Are you dumb for buying organic fruits and vegetables?

A recent article suggests that pesticide fears are scaring folks away from produce but the data doesn’t bear it out.

January 31, 2014

(WBEZ/Monica Eng)
Blueberries have consistently ranked high on lists of produce with pesticide residues. But consumers have increased, not decreased, their consumption of the fruit.

Oh boy, here we go again.

Earlier this week, Slate.com came out with the ever provocative “counterintuitive take” on organic food and parenting. The headline read: “Skip the Organic Aisle. Conventional Produce Is Good For Your Kids.”  

I am just waiting for my sister to forward it to me with the subject line: See, I told you so.

Problem is, there is nothing new about this story for those who actually know something about organic foods. It basically tells you that there can be pesticide residues on both organic and non-organic produce, and most residues fall well below what are considered safe levels. I wrote that in 2009.

From WBEZ Chicago, Chewing the Fat is a weekly podcast with food journalists Louisa Chu and Monica Eng. Together they tackle cooking, dining, culture food policy, culinary characters and more.

But, like too many “critical looks” at organic, it’s based on a straw man argument: the idea that there are masses turning away from fruits and vegetables because, darn it, if they can’t have organic, they won’t eat any at all.

When I’ve been fed this line by industry groups trying to get me to write the same story, I have politely asked for some proof—because the data I’ve seen runs contrary. The industry groups, however, were never able to provide anything but anecdotes.  

Apparently Slate writer, Melinda Wenner Moyer, didn’t require such proof before launching her crusade to convince all those organic-or-nothing consumers that some fresh fruits and vegetables are better than none. And given the viral success of her story, maybe this is a huge revelation for most Slate readers. If so, our country may need more remedial nutrition education than I thought.

Still, my strong hunch is that readers already knew that eating some (even non-organic) produce is better than eating none. And the real reason they read it and passed it on was because it made them feel better about buying conventional produce and, frankly, a little triumphant over their, now dumb-looking, pro-organic sister, spouse, friend or co-worker. We journalists should never underestimate the power of schadenfreude to generate web traffic.        

Trouble is, the story shouldn’t make organic food buyers feel dumb—unless, of course, they were only buying organic produce because they thought that no pesticides are ever used on them. I would think these shoppers would still feel good about going the extra mile (or buck) to help protect our soil and waterways, reduce farmworker exposure to certain synthetic pesticides (which has been linked to health problems) and encourage a generally more thoughtful production of the food they eat.  

Furthermore, Wenner Moyer puts a lot of faith in government tolerance levels for pesticide exposure, which have been adjusted more than once when a formerly "safe" level was found to be not-so-safe after all. So many commenters have taken her to task for this already that I won't bother piling on.

But back to this idea that pesticide fear mongering--epitomized by the Dirty Dozen list from the Environmental Working Group, which ranks produce with the most residues--is pushing people away from produce. When I was originally presented with this contention, I decided to check it out against USDA produce consumption data for the years during which the Dirty Dozen has been in existence.

What I found was that most of the produce listed on the Dirty Dozen (which shifts slightly each year) saw gains, not losses, between 2004 and 2011 (the latest year for which I found complete data). In fact, of the 15 fruits and vegetables most villified by the list over the years, only five (potatoes, apples, celery, grapes and peaches) have seen reduced demand by retail consumers between those years.  In the meantime, nutrient rich blueberries, strawberries, kale, cherries, squash, cucumbers, spinach, chili peppers, tomatoes and bell peppers have seen big gains in consumption or remained much the same.   

Given these numbers, how is it that Wenner Moyer became convinced that we need to change our misguided ways before it's too late?

I still can’t figure it out except that she believes anecdotal reports like the one she quotes in her story about “parents who buy the Peter Rabbit Organics Fruit Pouches at Starbucks because they don’t know whether the bananas on display are organic.”  Yeah, well I know some idiots too, but it doesn’t mean that they are the norm or real threats to produce eating in this country.

Still, Wenner Moyer deserves some props for a glancing acknowledgement that some people buy organic, not out of pesticide residue concern, but because organic rules require farmers to take better care of the land.  And at least she steered away from the largely irrelevant nutrition debate when it comes to organic certification—which doesn’t certify nutrition.

And finally, I was glad she decided to mention that EWG starts each Dirty Dozen report by saying “the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

Despite all these caveats—and the data on produce consumption in this country—I am still expecting that smug email from my sister any day now.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org