The word “pesticide” probably makes you recoil a little. It’s so chemical, so unnatural, right? Certainly not something you want to, you know, eat. Which might explain why, every year, when the US-based Environmental Working Group releases their list of “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables (those that are most affected by pesticide use), we collectively sit up and pay attention. But do we need to? Is this all just a storm in a fruit cup?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), has been reporting on the dirty dozen and the corresponding clean 15 (fruit and veg that are least affected by pesticides) since 2004 and recommends consumers buy organic versions of the dirty dozen to avoid pesticides in their diet.
But how relevant is this information for Australians – and in fact, how relevant is it at all? With our organic industry worth an estimated $1.72 billion a year and with 58 per cent of us buying organic fruit and veg at least some of the time according to organic certifying body Australian Organic's latest market report, it’s a question worth asking.
“The clean 15 and dirty dozen aren’t relevant to us at all,” says Lorraine Haase, of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). “In Australia, we use different herbicides and pesticides and we set very strict limits on residue limits, as well as the minimum time between spraying a crop and harvesting, to minimise any impact.” These limits affect organic and conventional farming because, as Haase points out, organic farms use pesticides, too. Some of them use the very same pesticides found in conventional farms.
FSANZ sets maximum residue limits (MRLs) on all produce, whether domestic or imported. These MRLs are set by taking into account the type of pesticides used on the produce, the amount of that specific produce likely to be eaten in a typical diet (we eat more apples than papayas, for instance) and how easily the fruit or vegetable absorbs the pesticide.
Every year, FSANZ then performs a residue survey, to check on levels of pesticides found in the fruit and veg that make their way to our tables.
Every year, FSANZ then performs a residue survey, to check on levels of pesticides found in the fruit and veg that make their way to our tables. “A lot of the time, we find absolutely no trace of residue on the fruit and veg,” says Haase. “And if we do find residue, which does happen, it’s always well below the maximum limits set, which include a significant margin for differences in body weight, amount eaten and so on.”
FSANZ isn’t the only body that tests residue levels in fruit and veg. The Department of Agriculture and Water Services hands down the National Residue Study every year, which monitors chemical residues found on common products. The 2013-2014 study showed 100 per cent compliance for all 167 samples of honey, 99.2 per cent compliance for 6137 samples of grains and 99.5 per cent compliance for 1087 samples of horticulture.
The real problem with fruit and veg, says Haase, is not likely to be pesticide use at all. “You’re far, far more likely to get sick from a foodborne illness like listeria or salmonella than getting ill from pesticide use,” she says. “And yes, you can get listeria and salmonella from organic produce, too!’
It’s worth noting, also, that the Environmental Working Group has been criticised for its methodology. Not only is it largely funded by the organic food industry, a 2011 study found that the EWG only told part of the story about pesticide use. The study, by University of California – Davis researchers Carl Winter and Josh Katz, looked at the dirty dozen and measured the actual amount of pesticide found on samples of the so-called culprits.
What they found was that apples (which were bestowed with that year’s top gong as the most pesticide-laden produce) contained a level of pesticide 787 times lower than the United States Department of Agriculture’s maximum residue limits. Put another way, you’d have to eat as many apples as 787 other people to be at any sort of risk of harm from these pesticides. Apples may be the most pesticide-heavy fruit, but in real terms, that doesn’t mean much at all.
"People don’t need any more barriers to eating fresh fruit and vegetables. The benefits of eating these excellent whole foods far, far, far outweighs any risk of pesticide harm."
“It’s frustrating to see this list come out every year,” says Haase. “People don’t need any more barriers to eating fresh fruit and vegetables. The benefits of eating these excellent whole foods far, far, far outweighs any risk of pesticide harm.”
Lead image by Tittos via Getty Images