The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published its 2020 Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, which lists the produce with the highest and lowest pesticide concentrations. For health-conscious shoppers, especially those on a tight budget, this list could help keep you and your family safe. But first–why are pesticides a big deal? Why are pesticides used in agriculture?
Pesticide Use in Agriculture
Why do we use pesticides in agriculture? We all know the obvious answer: to keep away pests that could destroy crops. There is, however, another reason that farmers use pesticides on their crops.
When we talk about pesticides, we aren’t only talking about insects and rodents. We’re also talking about fungus, microbes, and viruses. As we all know by now, viruses are dangerous and can spread very quickly. For example, the coronavirus, which is responsible for the disease COVID-19, developed in a Chinese wet market. Thus, pesticides are sprayed on crops in order to prevent or reduce the spread of disease and other nasty things from which we could become sick.
According to the EPA, farmers use the following pesticides on their crops:
- Insect Growth Regulators
- Wood Preservatives
You might recognize some of these pesticides, such as herbicides and insecticides. You may even use them on your own garden or lawn. Others, however, might seem foreign. You might be asking: why would we need rodenticides and insect growth regulators? What is the worst that could happen if insects and rodents did come into contact with crops?
Public Health Issues from Pests
Some very serious diseases are prevented by pesticide use in agriculture. For instance, the West Nile virus and Lyme disease can be spread by mosquitoes, ticks, and rodents. Infected produce can spread microbial bacteria and viruses in food packaging facilities. Even in the meat industry, pesticides are used to help curb the spread of disease. Avian flu, for example, is prevented with the use of pesticides within the poultry industry.
So pesticide use is very important in the agriculture industry, and it is designed not only to keep crops safe from pests, but to keep consumers safe from disease.
Yet, this is ironic–because pesticides actually have detrimental health and environmental effects.
Effects of Pesticide Use in Agriculture
Pesticide exposure has been shown to cause a variety of health issues, including:
- Asthma and Respiratory Issues
- Kidney Disease
- Birth Defects
- Hormonal Disruption
Of course, some of these aren’t caused by eating produce sprayed with pesticides. Asthma and respiratory issues are found in those who work with pesticides on a daily basis, spraying them over fields and breathing them in. Birth defects have mostly been found in Vietnamese children born to soldiers who had been exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. A 2017 study, however, did find that pesticide use in California increased birth defects by five to nine percent.
Very high and continued exposure to pesticides could result in one or more of the above health issues. But nothing is known definitively. As for the environment, pesticides kill important pollinators; disrupt ecosystems by killing off essential insects seen as pests; contribute to soil infertility; and contaminate water.
While this all sounds scary, there are a few things you can do to avoid the effects of pesticide use and exposure.
Avoid the Dirty Dozen. Spring for the Clean Fifteen
The dirty dozen consists of twelve types of produce with the highest concentrations of pesticides. They are:
When we say “avoid” these produce items, we don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t eat them. Rather, if you can afford to, buy the organic versions of these produce. Organic produce is, in most cases, not allowed to use pesticides, so it’s safer. But you should still wash organic produce to ensure you rinse off any bad bacteria or potential chemicals.
The Clean Fifteen have lower concentrations of pesticides, so it is generally safer to buy non-organic versions of these. They include:
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
Remember to wash these as well, even though they do have lower concentrations of pesticides.
If you can help it, don’t dwell on the fact that you’re consuming pesticides. The U.S. uses one billion pounds of pesticides annually. They are everywhere and you can’t escape them, just as you can’t escape the forever chemicals in your water supply. What you can do, however, is limit your exposure to such chemicals and advocate for a healthier environment.
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