For our next installment in the Sustainable Family Supper Project, we turn to farming. I was honestly surprised to learn when first beginning to research organic and sustainable food that conventional farming still uses heavy amounts of pesticides. I just assumed that since it was common knowledge pesticides were bad for you and bad for the environment, that we’ve reduced our use. After all, Silent Spring was published before I was born! But in fact, while some highly toxic pesticides have been banned in recent decades, there are still dangerous amounts of pesticide residue on our fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. The National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy tracks 637 chemicals currently in use in the United States. Others are lingering residue of now-banned insecticides that remains in the soil for decades. Because of the latter, it is impossible to completely avoid pesticides but we can reduce our exposure by buying organic as much as possible. As with most environmental toxins, the risks are greater to young children whose developing systems are more heavily impacted.
Why are pesticides bad? Chemicals commonly applied to food crops are linked to cancer, developmental and neurological problems, asthma, allergies, autism, birth defects and reproductive disorder in humans, and kill birds, bees and fish. The use of pesticides also leads to significant health risks for farm workers (and their children). The UK’s largest supermarket chain has recently banned the use of eight pesticides linked to honeybee deaths.
Best to Buy Organic: The Environmental Working Group has a list of 43 fruits and vegetables ranked in order of their level of residual pesticides, including their “Dirty Dozen” wallet guide. Generally, look for organic options for produce with thinner skins or peels, including strawberries, grapes, peaches, apples, winter squash, green beans, spinach and potatoes.
Many small farms are not certified but may use similar practices, so the best option is to get to know your local farmers, through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and/or farmers markets, and ask about their pest management practices. They generally range from organic or “eco-ganic,” to integrated pest management (IPM, which emphasizes natural techniques before chemical) or conventional. Generally speaking, small farms will use fewer toxic chemicals than industrial farms even if they are not organic, and many are actively involved with local and regional environmental efforts to minimize the impact of farming practices on soil and water.
When not buying direct from a farmer, we generally look for certified organic produce from the US. In the winter, we eat significantly less local for the obvious reason that winter produce options in the DC area are slim. I try to buy Florida citrus as much as possible, since it travels less than produce from California or South America. And I try to avoid produce from China, even if it is certified organic, because recent events seem to indicate that Chinese standards are a little more laxly enforced than I am comfortable with. Unfortunately, some of the more affordable “organic” products are imported from China, particularly apple juice and frozen vegetables.
Support Local Farms: If you’re looking to get closer to your food’s source, now is the time to consider signing up for a CSA program. CSA farms accept customers who basically invest in the farm by purchasing a share in that season’s crops. Many CSA farms also sell at farmers markets, but the CSA program enables them to minimize some of the inherent risks in farming and gives them much-needed capital up front. You take on some of that risk as a member, as drought or other problems could reduce the amount of food you will take home. Look for a farm that has a cooperative arrangement with other farms to help reduce the fluctuations in quantity that might occur from week to week. Visit www.localharvest.org to find a CSA farm near you. We belong to Potomac Vegetable Farms here in Virginia, which will be opening registration to the public on February 15.
To learn more or take action, sign up for the Pesticide Action Network’s email alerts.