 2013-03-31T21:07:00-04:00
  • 2013-04-08T19:07:00-04:00
  • “Our food choices have a direct effect on the health of our environment and those who grow and harvest what we eat. That’s why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices, protection of farmworkers and farm families, and stewardship of the earth." Beyond Pesticides
When Mar 31, 2013 09:07 PM to Apr 08, 2013 07:07 PM (EST / UTC-400)
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What are pesticides?

Following World War II, chemical pesticides became the most important consciously-applied form of pest management. The "first generation" pesticides were largely highly toxic compounds, such as arsenic and hydrogen cyanide. Their use was largely abandoned because they were either too ineffective or too toxic. The "second generation" pesticides largely included synthetic organic compounds. ('Synthetic' here means made by humans -- not naturally occurring, while 'organic' means carbon containing, not to be confused with the popular use of "organic" as in "organic farming".

Learn more about the history of pesticides: DDT Case Study by Patricia Muir University of Oregon

Why are they a problem?

Many pesticides pose health dangers to people. These risks have been established by independent research scientists and physicians across the world.

As acknowledged by U.S. and international government agencies, different pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including:

* brain and nervous system toxicity
* cancer
* hormone disruption
• skin, eye and lung irritation

(From: See more below under Preparation.)

Hasn't this problem already been addressed for public health reasons?

The chemical industry responded to the concern over DDT and its relatives with new classes of pesticides, which are less persistent than DDT and the other organochlorines, but which are generally more water soluble (with consequent potential for contaminating surface and ground water) and are often also more acutely toxic. The lesser developed countries still don't use as much pesticide as does the industrialized world, however pesticide use in many third world countries is not as regulated as it is in the US. The US allows sales of banned pesticides to many countries from whom we import our food.

According to a study in 1996 by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, from 1992 - 1994, the US exported at least 25 million pounds of pesticides that are forbidden in the US, and a total of 344 million pounds of pesticides that are considered "hazardous" were reported as exported. Chlordane, for example, is "severely restricted" in this country, banned in 47 others, and persists in the environment for up to 30 years, yet is exported by a company in Illinois to Argentina, Venezuela and several other Asian nations

Organic food doesn't contain pesticides.

More than 400 chemical pesticides are routinely used in conventional farming and residues remain on non-organic food even after washing. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposure. One class of pesticides, endocrine disruptors, may be responsible for early puberty and breast cancer. Pesticides are linked to asthma and cancer. In addition, organic crops aren't fertilized with toxic sewage sludge or coal waste, or irrigated with E. coli contaminated sewage water.

How much of the food I buy and eat comes from organic sources? Which are the foods which carry the highest risk for pesticide residue? What is my understanding of the rationale for continued pesticide use? What other farming practices are available which would reduce the need for pesticide applications? Am I willing to change my purchasing habits to reflect my awareness of pesticide residues? In what ways am I willing to speak in favor of protecting human health and the balance of the ecosystem?

Take Stock

Assess how much of your food budget is currently spent on organic food.  Identify what your priorities are - which are the products you eat the most of? Where would organic options be available? Investigate if there is a Community Supported Agriculture farm near you. Call them and ask about the benefits of membership.

The next time you shop, ask your grocer where they get their fresh produce and if they know how it is grown. Ask the same question at the farmer's market. Not all local markets are chemical free.


Take a look at the work of Beyond Pesticides’ work: Eating with a Conscience to protect health and the environment.

The Organic Choice Is Clear

It is important to eat organic food –nurtured in a system of food production, handling and certification that rejects hazardous synthetic chemicals. USDA organic certification is the only system of food labeling that is subject to independent public review and oversight, assuring consumers that toxic, synthetic pesticides used in conventional agriculture are replaced by management practices focused on soil biology, biodiversity, and plant health. This eliminates commonly used toxic chemicals in the production and processing of food that is not labeled organic--pesticides that contaminate our water and air, hurt biodiversity, harm farmworkers, and kill bees, birds, fish and other wildlife.

Food Choices Based Only on Pesticide Residues Fall Short

To help explain the urgent need for a major shift to organic food consumption, Beyond Pesticides has begun the Eating with a Conscience database which evaluates the impacts on the environment and farmworkers of the toxic chemicals allowed for use on major food crops, grown domestically and internationally. We have started with those foods that have been identified widely in the media as “clean.” While the Clean 15/Dirty Dozen list generated by Environmental Working Group is helpful in alerting consumers to hazardous residues on food, food residues are only part of the story. It turns out that those very same “clean” food commodities may be grown with hazardous pesticides that get into waterways and groundwater, contaminate nearby communities, poison farmworkers, and kill wildlife, while not all showing up at detectable levels on our food.

Eating with a Conscience
looks at the toxic chemicals that are allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use.”


Organic Labels

According to and the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP), organic means “produce and other ingredients that are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation.”

(It also includes meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products from animals that do not take antibiotics or growth hormones, or are fed anything that contains any of the non-organic items listed above. But we will address this issue in a separate article because there are several other factors to consider when it comes to choosing your meat and dairy products.)

If a label says organic, that means that a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

The USDA has three categories for labeling organic products:

1. 100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients.
2. Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients.
3. Made with Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

* Companies that make products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but they may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
* The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA have no laws regulating the use of the term natural on food labels. Any guidelines for natural foods are established on a company-by-company basis without any third-party regulation or oversight.

Are pesticides detected in people's bodies?

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national biomonitoring program has detected pesticides in blood and urine samples from 96 percent of more than 5,000 Americans age 6 and older (CDC 2009b).

The agency reported finding 21 chemical biomarkers corresponding to 28 pesticides that can contaminate fresh fruits and vegetables, according to an EWG analysis of CDC and EPA data. More than 60 percent of Americans tested positive for seven or more of these pesticides and pesticide metabolites.

What do human studies tell us about risks to children?

The most troubling evidence of pesticide toxicity to children comes from long-term studies tracking the effects of insecticides known as organophosphates.

Organophosphate pesticides have been shown to damage nervous system function by blocking acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that stops nerve cells from firing. When nerve cells fire unceasingly, acute poisoning or long-term nerve damage can result. Several recent studies show that nervous system depression can have profound affects on children’s brain development.

Three epidemiological studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2011 show a clear link between a mother’s exposure to organophosphate insecticides during pregnancy and deficits to children’s learning and memory that persist through the ages of 6 to 9.

* Columbia University researchers linked deficits in IQ and working memory among seven-year-olds born in New York City to prenatal exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate popular for residential pest control until EPA banned its use in homes in 2001 (Rauh 2011). Children continue to be exposed to organophosphate pesticides that contaminate common foods (Lu 2008, 2010).
* Researchers from the Mt. Sinai Medical Center linked prenatal organophosphate exposures among New York City-born children to impaired perceptual reasoning, a measure of nonverbal problem-solving skills (Engel 2011).
* Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that children born in a Latino farmworker community to women with high organophosphate exposures had children with lower intelligence scores at age 7, relative to children born to women with lower pesticide exposures (Bouchard 2011).

Biomonitoring studies underscore concern for everyday exposures as well. A scientific paper by Devon Payne-Sturges of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research estimates that 40 percent of children tested by CDC from 1999 to 2002 had unsafe levels of organophosphate in their bodies (Paynes-Sturges 2009).

In May 2010 researchers at Harvard University found increased risk for attention deficit-hyperactive disorder among American children exposed to typical levels of organophosphates (Bouchard 2010).  

EPA has taken major steps to reduce organophosphate pesticides uses in agriculture and residential settings. Yet researchers from Emory University in Atlanta have reported that young children continue to be exposed to organophosphates primarily through their diets (Lu 2008, 2010). Children eat more fruits and vegetables than adults, relative to their body weights. Studies in a California agricultural region have shown that infants are more at risk for organophosphate toxicity than older children and adults because their systems are less able to detoxify these chemicals. The most sensitive newborn was found to be 65 to 130 times more affected than the least sensitive adult (Furlong 2006, Holland 2006).

A 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “infants and children differ both qualitatively and quantitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods” and that some children exceeded safe levels of pesticides in their diets (NAS 1993).

Does eating organic food lower my pesticide exposures?

Yes. Studies led by Chensheng Lu of Emory University found that elementary school-age children’s body burdens of organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and malathion, peaked during the summer, when they ate the most fresh produce. But just five days after switching to an all-organic diet, their bodies were essentially pesticide-free (Lu 2006, 2008).

Is government monitoring sufficient to assure the safety of conventional crops?

No. Both pesticide residue monitoring and dietary surveys do not adequately capture the variety of pesticide exposures for consumers.

In a study of Costa Rican farmers growing produce for the U.S. market, Dr. Ryan Galt of the University of California at Davis found that 12 of 15 pesticides used on squash, and 5 of 47 on chayote were not registered for use on foods in the U.S. FDA inspection tests did not cover 71 percent of the chemicals used on squash and 61 percent used on chayote (Galt 2009). Some of these chemicals, notably n-methyl carbamates, were highly toxic. Galt found that U.S. agencies made little effort to determine which pesticides were being used in Costa Rica and that Costa Rican farmers had little access to Spanish language information about U.S. pesticide standards.

Between 1996 and 2006, 1.6 percent of domestic crops violated pesticide safety standards in FDA inspections, while imported crops earned violations at 2.25 times that rate (FDA 2008).


Foster Alternatives
Join an organic Community Supported Agriculture Farm. Learn more here:

For over 25 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.

Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

A Local option for organics: Misty Hollow Farm/In My Backyard
Join the Organic Consumers Association to learn about advocating for organic food.

Reduce Harm
At the very least, print out and post the foods which , when produced chemically, have the highest rates of pesticide residue. Prioritize buying these from organic sources. For more detailed information consult the EWG’s information on pesticide residue.

"The Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ will help you determine which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues and are the most important to buy organic. You can lower your pesticide intake substantially by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated produce.

This year we have expanded the Dirty Dozen™ with a Plus category to highlight two crops -- green beans and leafy greens, meaning, kale and collard greens - that did not meet traditional Dirty Dozen ™criteria but were commonly contaminated with highly toxic organophosphate insecticides. These insecticides are toxic to the nervous system and have been largely removed from agriculture over the past decade. But they are not banned and still show up on some food crops." (EWG)

If you have children consult Beyond Pesticides’ publications listed below

* Children and Pesticides Don't Mix. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides. This factsheet cites scientific studies linking pesticides to children's health issues.
* Pesticides in Our Homes and Schools: Are they dangerous to our children? Bi-fold brochure on the dangers and alternatives to pesticides used in schools.
* Webinar: Effective Policies to Reduce Exposures to Pesticides in Schools. Presenters include Janet Hurley, TX School IPM Specialist; Michel Oriel, Research Scientist, CA DPR; Sherry Glick, School IPM Expert, US EPA; Jay Feldman, Executive Director, Beyond Pesticides.
* Asthma, Pesticides and Children: What you should know to protect your family.

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