Dirty Dozen: Local Produce vs Imported Advice

‘The Dirty Dozen foods you should buy organic’ say the headlines. Last week, US eco organisation the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its annual list of the foods with the highest levels of pesticide residues. But is this easy list of what to buy and avoid relevant in Australia?

Dangerous or simply delicious?

Dangerous or simply delicious?

The EWG bases its list on further analysis of data released under the US Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program. The data is based on analysis of 28,000 samples from across the USA.

I have read the Dirty Dozen list quoted in Australian media and blogs several times over the years. The stories often take the angle that the Dirty Dozen list, and its accompanying Clean Fifteen (the ones you don’t have to buy organic) provide an easy guide to going organic on the cheap. It’s implied that using the list will result in the greatest reduction of pesticide exposure for those who can’t afford the cost of organic everything!

Rarely did these Australian media and blog stories mention the fact that the Dirty Dozen list is produced by an American non-profit organisation as a guide for American supermarket shoppers, and is based on American agricultural data.

This matters. Farming practices can vary enormously from country to country, region to region and even farm to farm. In Australia, we have different soil, different pests and a widely varying climate, so we can’t assume that the local agricultural practices that grow our local produce are comparable to those in the United States. In short, I’m not confident the use of the EWG list with local Australian produce will give you the maximum reduction of exposure to pesticide residues.

I’m not the only one. Here’s a little Organic Gardener article that includes an interview with Dave Forrest, a TAFE lecturer in organic farming and the president of the Tweed-Richmond Organic Producers Organisation in NSW: Dirty dozen list isn’t dinky-di

‘Think global, act local’ with local advice

It’s well over 10 years since my first book Greeniology was published. At the time I pitched it, there were great Australian books for committed greenie audiences, but the only mainstream green living titles I could find were published in North America or the United Kingdom. They frustrated me! ‘South-facing windows for free light and warmth from the sun’ is all well and good for the Northern hemisphere, but the opposite advice for good solar access applies in Australia. While British books talked about local ‘bottle banks’, our local recycling services were streets ahead.

‘Think global, act local’ is a rallying cry for getting people involved in environmental efforts. But we need information to make informed choices and there are many times when it’s important that the information is locally relevant.

This is particularly the case in the Internet age. Yes, we have great access to information and research from around the world, but it’s important to evaluate that information with a critical eye. Internet sites that have open access make information freely available to everyone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the audience it was written for specifically.

Exercise your critical thinking skills when you’re surfin’ the Net. Ask yourself if the site was written here or overseas. Is it intended for a local audience or a global one? Who has written this advice? Are they qualified to do so?

Back to fruit and veg…

Personally, I’m all for organic farming practices, mainly to reduce the exposure of farm workers and local communities to pesticides, and to reduce the potential for polluted run-off. But there’s danger that the promotion of organic food might have the unwanted side effect of making people who can’t afford organic paranoid of conventional fresh fruit and vegetable. The EWG itself, in its 2013 report, reminded people of the importance of fresh produce:

“Eat fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

But on the subject of pesticides…

There are very good reasons why the word “pesticides” strikes fear into people’s hearts. They can and have caused health problems, depending on the type of pesticide and (importantly) the level of exposure. Just this morning I came across an Australian study that suggests preconception pesticide exposure (mothers and fathers), and possibly exposure during pregnancy, is associated with an increased childhood brain tumour risk. Note that the types of pesticide exposure studied were the high exposures of professional pesticide treatments (such as termite eradication) in the home and occupational exposure (for example, working as a pest exterminator or farmer). Personally, I much prefer prevention and barrier pest control methods to the ‘nuke them’ approach of fumigating a home. For couples planning to conceive, it’s especially risky.

Alternative pest control to scare away the birds

Alternative pest control to scare away the birds

Tips for keeping your fruit and veg healthy

• Wash fruit and vegetables before preparing meals or eating. In dry weather, catch the rinse water in a bucket and use it to water the garden.

• Wash organic food, too. Pesticides aren’t the only thing we’re avoiding. Many conventional and organic farms use animal manure as fertiliser (which is great, even if it sounds gross!). While it’s nature’s way of recycling nutrients, it can also spread pathogens so wash the produce to remove any residue faecal matter.

• Wash your own home-grown produce. While you’re growing it, avoid using greywater on food plants where the edible portion is on or near the ground. For example, you can greywater fruit trees, but not the lettuces.

• Don’t use washing or rinse greywater from laundering nappies on the garden as this might also spread pathogens, such as E coli and giardia.

• Enjoy your fresh food! In balance, the health risks this post talks about are relatively small. Protect your family’s health (and reassure yourself) by practicing good food hygiene in general, don’t sweat the small stuff and season information from the internet with a grain of salt!

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