Fear Organics? Fear Not

Ever since ABC News reported in February 2000 that organic food had as many pesticides as conventional fruits and vegetables, confusion has reigned in grocery stores despite the fact that ABC later retracted the original account. Proponents of organics have had a hard time calming shoppers' fears and backing up their claims that organic food is actually easier on the environment. Until now.

Using data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Consumers Union (CU), and California's Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), researchers found that conventional produce is two to five times more likely than organic produce to contain pesticide residue (Food Additives and Contaminants, 2002, vol. 19, no. 5). According to USDA tests, 90 percent of some of our favorite conventionally grown fruits and vegetables failed to come clean of pesticides. (For more specifics, see "Pesticide Stats," below.)

If you're still disappointed to hear that organic produce has pesticide residue at all, take note: When the researchers excluded data for residues from now-banned pesticides that had been used for long periods in the United States (DDT and chlordane, for example), the amount of organic produce that showed residue from at least one pesticide fell 10 percentage points—from 23 percent to 13 percent. When researchers examined conventional produce using the same variables, the number went down only 2 percentage points. The significant drop for organic produce indicates that much of the residue on organically grown food comes from contaminated soil and irrigation water, as well as runoff from nearby conventional farms.

Contamination levels on some organic foods were high enough that researchers speculated they were not due to drift and might be chalked up to both honest mistakes in labeling and fraud by people anywhere along the organic distribution chain. As an example, researchers cite a sample of "organic" Mexican bell peppers that tested positive for six types of residues. Fortunately, the new USDA National Organic Program should minimize mistakes and deception in the future, causing the percentage of organic foods with pesticide residue to drop even further.

—Bryce Edmonds