Sunday, August 3, 2008

Are Some Sustainable Peaches Poisonous?

Yesterday morning, I picked up these peaches from a farmer at my local Farmer's Market. The farmer was wearing a shirt and hat that said "Sustainable Farm" just under the name of his orchard which made me, and I am sure many of the other folks lined up to buy his produce, think his sweet cherries, raspberries, and peaches were raised organically. When I asked the farmer if his peaches were organic, he told me that they were not, and that he used Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods on them, which tended to result in the use of less chemicals than conventionally grown peaches. He explained that all chemical use fell on a spectrum, from organic chemicals falling in the -5 range to conventional chemicals falling just below the 100 range. He said that his IPM methods placed his peaches in the 30 range, meaning that his peaches had far less chemical residue than conventionally produced peaches. I asked him if I bought his peaches and peeled them before I ate them if it I would remove all of the chemicals and he told me that I would- that the chemical could not get beyond the peel.

Having always understood sustainable to mean organic, I then questioned this farmer about the sustainable farm label on his shirt when he clearly wasn't an organic farmer. He explained that he could call himself sustainable because he used sustainable practices to care for his land, which I felt was really a misnomer given that you can't possibly be caring for the land when you are polluting it with toxic chemicals. I am not sure if was my hunger for fresh local peaches or the farmer's convincing argument that I would not be harmed by the peaches if I peeled them, but I soon found myself carting home some fresh peaches to enjoy.

Problem is, something didn't set right with me, and later that night, I began to do some research. I had two nagging questions:

1) How could the farmer call himself sustainable if he used chemicals?

2) Are peaches that have been doused with lower doses of chemicals using IPM methods really rendered harmless by peeling their skin before eating?

I soon had the answer to my first question when research on the Internet told me that sustainable really was more of a philosophy than a set of rules. Farms had to be certified to be organic, but they did not have to be certified to be called sustainable. I found the following helpful information on a website called Sustainable Table:

"Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.
Characteristics of this type of agriculture include:

Conservation and preservation. What is taken out of the environment is put back in, so land and resources such as water, soil and air can be replenished and are available to future generations. The waste from sustainable farming stays within the farm’s ecosystem and cannot cause buildup or pollution. In addition, sustainable agriculture seeks to minimize transportation costs and fossil fuel use, and is as locally-based as possible.
Biodiversity. Farms raise different types of plants and animals, which are rotated around the fields to enrich the soil and help prevent disease and pest outbreaks. Chemical pesticides are used minimally and only when necessary; many sustainable farms do not use any form of chemicals.
Animal welfare. Animals are treated humanely and with respect, and are well cared for. They are permitted to carry out their natural behaviors, such as grazing, rooting or pecking, and are fed a natural diet appropriate for their species.
Economically viable. Farmers are paid a fair wage and are not dependent on subsidies from the government. Sustainable farmers help strengthen rural communities.
Socially just. Workers are treated fairly and paid competitive wages and benefits. They work in a safe environment and are offered proper living conditions and food.

In 1990, the US government defined sustainable agriculture in Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1683, as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

The confusion with sustainable agriculture is that the definition is more a philosophy or way of life than a strict set of rules, and farmers can interpret the meaning differently. In addition, there is no legal obligation to follow any of the criteria for sustainability, so food can be labeled sustainable when in actuality it isn’t. Many terms that describe this type of food, such as natural or cage free, do not have a legal or clear definition (though the USDA is currently working on this). For example, cage-free chickens might not be raised in cages, but they could be raised in overcrowded conditions in indoor barns, which is still inhumane.
That said, we must stress that the vast majority of sustainable farms are run by family farmers who are hardworking, honest and sincere people. They work all hours of the day and night to bring you the freshest, tastiest, best quality food available."

Because, sustainable agriculture is more a way of life than a law or regulation you can't assume that produce being sold by a sustainable farmer is organic.

Researching a bit further, I found the answer to my second question. I discovered on the Environmental Working Group website that peaches are one of the worst fruits you can eat given their pesticide load. There are some excepts from an article on their website, discussing the hazards of eating conventionally grown peaches:

"In order for a regular peach to make it to a supermarket in good-looking condition, it's been sprayed, usually more than once with (possibly with a total of nine different) pesticides. In fact, the Environmental Working Group (, a primarily foundation-funded, Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization made up of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers had peaches topping its "Dirty Dozen," a list of the most pesticide contaminated fruits or vegetables.
How did peaches, or any other fruit or vegetable get on that list? According to EWG the list was: "... based on the results of nearly 43,000 tests for pesticides on produce collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2000 and 2005."
Thanks to peach's soft skin, pesticides easily migrate into the fruit. Washing peaches and other soft-skinned produce minimally alters the pesticide under the skin. Organic fruit and vegetables, by law, must be grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, and cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated.
So what rounds out EWG's Dirty Dozen? In descending order: apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce and finally, potatoes."

So, there you have it. If your choice is to eat organic, and you have always believed that sustainable meant organic, you should do some research before you eat any sustainably grown produce, because sustainable does not necessarily mean grown without chemicals. Through this experience, I have learned that it is important to ask lots of questions and to do lots of research. Things are not always as they appear to be.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Thanks for all the info. As a resident of the Central valley CA, we live in an area where conventionally grown produce is the norm and organic is a rarity. Our home garden is grown using NO chemicals whatsoever and we try whenever possible to shop organic. But I’ll take sustainable over conventional any day….especially if it is local. My monthly trips to Whole Foods to buy organic have become rarer as I contemplate the ramifications of shipping those wonderful organic products. Sustainable agriculture and IPM are steps in the right direction.