The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the majority of pesticides now in use are probable or possible cancer causes. Studies of farm workers who work with pesticides suggest a link between pesticide use and brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple myeloma, leukemia, lymphoma and cancers of the stomach and prostate.1
The question remains, however, does the low level of pesticides remaining on our food present much of a risk? Some scientists argue that the extremely low level of pesticide residue remaining on produce is insignificant and that there are naturally occurring toxins in all natural foods that are more significant. The large amount of studies performed on the typical pesticide treated produce have demonstrated that consumption of produce, whether organic or not, is related to lower rates of cancer and increased disease protection. The health benefits of eating phytochemical rich produce greatly outweigh any risk pesticide residues might pose. Certainly, it is better to eat fruits and vegetables grown and harvested using pesticides than to not eat them at all, but it is also wise to minimize our pesticide exposure.
When we buy organic, we minimize our pesticide exposure, and we are also minimizing the amount of these pesticides that our environment is exposed to. Organic farming is clearly the more environmentally-friendly choice. According to the USDA, organic farming “integrat[es] cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Although organic cropland acreage in the U.S. has increased five-fold since 1995, organic cropland still accounts for only 0.57% of total cropland. Supporting organic agriculture will increase the demand for organic produce and decrease the percentage of farmland (and farm workers) exposed to potentially harmful agricultural chemicals.
Organic produce usually has more nutrients – especially minerals and antioxidant nutrients – than conventional produce. Organic apples, plums, blueberries, grapes, strawberries, and corn have all been shown to have higher antioxidant capacities than their conventional counterparts. Organic strawberries were even found to have more anti-cancer activity than conventional strawberries! Scientists have theorized that when the plants are grown without pesticides, they are forced to deal with the stress of insects, which causes them to produce more antioxidant compounds, which are beneficial to humans.4,5
The Environmental Working Group provides lists of produce called the ‘Dirty Dozen’ (highest in pesticides) and the ‘Clean 15’ (lowest in pesticides). These are their most recent lists.3
Highest in pesticides – buy organic if possible:
7. Bell Peppers
12. Grapes (imported)
Peaches have the most pesticide residue of all fruits – 97% of conventional peaches test positive for pesticides, and as many as 53 different pesticides can be found on peaches. The most pesticide-laden vegetables are celery and bell peppers. Sixty-four different pesticides were found on bell peppers. Imported produce is also more likely to contain higher levels of pesticides.2,3 Choosing to buy these fruits and vegetables organically grown will help to protect us against the possible risks of pesticide exposure. If you do buy the conventional versions of these foods, it is best to wash them with soap and remove the skin before eating them.
Lowest in pesticides – buy either organic or conventional:
3. Sweet corn
6. Sweet peas
14. Sweet potato
15. Honeydew melon
Buying organic is a wise choice – organic foods taste better, and organic agriculture protects farmers and our environment.
1. Sanderson WT et al Environ Res. 1997;74 (2): 133-144.
Zahm SH, Blair A. Am J Ind Med 1993;24(6): 753-766.
Brown TP et al. Environ Health Perspect 114:156–164 (2006).
2. Reynolds JD. J Land Use Environ Law, 1997;13(1).
Whitford F et al. Purdue Univ Coop Ext Serv p22, 1/17/05
4. .Grinder-Pederson L et al. J Agric Food Chem 2003; 51(19): 5671-5676.
Lairon D. Agron. Sustain. Dev.30 (2010) 33-41
5. Olsson ME et al. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Feb 22;54(4):1248-55.