You write and speak a lot about the dangers of meat and other animal products, which I agree are huge. But don’t you think there is a danger with pesticides in plant foods, too? I am a vegetarian. Is there anything I can do to protect myself from these poisons?
You make a good point. Grains and produce that are grown by agribusiness corporations in vast monocultures are typically doused with insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, mold inhibitors, and other forms of toxic chemicals. Although these foods are still safer than most commercial animal products, they carry their own dangers. Your best bet is to consume organic produce whenever you can, because food that is produced organically has not been tainted with any of these poisons.
Controls on pesticide use vary from state to state. But even in the most strictly regulated state — California — the controls do not apply to produce grown in other countries and sold in the state. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that illegal levels of pesticide residue regularly show up four times as often on produce from Mexico as on produce grown conventionally in California. This is consistent with the general rule that the plant foods most likely to be contaminated with high levels of pesticides are those that are imported into the United States from tropical countries.
Developing countries typically have little or no controls on pesticide use. Plus, warmer climates breed more insects and other pests, and don’t have winter freezes to reduce their numbers. Additionally, more chemicals are often applied to protect food that is shipped long distances. The result is that there is almost always more toxic residue on (and in) produce brought into the United States from tropical countries than on (and in) produce grown conventionally here. Mexican tomatoes, for example, had a “toxicity index” more than four times greater than California tomatoes, according to a February, 2001, Consumers Union report.
There is only one exception that I know of to the general rule that produce grown in the United States are safer than crops grown in tropical countries. The state of Hawaii in many cases permits levels of pesticide use on food crops that approximates what is used in developing countries.
Personally, I try to eat as much of my food organic as I can. And there are certain foods that I ONLY eat when they are organically grown. These include bananas, pineapples, coffee, chocolate, and other foods that require tropical climates. If there is any chance that a food might have been grown in a tropical country (or Hawaii), I ask to be sure.
I also try as much as possible to eat locally grown and in season foods. It is the foods that are out of season (melons and strawberries in January, for example) that are most likely to be imported from tropical countries.
On a political level, I would like to see “country of origin” labeling requirements. And at the same time, I would like to see far greater recognition of the human rights issues involved in pesticide use. Most of the pesticides that are applied to food grown in tropical countries are produced in the United States. These are poisons that are typically banned for use on food crops in this country. But U.S. corporations manufacture them, and profit from selling them to Third World countries, where they are often used without proper safeguard for human health or the environment. We are poisoning the people and the biosystems in developing countries, so we can have cheap food. Ironically, these pesticides then return to this country in the food we import. This is one circle — a circle of poison — that I would like to see broken.
There really are many reasons to go organic, whenever you can.