Pesticide-laden apples: Convenience is bad for our health

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving the apple industry a headache by declaring apples to have the highest pesticide rate among the produce screened. An estimated 98% of commercial apples are tainted with pesticide, raising again concerns about the long-term effects these substances will have on health.

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Residues of 48 different pesticides were found in the USDA sampling of apples—the nation's most widely consumed fresh fruit after bananas. The agency was quick to point out that the levels of pesticides were all within safe federal guideline limits. Notwithstanding the fact that federal limits often err on the lower end, should we put the fruit back on its grocery shelf?

Apples used to be treated by Alar, a pesticide featured on a 1989 expose on the TV show “60 Minutes”, and which was shown to be linked to serious health problems. As is often the case, the expose proved to be the catalyst for taking Alar off the market. The question is, how long would Alar have continued to be used before its ill effects were conclusively demonstrated? Government bodies can move at glacial rates, endangering lives for decades before being finally forced to acknowledge a problem. The issue is complicated by the presence of powerful industry lobbies whose interest it is to minimize risks to the consumer. In a sense, they should not be faulted for simply doing what is in their best profit interest. The wise consumer should enter the store with eyes wide open and common sense intact.

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So what should we keep our eyes open to? For starters, commercial farms use pesticides and fungicides widely to ward off disease, blemishes, and competition from weeds. It is estimated that up to 50% of produce and crops would be lost to these factors if not for the chemicals used prevent them. In short, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are necessary in large-scale food production and in keeping prices down. There is simply no way around it. For consumers who cannot or will not buy organic, locally-grown food, this is simply inevitable. Common sense dictates that the benefits of consuming fresh fruits and veggies outweigh the risks of the presence of relatively low levels of pesticide.

A little self-reflection might go a long way in reducing the demand for some of these agents, especially those intended for cosmetic purposes. What is it that I am talking about? Well, we seem to be obsessed with wanting our food (not to mention paper products, toothpaste, linen, t-shirts, etc.) to look perfect – shiny, clean, and unblemished. In order to achieve such standards of outward beauty, unfortunately many toxic compounds have to be utilized in the growing crop to avert blemishes, rough surfaces, and bruising. In other countries’ food markets, blemished and bruised produce is a standard sight, but we seem not to be willing to be bothered with such imperfection. Turns out, we have to pay the price for our caprice somewhere.

Another point worth pondering is convenience – we love to have it all at our fingertips. This necessitates the storage of produce for long intervals – in the case of apples, sometimes several months – in order to ship it intact and have it stay fresh on grocery store shelves. If we were willing to buy more locally grown food at our famers’ markets and small, organic produce stores we might contribute to a concrete, practical change in consumer habits, which would then help steer big industry in a different direction, and perhaps away from heavy, commercial food production. The fact that we are faced with bigger prices for more wholesome food is completely upside down, but it comes directly from the consumer’s choice to buy what is convenient.

This last point is even more important when we contemplate the fact that many inner-city, poverty-ridden neighborhoods (read: ghettos) often have such a scarcity of available fresh produce that many children living there do not consume it on a regular basis. In fact, for some, a fresh apple or orange might be an exotic treat. While our distant ancestors grazed on cultivated fruits, nuts and veggies, not to mention the various “found” treasures such as mushrooms and berries, our inner city children are reduced to subsisting on commercially grown and packaged “fast food.” Convenient? Yes. Healthy? You bet not.

So while we ought definitely not to abandon the pesticide-ridden apple, we ought definitely to shift our gaze to its source. Our local, family farmers are waiting eagerly for us this weekend at the farmers market or even the random, cross-roads fruit stand. Support them. Buy organic.

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