Any scientific advancement, however marvellous it is, can take on Pandora’s Box qualities if left unchecked. As far as the agricultural industries are concerned, pesticides are helping to feed the world by keeping yields high and prices down. But this is only half of the story. Pesticides are not generally restricted to tackling infestations; they are sprayed to avert them, often when the risk is only small.
This presents a tangle of issues in need of an explanation. Primarily, from a human standpoint, these pesticides, which by their very nature can be toxic to humans, are on our food. They also enter the food chain, via insects and birds that feed on the plants and through neat pesticides being washed into rivers and groundwater. Then there’s the cost – both to the farmer and to the consumer – of the vast amounts of chemicals used, and the environmental cost of its production, transportation and deployment. Finally, some pesticides are considered responsible for the depletion in “friendly” insects such as bees and lacewings, the latter of which is one of natures’ most effective pesticides, the former one of its key pollinators.
Whilst all advanced governments have rules regarding the limits of pesticides allowable on fruit and vegetables, some environmental lobbying groups, such as America’s Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the UK’s Friends of the Earth and The Soil Association, suggest these rules simply aren’t effective enough. Obviously these groups would prefer zero pesticide usage, but their opinions and studies need to be listened to. The EWG produces an annual “Dirty Dozen” of produce that appear at the top of their list of pesticide carriers. Below are ten of these – they are the fruits and vegetables which are contaminated with high amounts of pesticides and toxins. It is up to you whether you decide to alter your lifestyle, but we offer some handy alternatives for a healthier you.
The archetypal British fruit, star of fairy tale, love song, and inspiration behind the world’s top tech manufacturer, the apple loses its sheen somewhat with its top spot in the pest list. Perhaps it’s our preference for the shiny, waxy surface that’s asking to be bitten, or maybe it’s more down to the fact our taste for the fleshy fruit is shared by all manner of grubs and insects. But whatever the reason, the non-organic apple, even when given a good rinse, shows amounts of pesticides the EWG deems shocking. Maybe the answer is a lovely, juicy kiwi, tenth from bottom of the list and packed with goodness. Or switch to organic apples.
Favourite as a key ingredient of a tasty soup, crunchy salad or veggi stock, as well as being known for its (just about true) “negative calorie” qualities, celery appears to be a big carrier of pesticides, appearing at the number 2 spot on the list. Granted, it’s a sensitive plant, but unless it’s organic it’s on the dodge list. For crunch and the peppery sharpness, why not try a subtle red onion instead?
Although they can be quite expensive in the shops, we can be sure that it’s not because peppers are grown organically as they’re high up the pest list at number 3. It’s a shame because the pepper is so versatile, delicious raw in a salad or cooked in a pasta, barbecued, grilled or stuffed, when the cooking process seems to enhance the sweetness. But you might have to say by-bye to these traffic lights of delight if you want to avoid the pesky pesticides. A grilled corn on the cob could help your barbecue, or some tasty aubergine could replace pepper in your favourite recipe. It’s hard to reproduce the pepper’s stuffing excellence, though.
If you’re going to move into the country and eat a lot of peaches, make sure they’re of the organic variety. This soft fruit with its unique flavour is sadly a pesticide oasis, earning it the number 4 spot on the EWG list. The closest alternative is probably the mango, however, nestling in the bottom ten.
It looks like you’re going to have to smuggle a bag of crisps into Wimbledon this year, because strawberries are off the menu. Delicious though they are, their summery glow loses a bit of its sweetness when you imagine them soaked in vermin-killers. If you’ve ever tried growing them yourself, you’ll appreciate the need for measures to drive away the birds, slugs, insects and children, but it would appear producers have taken it just a bit too far. If you’re after an alternative dessert, though, what’s wrong with some cubes of watermelon?
The one thing wine buffs never admit to sensing on the palate is the soupcon of poison, but unfortunately the grape is up there with the worst of them when it comes to pesticides. It’s quite shocking because grapes are one of the favoured fruits parents give to children, both during weaning and when they’re packing their lunch boxes. And like peppers, the economies of pesticide use are hardly passed on to the consumer by way of pricing. But we must be wary, and it’s difficult to think of a direct alternative, although kids do love popping peas and eating them as a snack, so try this instead.
Loved and loathed in equal measure, spinach is nevertheless up there in the top ten of pesticide-heavy foods. It’s a shame as it’s such a wholesome food, eaten by vegetarians for its iron content and delicious with goats’ cheese or on a pizza. But it’s got to go, unfortunately. Replace it with some cabbage and you’ll be a lot safer, or (as always) switch to the organic variety.
Another staple here, a leaf without which no salad, sandwich or burger is complete. But it’s up there in pesticide count, so you might want to look for some other greens to eat. Again, cabbage can come to the rescue; it’s already in your salad as coleslaw, so a bit more won’t do you any harm.
Innocuous looking and very tasty, cucumbers are also plagued by toxins from the use of pesticides. The EWG puts them in their watch list, albeit at number 10. There’s nothing quite like a cucumber, so the only real alternative is to insist on finding an organic supplier.
A surprise entry, and the only native of the underworld on the list, here is the staple of staples, the potato. Although technically orbiting the top ten at number 12, it’s a notable inclusion for much of the western world’s dietary needs. Ironically its close relative on the plate (although not in the tree of life), the sweet potato, is at number 12 on the good list, possiby as it’s in less demand than baking potatoes. Either way, switch to organic varieties, or, if you have a garden, try growing some!