USDA Suggests Organic Is Overrated, but Not Everyone Agrees

A new report says thousands of produce samples are well within safe pesticide limits.

fruit stand in Grand Central Station, NYC
A fruit stand in Grand Central Station, New York.

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't want you to worry so much about pesticides. The fruits and vegetables that you buy at the store are not as contaminated as you might think, based on the latest annual report from the Pesticide Data Program (PDP). Every year tests are done to detect pesticide residues on food to ensure that levels are not exceeding those set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This year's report tested in 10 states and included nearly 10,000 samples of fresh, frozen, and processed fruits and vegetables. It stated that "nearly 99% of the samples tested had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA, with 42.5% having no detectable residue." This was after samples had been washed under cold running water with no additional cleansers, as a consumer would be likely to do. The conclusion? "This means you can eat with the confidence that your food is safe and nutritious for you and your family."

Well, Maybe Not Quite So Fast... 

Treehugger reached out to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is well-known for its work on pesticide testing and the resulting Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists that it releases annually. The EWG's Shoppers Guides are based on the same data gathered by the Pesticide Data Program, and they use more than 43,700 samples taken by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Dr. Thomas Galligan, a toxicologist who works with the EWG, weighed in on the USDA's announcement. 

"It is important to remember that, when it comes to pesticide levels in produce, 'legal' does not mean safe. Federal food tolerance residue levels often allow for higher exposure levels than public health advocates, including EWG, consider to be safe. Many peer-reviewed scientific studies have found disturbing links between pesticide exposures and human health issues, including cancer, infertility, hormone disruption and harm to children’s developing brains. If EPA tolerance levels were set to protect all children especially, as we believe they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail."

The EPA's pesticide limits are regarded by some to be insufficient to safeguard children's health. Children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides than adults, and a 1996 Food Quality Protection Act stated that the EPA must apply "an extra margin of safety to legal limits for pesticides in food." When the EWG followed up with an investigation in February 2020, it found that "this tenfold margin of safety was not included in the EPA’s allowable limits for almost 90% of the most common pesticides."

One interesting point raised by the Pesticide Data Program report, however, is that fear of pesticide contamination is leading many households to avoid buying fresh produce because they cannot afford organic. Safe Fruits and Veggies reports that "the creation of a 'fear barrier' to consumption further undermines public health efforts to improve diets." 

"In fact, 94% of registered dietitians agree that fear-based, inaccurate information about produce safety is negatively impacting their efforts to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables among their clients and consumers."

This is a problem because, despite the concerns surrounding pesticide contamination, it is still better to eat fresh conventional produce than no produce at all – and currently only one in 10 Americans is meeting daily intake recommendations for fruits and vegetables. In Dr. Galligan's words, "EWG strongly encourages everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic. Fruits and vegetables are a critical component of a healthy diet."

While it's clear that buying organic does help, the existence of the EWG's Clean Fifteen list proves that there are manageable workarounds. You can choose foods to mitigate pesticide exposure without breaking the bank, particularly if you have young children.