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Strawberry Fields Forever (With or Without Pesticides)

A couple weeks ago, the Environmental Working Group released it's annual list of the "dirty dozen", making people aware of the fruits & veggies out there that harbour the greatest variety of pesticide residues. This year's winner was the strawberry. But, as in most cases, there is more to the story.

It’s springtime which means it is time for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to send the media into a frenzy with its annual release of the “dirty dozen” conventionally produced fruits or vegetables that contain the greatest variety of pesticide residues. The implication is that these should be shunned in favour of  their organic versions. 

This year’s winner, or better put, loser, is the strawberry, with twenty-two different pesticide residues being detected! Of course this does not mean that an individual berry contains all these residues. Many batches were sampled across the country and collectively twenty-two different pesticides were found. That’s because growing conditions vary, as do insect populations, and the same pesticides are not appropriate for application everywhere. In any case, what matters is not the variety of residues detected, but whether these are in excess of the amounts regulatory agencies deem to be safe. These “reference values” for residues are not arrived at in a haphazard fashion but are based on extensive laboratory investigations, animal trials and established mechanisms of action. 

EWG carries out no analyses itself. Its researchers mine data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Pesticide Data Program” that randomly tests a large variety of fruits and vegetables every year for residues. Samples are purchased across the country, washed for 10 seconds, as one might do at home, and then tested for residues of the close to 200 pesticides that are registered for use. It’s a stunning effort with millions of tests performed on thousands of samples.

Yes, some pesticide residues are detected, thanks to the talents of analytical chemists and their sophisticated instruments. Remember, though, that the presence of a residue is not equal to the presence of risk! EWG does not look at the amount of residue, because that is not conducive to raising alarm. Why not? Because there are virtually no cases in which the levels deemed to be safe are exceeded. Raising alarm is profitable because that is what keeps donations coming in so that more such exemplary work can be carried out.

Here’s an analogy. You’re given a choice of piggy banks but are told only the number of coins each contains, not their denomination. Would it be reasonable to just choose the one with the most coins without asking any further questions?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to try and find out the actual types and numbers of coins? So it is with pesticide residues; the real measure of risk is determined not by how frequently residues are detected, but by how the amounts detected compare with the maximum tolerance level.

It should also be mentioned that organic produce is not free of pesticide residues. Some contamination comes from drift from conventional fields but there are also dozens of pesticides that are allowed in organic agriculture. Government agencies make no distinction between pesticides destined for conventional use or organic use, they all have to pass regulatory muster.

When it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, the message should be to just eat them without stressing about the number of different pesticide residues they may contain. Even the Environmental Working Group agrees that eating conventional produce is better than avoiding fruits and vegetables because of concern about residues. Another good idea is to avoid the EWG’s annual fear-mongering about the “dirty dozen.”