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Keepers of the Earth: Making the switch to organic produce

Nothing beats the welcome return of warm weather to the northeast and the accompanying selection of fresh fruits and vegetables for family get-togethers, BBQs or lunch at the office.

Fresh-cut tomatoes on your burger (or veggie burger!), homemade salsa with tomatoes, onions and hot peppers, a giant strawberry spinach salad, maybe some juicy, ripe fruit for the kids by the pool.

Getting hungry yet? Yeah, me too.

For many of us, we are thrilled to head back to the grocery store, fruit stand or farmers’ market for the season’s best produce.

We bring home our earthy delights, rinse them for a few seconds, maybe give them a good scrub, then cook, grill, preserve or simply serve them to our families for immediate enjoyment.

Although our intentions to eat well may be good, we are oftentimes unknowingly ingesting an array of harmful pesticides.

What are pesticides?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a pesticide as “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.”

We most commonly purchase pesticides in stores to handle seasonal ant, wasp, spider or other creepy crawly problems in our homes, lawns and flower gardens. More often than that, however, they come back home with us as an invisible coating on our local and imported produce year-round.

The use of pesticides in agriculture is a long-established practice and a variety of both synthetic and natural pesticides have been used; from toxic chemical dusts to plain old tea tree oil.

For the majority of large farming operations (through which most of our food is generated) synthetic pesticides are the go-to method for pest prevention and weed elimination, resulting in greater production and higher profits for farmers and distributors.

What are the dangers?

Despite the economic benefits of using pesticides in agricultural practices, many dangers lie in their use as well.

Countless studies by reputable sources from across the globe have been conducted that directly link different pesticides to a vast range of human ailments, ranging from mild to life-threatening illnesses.

Everything from headaches, skin irritations, and nausea, to systemic poisoning, birth defects and developmental delays, and just about every imaginable form of cancer, have been reported.

Various factions that stand to benefit from the use of pesticides in farming will argue that it has only gotten safer and more restricted over the years.

They might also say that pesticides are used in ‘safe’ amounts and if washed properly at home, there should be no danger to you or your family members.

However, if one were to simply think about the original intent of using pesticides – to kill living organisms – then we can certainly make the link to its effect on human life and what’s left behind in the environment.

The Dirty Dozen & the Clean Fifteen

Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a nice and naughty list for fruits and veggies grown with the use of pesticides.

The list is derived from testing data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) wherein produce is tested for pesticide contamination, even after being washed and, in some cases, peeled as well.

While pesticide use and regulations do vary between Canada and the US, this list is a good reference guide for those concerned about what’s on their plate.

Making this year’s Dirty Dozen list, in order of highest pesticide residue, were: strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.

On the Clean Fifteen list (produce with the least amount of pesticide residue) we saw: avocadoes, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangos, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, honeydew melon, grapefruit, cantaloupe and cauliflower.

Avoiding pesticides

If any of this, or any further research, compels you to avoid pesticides, there are several ways to do so:

  1. Go organic: ‘Organic’ refers to food that has been grown without the use of pesticides and other harmful farming methods. Organic options are becoming more easily available and cheaper as well.
  2. Wash, scrub, peel: Give all fruits and veggies a thorough wash and scrub (around a minute), and peel if desired. While it won’t necessarily remove all residues, it can certainly help.
  3. Start your own garden: If you’re lucky enough to have the time and space (indoors or out), try planting your own fruits, vegetables and herbs. Not only will this save you money, but also give you peace of mind knowing where your food is coming from. There are many fun and innovative designs and concepts to try with your family or neighbourhood.
  4. Get back to bartering: Short on space or unable to master a certain crop? Start bartering with other community members for organic goods.
  5. Canning: Learn to preserve your pesticide-free produce at the end of the season for enjoyment throughout the year.

Pesticides are certainly only one of many harmful things we deal with in our environment and while we may never be able to eliminate them all, the choice for healthier living is ours.

Onawa K. Jacobs
Onawa has 10 years of experience working with youth and adults in the fields of education and career counselling. Since 2013, she has been working as an Employment & Training Counsellor with Tewatohnhi’saktha. Her skills and interests are multi-disciplinary; also working as the Art Integration Specialist for the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre’s Expansion & Renovation Project and as an environmental columnist for The Eastern Door. She is committed to the betterment of her community on many fronts: education, labour force, economic welfare, preservation of language and culture, and the environment, and aims to be part of the helping profession for many years to come.
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