I have been shopping with a health-consciousness for many years. Sometimes it is hard on my wallet, and my family protests when I boycott foods from our diet. Because of this, I am always looking for ways to balance my obsession with organic foods as a sort of security. I recently became aware of the “Dirty Dozen” list of foods to always buy organic, and the “Clean Fifteen” list of foods to buy non-organic. What are your thoughts on these lists?
– Hilary, Paducah KY
You’re clearly a discerning consumer, like many of our readers. You check ingredient labels most of the time, shop at the tailgate markets weekly, and read the news on food safety. Still, you find yourself wondering when it is important to buy organic and when it isn’t or how you can manage the best food choices on a tight budget of time and money. The widely publicized “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists were developed by the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), and they detail produce items that have the most amount of pesticide residue (“dirty”), and which items have the least (“clean”).
The “Dirty Dozen,” which has now been expanded to fifteen items, includes the following: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, kale, collard greens, and squash. For these items, the EWG asserts you should ALWAYS buy the organic option.
The “Clean Fifteen” includes the following: asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangos, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, peas, and sweet potatoes. The EWG assures you it is safe to buy these items from conventional sources, thereby saving you money.
This work is worthy in many ways and is backed by substantial research into pesticide residue. I understand that consumers, myself included, who are armed with a limited amount of money and very few options, are looking for ways to save. I have a few problems with these lists and this concept, however.
Organic agriculture is meant to support ecosystem farming, meaning that a farmer must think big picture when making small decisions. So much so that the USDA’s organic program has been designed to produce extremely detailed protocol governing the options that your farmer has available. This (hopefully) preserves integrity in the organic seal, so that consumers can remain confident that the seal translates into a premium choice. When farmers apply for organic certification, the paperwork you so often hear about is their submission of a plan, of sorts. That is, their plan for how they will manage small decisions to protect the larger, natural whole. These decisions pertain to pest and disease control, soil, worker health, post-harvest handling, and more. Organizations like Organic Growers School work to educate and proliferate the holistic meaning of organic decision-making. When I see lists like “The Clean Fifteen,” it makes me wish the same holistic education was happening at the consumer level.
When you buy food, it is of course important to think about your health, and the health of your family. Organic agriculture challenges us also to think about the health and longevity of the planet (including soils, waterways, plants, and animals), as well as the health and quality of life of other humans (our neighbors, farmers, farmworkers, etc.) My foremost problem with “The Clean Fifteen” is that its existence and wide popularity promote the thinking that buying organic is about the end eater only, and it just isn’t.
I look at the list further, and, indeed, further problems begin to sprout. For example, did you know that there might not be enough honeybees to pollinate the US avocado, apple, blueberry, plum, and almond crops in 2013? (source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com:2013:05:06:honey-bees-dying-food-disaster_n_3225599.html). Good luck buying those conventional avocados. Oh, and good luck buying organic ones, too, because the pesticides that we’ve sprayed on the “clean” foods (no matter what they are) are wiping out honey bee colonies faster than you can lick honey from a spoon. Beekeepers are announcing hive loss as high as 50- 70%. “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” says USDA scientist Jeff Pettis.
A huge red flag with the “Clean Fifteen” is the assertion that sweet corn is safe to buy from conventional sources. This should be considered with great suspicion. Sweet corn is very often genetically modified in our day and age. In case you’re unaware of those implications, check out this recent peer-reviewed study which links GM crops to autism, diabetes, heart disease, and about twelve other chronic western ailments. When I first saw the study, I was extremely skeptical. How can one set of research draw ties between GM foods and so many illnesses? I reviewed the study quite carefully, as a result, and let me tell you, it is thorough. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prohibited in organic production. For those of us who are worried about this hot-button topic in particular, know that buying based on the organic seal will ensure that you are not eating GMOs. At this time, and until products containing GMOs are required to be labeled, buying organic is your one guarantee that it is GMO free, unless the product is otherwise labeled as GMO free.
Besides, who’s to say what amount of pesticide residue is “clean?” You, that’s who. Think about how many chemicals you’d like to ingest. Here, I’d point to a very convincing (and adorable) video of a little girl who did some critical thinking and research into sweet potatoes. (Oops, sorry, those were supposed to be “clean”.)
While you are thinking about considerations outside of your own health, think about considerations outside of pesticide residue, too. The “Clean Fifteen” list asserts that we’re OK because pesticide residues are low, but as we’ve discussed, the list doesn’t take into account the other toxins that may be lurking in your food. In addition to genetically modified organisms, we’re talking about fertilizers, gases used to speed ripening or halt sprouting, and other practices to increase visual appeal and shelf life.
I hate to be the wet blanket, here, but it turns out that organic is always important. If you can’t buy organic, or grow it yourself, consider not eating it. Or, allow yourself a few non-organic items once in a while, but don’t make them staples. Since we’re in this little, tiny, uncomfortable and unfortunate position already, I’ll also mention that organic farmers also use sprays to control pests and diseases, it’s just that these amendments are of natural origin. If you’re buying organic food from the supermarket and it is imported, know that it is probably less nutrient dense, due to it having traveled from afar to reach your local grocer’s shelf. In short, while you’re seeking organic, look for local organic.
And so we find ourselves with one very loud and persistent question: What do we do? I know it’s hard to afford some foods. I know that many grocery stores don’t even have organic produce aisles. I know that people find it easier sometimes to buy food in a box than to choose fresh produce, anyway. I know that we are not all capable or willing. I know that this change in our health and consciousness is slow and rocky. What, pray tell, can we do?
My answer is that we should all do what we can, and do this very, very religiously. Change some of the regular items in your food basket, grow a garden, start a conversation with a farmer, shop at the tailgate markets, and please, for the love of honeybees, be very careful with your trust and faith in pretty packaged lists.
Ask Meredith © 2013 Meredith McKissick & Organic Growers School
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Meredith Leigh is a die-hard advocate for good food. As a farmer, founder of a butcher shop/restaurant, and writer, she has worked on many angles of real food for over a decade. She currently teaches farming and cooking classes, consults for food and agriculture non-profits, and is writing a book about meat. Meredith has been the Program Coordinator for the Organic Growers School (OGS) Spring Conference since 2006 and was the Director and then the Executive Director of OGS for 10 years.