Organic produce contains a third less pesticide residue than conventional produce, according to an article in the May issue of Food Additives and Contaminants.
The research, the first to compare pesticide residue in organic and conventional produce, shows that organic fruits and vegetables contain far less pesticide residue than conventional varieties.
"This is important news because it tells us what we've suspected all along, that organic foods have less pesticides than conventional foods," said Brian Baker, Ph.D., lead study author and director of the Organic Materials Review Institute in Eugene, Ore.
In February 2000, the question of organic food's integrity took the mainstream media spotlight when John Stossel reported on "20/20" that tests proved organic produce had pesticide levels similar to those of conventional produce. Stossel later retracted the statement, but many people still questioned the pesticide levels of organic produce.
"It's about time the research was done," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. "We've known for a long time that there are residues in organic food, but it's particularly significant that with no research, no academic assistance, by trial and error, organic farmers have managed to produce a product that has 300 percent less residue than conventional."
The researchers analyzed data from tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1994 to 1999, the State of California from 1989 to 1998 and the Consumers Union in New York in 1997. The data include test results from more than 94,000 food samples from 20 or more different crops.
The USDA data showed that 23 percent of organic produce had pesticide residue compared with 73 percent of conventional produce. The California tests revealed residues in nearly a third of conventional foods, but in only 6.5 percent of organic samples. (The researchers explained that the discrepancy in the California numbers might be due to less-sensitive detection methods.) The CU's tests found residues in 79 percent of conventional samples and 29 percent of organically grown produce. The researchers also found that conventional produce is six times more likely to contain multiple pesticide residues than organic.
According to the researchers, the residues, including DDT and chlordane, are most likely the result of contaminated soil or ground water. Drift from nearby conventional crops also contributes to contamination. The researchers said this information could be beneficial to organic farmers trying to protect crops in locations where drift or soil contamination might lead to residues in their produce.
Mislabeling and fraud may account for some of the organic samples testing positive for pesticide residue, according to Baker. For example, "organic" Mexican sweet bell peppers analyzed contained pesticide levels from six different chemicals, a situation that indicates intentional application. Industry supporters are hoping the National Organic Program, to be instituted in October, will eliminate such practices. "The reason we have a federal rule is because we know people cheat," Scowcroft said.
Since the study's release, most mainstream press has portrayed the organic label as deceiving, but industry members reiterate that organic does not mean chemical free. "Organic never claimed to be pesticide free," Baker said. "Organic farmers avoid [using the term] pesticide free because we live on a polluted planet and some contamination is unavoidable."
The OFRF's Scowcroft agrees. "Organics had a pretty remarkable ride in the media. I think those people who are two degrees removed will just see the headlines 'Organics Have Pesticides' and have a superficial impression, but we never said they didn't," Scowcroft said.
Scowcroft recommends retailers tell concerned consumers about the NOP and what is being done to ensure organic foods are as pure as possible. "[Tell them] we've so polluted the Earth that by drift or persistent chemicals there may still be some background contamination, but that we're on the right path to actually cleaning it up with the [NOP] production practices."
Although the scientists did not comment on whether the NOP would reduce pesticide residues on organics, Scowcroft is optimistic. "The next level of research should be on certified organics in 10 to 12 years, and hopefully we'll have another paper then that will say [pesticide residues] are down to 10 [percent] or 12 percent."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 6/p. 9