Despite considerable evidence that the “health halo” surrounding organic foods is just hype, many activists still claim that organic produce is healthier than conventionally grown produce. One of the reasons that organic evangelists propose to justify the cost of eating expensive “heirloom” tomatoes is that conventional products may contain chemical residue. The Environmental Working (Worrying) Group (EWG) even puts out a “Dirty Dozen” report that encourages people to substitute organic food for supposedly pesticide-laden conventional produce.
Yet a University of California-Davis study found that “consumer exposures to the ten most frequently detected pesticides on EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ commodity list are at negligible levels” and that “consumption of organic produce should not be equated with consumption of pesticide-free produce.” So why might people wrongly think that organics are somehow chemical- or pesticide-free? Writing today in U.S. News and World Report, Joshua Guilder thinks it might have something to do with how (poorly) organic food stories are written.
Guilder notes that few reporters bother to ask activists how organic production resists insects, fungi, and weeds. The answer, of course, is “organic” pesticides. “All-natural” doesn’t mean harmless at any dose— there are plenty of “all-natural” poisons, like hemlock. And sure enough, in a high enough dose organic pesticides can be harmful. For instance, one class (pyrethrins) has been linked to tumors in rodents.
In high enough doses, almost any pesticide is harmful, whether conventional or organic. Of course, just like they didn’t rush to the papers to condemn lead traces in reusable shopping bags, we don’t expect the EWG to harp on any organic pesticide’s risks (however small).
In reality, the chances that a consumer will get sick from any pesticide residue are vanishingly slim, which is one reason that 79 percent of the members of the Society of Toxicology think that the EWG overstates chemical risks. (The UC-Davis researchers found that “consumer exposures to the ten most common pesticides found on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ commodities are several orders of magnitude below levels required to cause any biological effect.”) The dose makes the poison, whether the chemical in question is “organic” or synthetic. And the simple solution to any concerns is a few more seconds under the faucet washing that fruit or vegetable.