Posted on May 3, 2012 at 8:15 AM by Iowa Corn
This is part of series of articles called, What’s All the Hype? The goal of this series is to answer questions about food and how it is raised and grown. If you have a topic that you have questions about, please leave it in the comments section!
Fruits and Veggies – we all know we should eat more of them (myself included) for a healthy diet. Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the “Dirty Dozen.” And it had me worrying about the produce I’m eating.
What is the “Dirty Dozen” you ask? It’s a list of twelve conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims to have a higher amount of pesticide residues than others.
I’m not an agronomist, nor do I know much about the health effects of crop protection products, so I enlisted the help of my friend Steve Killpack a farmer and agronomist from Neola and Dr. Ruth MacDonald, Department Chair for the Iowa State University Food Science and Human Nutrition Department. Steve helped me answer the agronomy side of why we use crop protection products and Dr. MacDonald helped to answer my food safety questions.
What is a Pesticide?
Besides a scientific term, pesticides are products that can be used to help control harmful plants, insects or animals that can be destructive to crops and the environment. Pesticides include fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides (I know all with science names!). Below is what each of these do:
Fungicides – help control fungal diseases
Insecticides – help control pests that can damage crops
Herbicides – help control plants that won’t be harvested or used for consumption
Rodenticides – help control rodents such as mice and rats
One large misconception is that crops raised in an organic system can’t use pesticides. This isn’t true; it actually has to do with the type of pesticide used. Organic production can only use pesticides that are made from naturally occurring compounds (Approved Pesticides in Organic Production). Conventional production can use pesticides made from synthetic compounds, and those synthetic compounds are actually modeled after compounds found in nature – they are just produced in the lab.
Why do farmers use crop protection products?
Farmers use crop protection products to ensure that we have food to eat. Harmful plants, insects or animals can reduce crop production by 40%. They also use them to protect the appearance of the crops.
Ok, but how SAFE are they?
All pesticides used on food plants are tested by the FDA to determine if the crop protection products are safe to use – and they have gone through years and years of research to make sure that they are safe. Most modern day crop protection products also have a relatively short half life – meaning that they don’t persist for that long because the bacteria in the soil and air breaks down the product into its basic components.
The FDA also requires defined periods of time after spraying before fruits and vegetables can be picked for consumption – and farmers follow these rules. Many farmers participate in training and certifications to use crop protection products.
What are farmers doing to decrease their use of crop protection products?
Like most things farmers do – they are trying to use less crop protection products to raise their crops. Farmers apply what is needed in a safe and regulated manner. Don’t forget farm families eat food too, and they don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be safe for them.
Almost all farmers also use an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program on their farms. According to the EPA, IPM is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.
So, now what about the Dirty Dozen?
I asked Dr. MacDonald what she thought of the “Dirty Dozen” list from the EWG, she said that there have been studies that show that the list isn’t exactly what it seems. These studes indicate that the methods used for these rankings aren’t scientifically credible and that consuming organic forms of these 12 items does not result in a reduction of risk, because there really isn’t one to begin with. (Click here for more information on the study)
For me, I feel confident in the safety of the fruits and vegetables that I eat, and you should too. I know that practicing safe food handling procedures – such as washing your fruits and vegetables before you eat them – will remove dirt and any crop protection residue that might be on them.