Last week I talked about GMOs or genetically modified organisms, and advised that in order to avoid consuming GMOs, you should look for organic or biodynamic foods. Another important reason to eat organic and biodynamic foods is to avoid pesticides and chemicals.
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) tests thousands of different food items for pesticide residue on a yearly basis. For instance, in 2015 they tested over 10,000 samples (Wood, 2016). In 2004, they tested at least 13,000 samples (Stewart, 2007).
How Big Of a Concern Is the Use of Pesticides?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) uses the data from the yearly tests conducted by the USDA to publish a list of produce that include the highest amount of pesticides. This list is published yearly, and is known as the Dirty Dozen™. In 2016, this list included strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers (EWG, 2016).
In general, it is estimated that at least 76% of produce had pesticide residue, and 40% of produce had more than one pesticide (Stewart, 2007). For example, apples have been on that list since the EWG started publishing the results, and often appear at the top of the list. In the test conducted by the USDA in 2004, 92% of apples had pesticides. In addition, 27% had two pesticides, 24% had three pesticides, and 12% had four pesticides (Stewart, 2007). In the 2015 report, over 98% of the apples tested had at least one type of pesticide (Van Hoesen, 2016).
Another example is strawberries, which were at the top of the Dirty Dozen™ list in 2016. 98% of the strawberries tested also had pesticides, and up to 40% of the samples had 10 or more pesticides (Van Hoesen, 2016).
Pesticide use is of a concern because the use of pesticides is detrimental to health. It is estimated that 80% of the body’s exposure to pesticides comes from the diet (Stewart, 2007). The use of many pesticides has been linked to many serious health conditions, including immune and nervous disorders, toxicity, cancer, and others.
Why is Organic and Biodynamic Better?
Foods with low pesticide residues are those grown organically and those grown with Demeter’s biodynamic certification.
USDA organic food has the goal of manipulating the environment in which the food or produce is grown to the least amount possible. Some manipulation is inevitable, but USDA organic produce is prohibited from using pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineered species, genetically modified species, and irradiation (Stewart, 2007). However, it is sometimes possible to find pesticide and other additive residue in organic produce, because of what may already exist in the soil in which the produce is grown.
Demeter biodynamic certified farms follow even more stringent guidelines than organic farm practices. They honor natural growing patterns, seasons, and environments, and as such, food is only available in the season they are naturally meant to be grown in. Additionally, the entire farm needs to be certified to ensure that the soil, water, produce, or any environmental element in the farm is not exposed to pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, genetically modified specie, and irradiation (Stewart, 2007).
Other non-produce examples include beef and chicken. Beef that is USDA certified organic is fed 100% organic feed. They are also not exposed to any type of added hormones, antibiotics, or synthetic pesticides. Organic chicken is fed organic feed, has access to the outdoors, does not use antibiotics, and may or may not allow beak trimming, depending on the discretion of the grower.
Biodynamic certified beef and chicken are only available seasonally. They are grown according to very strict standards that are truly natural, without any hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals. In addition, chickens must be outdoors as much as possible, they must be fed a vegetarian diet where at least 80% of the food comes from within the farm, the beaks cannot be trimmed, and there cannot be any forced molting of the hens.
How Does Organic & Biodynamic Certification Work?
The USDA organic certification is regulated by a government agency, namely the USDA, which started certifying in 2002. Many argue that organic farming has been in place since the start of agricultural practices, even though the certification has been in place for only 15 years.
On the other hand, Demeter is not regulated by a government agency and is instead a private organization that provides certifications to farms with the biodynamic label. The practice of biodynamic farming started in the 1920s with the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, but the certification process by Demeter has been taking place in the United States since 1985, when the not-for-profit organization was formed in this country.
Biodynamic certification requires more rigorous practices than USDA organic certification. Since Demeter biodynamic certified farms follow natural growing seasons, as well as crop rotation and the moon calendar harvesting indications, biodynamic products are not available year-round. Instead, they are only available seasonally. Organic produce can be available all year round, depending on whether or not the farm growing the produce is able to grow the fruits or vegetables.
Biodynamic farms are also fully sustainable. That means that they follow environmentally conscious practices, such as composting and water and energy conservation. This ensures that everything that the farm uses or spends is able be used again in the future in some way shape or form. In other words, the future of the farm is guaranteed through maintaining its resources. Organic farms are not necessarily sustainable. They may or may not follow environmentally conscious practices, however that is not a requirement.
Does Everything I Eat Have to Be Organic or Biodynamic?
Not necessarily. As I mentioned last week, it is important to read the labels of the food we buy. Make sure you can recognize the ingredients that are in the food. Look for local products. This is not always the case, but usually small local farmers have less access to mass-market chemicals.
In addition, not all commercial food products are full of pesticides. For instance, the EWG also releases a yearly Clean Fifteen™ list, which includes the produce that due to low or no pesticide residue, and do not have to be organic. In 2016, this list included avocadoes, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, honeydew melon, grapefruit, cantaloupe, and cauliflower (EWG, 2016).
What I am advocating for is that we pay attention to the nourishment we give our bodies.
Demeter U.S.A. (2017). About Demeter. Demeter Association Inc. Retrieved on March 6, 2017 from http://www.demeter-usa.org/about-demeter/
Environmental Working Group. (2016). EWG’s 2016 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. EWG. Retrieved on March 6, 2017 from https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php and https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean_fifteen_list.php
Stewart, K. L. (2007). Eating Between the Lines. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Van Hoesen, S. (2016). EWG’s 2016 Dirty Dozen™ list of pesticides on produce: strawberries most contaminated, apples drop to second. EWG. Retrieved on March 6, 2017 from http://www.ewg.org/release/ewg-s-2016-dirty-dozen-list-pesticides-produce-strawberries-most-contaminated-apples-drop
Wood, P. (2016). USDA releases 2015 annual pesticide data program summary. United States Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service, Release No. 174-16. Retrieved on March 6, 2017 from https://www.ams.usda.gov/press-release/usda-releases-2015-annual-pesticide-data-program-summary