Conscious Food Choices, Beyond Pesticide Residues

I buy local food (except bananas, of course. And mangoes. And the occasional Roquefort.) I eat a plant-based diet (other than the matzoh ball soup from Saul’s, because what’s a little chicken broth now and then?). I even have a chicken coop in the backyard (ok, it’s been 6 months and I still haven’t gotten around to getting chicks, but first steps count, right?)

In short, I do what I can towards making better, healthier, more ecological food choices – which is to say, not that much. Maybe a little more than your average fast-food gorging burger-phile, certainly less than your typical Barbara Kingsolver/Michael Pollan/Gary Nabhan-inspired, die-hard locavore.

So why do lists of the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, showing foods with highest pesticide residues, bug me so much?

I like knowing that I should buy organic strawberries so my kids aren’t poisoned by the nasty chemicals that might linger on the fruit. You’d think I’d be happy to have this simple guide so I know when to splurge on organic produce, and when I can get cheap, industrial food that probably won’t harm my family (at least, not right away anyway).

But there’s the rub: will it harm my family, even if not by direct pesticide poisoning? And who else might be in the path of the toxic pesticides used on these “safer” foods?

Should I really in good conscience buy these “low-residue” foods, knowing that they were probably grown with substances that can harm farm workers, rural communities, and wildlife – not to mention with chemicals that might poison the air, water and land that all families need?

I don’t think so – which is why I’m glad that the watchdog group Beyond Pesticides has come out with their “Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience” Guide that shows food buyers “…the effect they are having on health and the environment when they purchase food grown with chemical-intensive methods, even if a large number of residues do not remain on the finished food product.”

For example, the Guide shows that onions, a top “Clean 15” safer choice on the pesticide residue-based lists, can be grown with a cocktail of as many as 63 different pesticides, including 26 chemicals that are acutely toxic (thus creating a hazardous environment for farmworkers), 59 that are linked to chronic health problems (such as cancer), 8 that can contaminate streams or groundwater, and 55 that are poisonous to wildlife.

The Beyond Pesticides Organic Food Guide works for me for the same reasons that writers like Barbara Kingsolver/Michael Pollan/Gary Nabhan and others work for me: it encourages me to consider the impact of my food choices beyond myself and my family, and how my food choices reflect (or counter) the larger impacts of our food systems — things like farm worker protections, animal welfare, food economies, soil sustainability, agroecology/restorative agriculture, and many other food production and justice issues (even if I don’t always live up to the ideals).

The pesticide residue guides seem to suggest that by choosing “safer” foods, I can save myself – no need to worry my little head about bigger problems like safe drinking water, rising cancer rates in rural areas, or food justice in the developing world.

But the Beyond Pesticides Guide urges us to think more deeply about the impacts of food systems – and to act accordingly. Take a look, and avoid pesticides, even those you can’t always detect on your food.