Monday, March 9, 2015

What's up with the "Dirty Dozen"?

The Question

Recently a friend asked for my opinion of an article out of Life Hacker (see link below). The author recommends that people not buy organic produce based on the "Dirty Dozen" list produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The article has 3 main points.

1. Organic produce still has pesticides on it.

2. The methodology is inherently flawed because the dirty dozen is based on ranking rather than absolute amounts of pesticides. As an example, the author states, "if farmers increased their pesticide use by a million times overnight, or if they abandoned pesticides in droves, next year's list wouldn't reflect the change in your actual risk."

3. The current amount of pesticides on most foods is already below the level that the USDA considers to be safe.

The Answer

1. True, organic produce can have pesticides. Organic farmers are legally allowed to use certain pesticides. However, I am not concerned by that. Here's why.

USDA certified organic is like the lowest common denominator -- it is merely a standard that people could agree to. Many think it is too lax and some think it is too strict. But I would be willing to bet money that the certified-organic farmer at the local farmers' market in California is using much less pesticide than the limit allowed under the certification standards. (If you are buying your organic produce from a huge corporate giant, then I might worry.)

2. True, but that's the point. If consumers drive down the total amount of pesticides being used, that would be fantastic!

The dirty dozen just gives people something to focus on if the goal of going totally organic seems overwhelming.

3. Not true. 

I have read too many cases where the USDA or some similar agency declares that something is safe, only to be proven wrong later. And I'm not talking about edge cases, complex interactions, or other "gotchas". The process by which the federal government determines whether a new chemical is safe for public consumption is inherently flawed.

But here's the real problem....

The EWG provides a wonderful service to people. The database that they have put together is a truly amazing resource. But it is just that, a resource. It is not a definitive guide. It can not tell you what you should and should not do. Only you can determine that for yourself.

At the end of the day, the EWG needs to drive people to their website to justify their continued existence. Sometimes they use fear mongering to generate views. That's what bothers me most about EWG. Their messages should be about empowerment, not fear. There is no such thing as zero risk, so let's stop pretending we can get there. We need to view things holistically and figure out where we can reduce the most amount of risk.