The EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen: Is it Really Reliable?

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen: Is it Really Reliable?

It’s that time of year again! The Environmental Working Group just released their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, meant to educate the public about the pesticides in their produce. 

The Dirty Dozen ranks the top 12 ‘dirtiest’ fruits and vegetables (note: strawberries, spinach, and kale are the top three) in the United States. These lists are all over the media right now, but are the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen really reliable? 

Most people buy organic produce because they want to avoid pesticides, and I don’t blame them: ‘pesticide’ is a scary word, and we’ve been conditioned to equate it with poison (which most of them are). For those of you who believe that organic farms use no pesticides or less pesticides, I have bad news for you: nope on both counts. 

While they don’t use synthetic pesticides or fungicides, organic farms use ‘natural’ versions, some of which are still toxic to humans and the environment. Those include copper compounds, abamectin, and rotenone. If you got sprayed by these over and over again, you’d probably get pretty sick, just like you would with most synthetic pesticides. 

As with anything, the dose makes the poison. 

Also: how many times do we have to be told that ‘natural’ doesn’t equal ‘harmless’? Arsenic, anyone?

Synthetic pesticides – aka the ones used in conventional farming – in Canada and the United States, are regulated by government agencies. The environmental impact and the impact on farm workers of both synthetic and organic pesticides, as well as industry influence of the regulatory bodies (especially with this administration, I’m sorry but I have to say that), is worthy of further exploration and is a whole other blog post. 

I’m just here to talk about the food. 

Some organic farms have an edge over conventional farms for rotating crops, but some non-organic farms practice crop rotation as well. Some farmers don’t want to pay for organic certification, which is extremely expensive, but they do use organic methods. Many conventional farms are working hard to minimize their pesticide use.

I think both sides do have our best interests at heart. 

The EWG is a activist agency, not exactly known for being impartial. When they look for pesticides on produce, of course they’re going to find them; without pesticides, our food system – conventional and organic – would be in pretty bad shape. But the EWG leaves out some very important information:

The Dirty Dozen tells us that pesticides were found on certain produce, some more than others.

What it doesn’t tell us is which pesticides were found, how much of each pesticide was detected, and what the effects of those pesticides are at those levels. It also doesn’t tell us how the amounts found stack up against the acceptable levels of pesticides for those crops according to the EPA. 

I think that’s pretty important information, don’t you? 

The EWG recommends choosing organic produce over conventional, but they fail to include organic produce in the testing for the Dirty Dozen. How do we know that organics are ‘cleaner’ than any of the 12 foods on the Dirty Dozen list? 

We don’t.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Toxicology showed foods on the Dirty Dozen list contained negligible pesticide residue, and that the EWG’s methodology for testing was crap. 

I’m going to leave this study right here. 

Steve Savage, a well-known plant pathologist, created these graphs from USDA data to show the actual pesticide residue on conventional fruits and vegetables – many of which are on the DD list. The red values are not over the USDA limits; they’re simply closer to it. To the left of the green line is acceptable for organic.

Look! Over 60% of both fruits and vegetables (with the exception of cherries) actually qualifiy for organic in terms of pesticide residue and risk. What we see here is quite the deviation from the EWG lists. 

I take serious offence to the insinuation that buying conventional food for our families is ‘dirty’ or that it harms them in some way. And you already know how I feel about ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ labels for food *ahem elitist bullshit*. 

EWG admits that it’s better to eat conventional produce than none at all, but with rhetoric like theirs, this is a backhanded statement.

In short:

Organic produce has not been shown to have significant nutritional benefits over conventional produce. 

It’s also a fact that many of us can’t afford to buy organic produce, and that conventional produce contains levels of pesticides far lower than what government agencies consider to be the maximum limits, like the graphs above illustrate. Yes, even strawberries and spinach. And probably kale, too.

Food from North America and most other countries is safe, and instead of being anxious about minute levels of pesticides on our apples, we should be worrying about eating enough produce, because we definitely don’t. (and here for Canada, we don’t eat enough either) 

Organic and conventional farming both have their issues, but it’s a balance: we need pesticides, so how do we achieve optimal biodiversity, yields, and nutrition, while minimizing environmental and human impact? 

The website safefruitsandveggies.com is run by both organic and conventional farmers and discusses everything you want to know about pesticides, including residues and risks. It also has the best Residue Calculator that shows how many servings of certain fruits and vegetables you’d have to eat to be affected (or not) by their pesticides.

Turns out, I could eat 454 servings of strawberries a day. I’m getting hives just thinking about it. 

Buy whichever produce you want, but don’t be shamed or frightened by either side into making that choice. You can land somewhere in the middle, but regardless, know that what you’re eating – and feeding your family – is a safe and healthy choice.