In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan described the plants in a conventional potato farm being “doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom,” and that the soil the spuds grow in has been turned into “a lifeless gray powder.”
To protect plants from mites and rust and aphids and other pests and diseases, chemicals are used to make what farmers call a “clean field,” Pollan explains. “Farmers call this a ‘clean field,’ ” he writes, “since, ideally it has been cleansed of all weed and insects and disease—of all life, that is, with the sole exception of the potato plant.”
It’s an image of industrial potato farming that’s stuck with me for more than a decade, and it’s the first thing that came to mind when I was reading over the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” report. In its latest accounting of the chemical residues that remain on the foods we eat, the nonprofit found that potatoes carry more pesticides on them than any other food.
Potatoes may harbor the most chemicals, but they’re far from alone in being rife with residue. One grape that was tested carried 15 kinds of pesticides; a strawberry, 13. Nearly all imported apples and nectarines have remnants of at least one pesticide on them.
According to the EWG report, “Some 65 percent of thousands of produce samples analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture test positive for pesticide residues.”
An organic peach and a nonorganic peach may not look all that different, but the invisible imprint conventional agriculture leaves on the latter is no joke—for the environment, for farmworkers, and for consumers. The only medical community to raise concern over pesticide residue is probably also the one that families care most about: pediatricians. A 2012 report from the American Academy of Pediatricians that’s quoted by EWG suggested that pesticide exposure is linked to “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” And there’s no doubt that workers who handle these chemicals and the people who live near the fields they’re sprayed on suffer significant harm.
Thankfully, the “Dirty Dozen” (which numbers 14 when you count kale and chiles, which don’t make the cut but aren’t exactly clean) does more than tell concerned consumers what to avoid—there’s the “Clean Fifteen” too, the fruits and vegetables that carry little residue. If buying all organic all the time is too expensive, you can pick up conventional avocados, sweet corn, and more without putting your health at risk.
Sweet peas (frozen)
Sweet bell peppers
Snap peas (imported)