The agribusiness trade group Alliance For Food and Farming (AFF) recently asked us this question:
"EWG -- do you agree that both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables are safe to eat -- yes or no?"
Answer: Yes. But put an asterisk next to conventional produce, because any number of "safe" pesticides once used by members of the AFF (which show up as residues on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables) have regularly been taken off the market by the government after it figured out that they weren't safe after all. A pesticide used on conventional produce may be deemed "safe" one day only to be restricted or banned the next when new evidence comes in. And since the body of evidence pointing to the harm pesticides can cause to human health is nuanced and grows each year, so is my answer to the AFF's question.
What evidence? For starters, expectant mothers who have elevated concentrations of certain pesticides in their bodies have been shown to give birth to smaller, earlier babies (Rauch et al. 2012). And a 2010 study found that children with the highest body measurements of insecticides had double the risk of ADHD (Bouchard et al. Pediatrics 2010).
Research on pesticides and human health is complex, but it has also confirmed that eating organically grown food can significantly reduce pesticide loads in people's bodies. One 2006 study showed that pesticide levels plummeted in children placed on an organic diet (Lu et al. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006).
Based on research like this, it's reasonable to suspect that a person who eats fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residues all his or her life might well have a higher risk of cancer or other pesticide-related illnesses than someone who eats a balanced diet that incudes both conventional and organic produce. Reducing the amount of synthetic pesticides that get stored up in blood and tissue, and having a relatively lower build-up of toxic chemicals in your body overall, is bound to be a good thing. It's an outcome that most physicians -- like those on the President's Cancer Panel -- would support.
The fact is, eating produce with the lowest chemical residues -- or none at all -- is likely to be safer for your long-term health than the alternative, and we're quite sure most people understand why.
To be on the safer side, I'd pick the organic blue berries or bell peppers that had never been doused in toxic pesticides. EWG does believe that both the organic and conventional versions of all produce on the market are safe to eat. But the organic versions are likely a safer choice over the long term when you consider factors such as body size (small children are more vulnerable), specific residue levels [avocados (low) vs. strawberries (high)], the number of different pesticides used on a particular crop and how much you eat of products with the highest levels.
It's not the same as buying a car. Two brand new, blue, 2012 Subaru Outbacks with zero miles parked next to each other on the showroom floor are going to be virtually identical. But between organic and conventional strawberries, there's a real difference. Testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found 13 different synthetic pesticides on a single conventional strawberry -- not one of them would be found on an organic strawberry.
That's just a fact.