strawberries

A Dozen Reasons Why the EWG “Dirty Dozen” List Is Not an Ethical Guide for Produce Selection

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By Marvin Pritts, horticulture professor, Cornell University

 

Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a list of “dirty” fruits and vegetables that consumers are supposed to avoid because they contain pesticide residues. For the third year in a row, strawberries were number one on the list. The list is misleading, having been created without consideration of several important scientific and social/cultural issues, but its popularity with the press forces growers to struggle with educating customers who have bought into the EWG’s misleading messaging.

Here are some talking points to share with customers to explain why the EWG’s “dirty dozen” list shouldn’t be used to guide their produce selection.

  1. Data used by the EWG counts the presence/absence of a residue, but does not consider the total amount of residue. This is not a valid method of assessing risk, since the amount of a residue is critical for determining if that residue is toxic.
  2. Pesticide residues in plants are miniscule and are not know to have any health effects in mammals, whether the mammal is a baby or a sensitive adult. Nearly all fruits and vegetables have levels far below (often a million times lower) levels known to cause physiological effects in humans. Just because a residue exists does not mean it is toxic at such low levels.
  3. Growers who rotate pesticides to reduce the risk of developing pesticide resistance will score more poorly on the EWG scale than growers who use large amounts of a single pesticide to control a pest.
  4. Residue data from crops vary greatly depending on where a crop is grown. For example, strawberries grown in the warm, wet climate of Florida receive far more pesticide applications than strawberries grown in the Northeast, yet strawberries are ranked number one for residues, regardless of how and where they are grown. This creates a major disadvantage for local growers.
  5. Plants produce natural pesticides so they don’t get eaten by pests. The amount of naturally produced pesticides is estimated to exceed human-applied residues by ten-thousandfold. The amount of synthetic pesticide residue is dwarfed by the amount of naturally occurring pest-deterring chemicals already present in plants.
  6. Plants not treated to manage pests often have higher levels of natural pesticides.
  7. Human systems have developed mechanisms to detoxify naturally occurring chemicals in the food we eat. These detoxification mechanisms work on both natural and synthetic chemicals, keeping us safe as long as these detoxification mechanisms are not overwhelmed.                    
  8. Organically grown food also may contain pesticide residues. Organic growers face the same insect, fungal, and weed pests as conventional growers, so they often will use chemical sprays to manage them. Neither the organic residues nor the synthetic residues have ever been shown to be harmful to humans.
  9. The health benefits of eating a strawberry—ranked number one on the “dirty dozen” list—far exceed any detriment from consuming a pesticide residue. For example, strawberries have more vitamin C than oranges by weight and are high in antioxidants and nutrients.
  10. The EWG list discourages consumers from eating healthy fruits and vegetables such as spinach, tomatoes, grapes, and apples, which also rank high on the list and are known to be extremely good for health.
  11. Consumers already eat far fewer fruits and vegetables than are recommended for good health. This is especially true for low-income populations. The EWG list can do harm to low-income groups by discouraging good eating habits.
  12. The EWG approach to ranking risk is not supported by any scientific organization, has never undergone peer-review, and has never been published in a scientific journal. Recommendations regarding a person’s ability to reduce pesticide-residue exposure by altering eating habits are not supported by the data

Doing “Nearly Everything Wrong”: A West Coast Farm with Northeastern Techniques

New York Times strawberry article New York State Berry Growers

Doing "Nearly Everything Wrong":

A West Coast Farm with Northeastern Techniques

We’re always happy to see berries in the news, and we especially like to see stories that praise the growing and harvesting methods New York State growers have been using for decades. That’s why this April 17, 2017, story in the New York Times caught our eye.

The article, about Rick and Molly Gean, owners of the strawberry farm Harry’s Berries, near Los Angeles, touts growers who “do nearly everything wrong, at least according to the gospel of modern commercial berry farming.” The Geans started out with commercial strains of berries but now organically grow Gaviota and Seascape strawberries. They sell 500,000 pounds of berries per year, with 70 percent of their business at farmers’ markets; pints are priced at $8. The article states that Harry’s Berries are the preferred fruits of many West Coast chefs, and even a handful in the Northeast.

What’s most interesting about this article is the spotlight it shines on the Geans’ harvesting, which happens once every five days, to ensure peak ripeness. “Ripeness is all,” proclaims the piece. “When the berries run out, they run out, because the Geans would rather send a customer home empty-handed than with a berry that doesn’t meet their standards.”

While the article doesn’t acknowledge that New York’s independent berry growers have been harvesting only at peak ripeness for generations, this is a great talking point with customers. And while we may not have the advantage of year-round growing in a mild climate, our short season gives us the opportunity to highlight the berries as “limited edition,” available only for a few weeks a year. Keep a copy of the Times article in your farm store or at your market booth, and see if it sparks some important conversation.

Member Spotlight: Tomion's Farm

tomion's farm new york state berrry growers association

Member Spotlight:

Tomion's Farm market

Farming has been part of the Tomion’s Farm family for so long that co-owner Alan Tomion is stumped when asked when they first established the business. He laughs and explains, “My great-grandfather started growing strawberries, and my father added vegetables. Then I expanded it with raspberries, hay, rhubarb. So it’s definitely been over 50 years. The farm has always been in our family.”

Located in the Finger Lakes in Penn Yan, the 160-acre Tomion’s Farm and store is open year-round, and sells strawberries, red raspberries, and blackberries, as well as a variety of fruits, vegetables, and live plants. The operation is primarily retail, with wholesale strawberry sales in the summer. The store also offers fresh baked goods and a selection of gifts.

Alan’s wife and co-owner, Crystal Tomion, runs the farm market, and oversees a handful of year-round part-time employees. Two of the couple’s sons have also joined the business.

While SWD was an issue for the Tomions’ fall raspberries a few years ago, the farm’s proximity to the Geneva Experiment Station has allowed them to benefit from the expertise of Professor Greg Loeb, who has conducted research on the farm, and their strawberry crops have been unaffected. Instead, the biggest challenge has been finding summer laborers. Alan says, “There needs to be some kind of program for workers who aren’t citizens to be able to make a living and not be hassled,” and notes that tightening restrictions against noncitizen workers have reduced their seasonal prospects from 100 to about a dozen.

Another challenge originates closer to home. The local Mennonite community, with their larger families and tradition of training their children as the next generation of laborers, are able to sell produce at a much lower price than farms with higher labor costs. “They’re stiff competition,” Alan admits.

Also stiff competition: grocery stores that sell peeled and washed produce and prepackaged dinners, and that target their marketing toward busy families and career people. “Older customers know that local berries have a lot more taste and nutrition,” Alan says. “But we’re slowly losing our older customers. Eating habits among younger people have changed quite a bit. They go out to eat more and buy more premade meals. And they don’t buy extra to freeze, like our older customers do.”

Still, Tomion’s Farm, which benefits from its high-visibility location on the busiest highway in the county, has succeeded for more than half a century by sticking to its mission of providing high-quality local foods. Alan and Crystal used to do more marketing and advertising, but ultimately decided that the cost outweighed the extra revenue that was needed to cover it. They now rely on their website and Facebook page, a few ads in local newspapers and magazines, and the word of mouth of customers, to spread the berry gospel.

Although Alan loves seeing first-time customers turn into repeat customers, for him, it all comes back to getting hands-on in the earth. “Farming is in my blood,” he says. “I just enjoy watching my crops grow.”