There Is No Such Thing As A Dirty Vegetable

growing cabbage in a field with mulch

Every year, the USDA does a pesticide ‘audit’ on U.S. produce, milk, and eggs. In response to USDA’s Pesticide Data Program report, the Environmental Working Group re-interprets the USDA data and maligns healthy produce. They identify the top fruits and vegetables that contained the highest amount of pesticide residue. This is otherwise known as their “dirty dozen.” On the list are some of the consumer’s favorite and healthiest foods: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and bell peppers.

Pesticides are chemicals tactically applied to conventional and organic crops to protect from insects, rodents, weeds, and types of fungal growths. The use of pesticides must be documented by farmers and is regulated domestically by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration and by government agencies worldwide.

The most recent Pesticide Data Program (PDP) report (2016 Annual Summary) was released on February 8th, 2018 and tested 10,365 samples from 600 distribution centers across 10 states over a two year period. The sampling consisted of 90% fresh and processed fruit and vegetable, 7% milk, and 3% egg samples. 81% of the samples came from the United States and 19% were imported. Following the testing, the USDA stated:

“The Summary shows more than 99.5 percent of the samples tested had pesticide residues well below benchmark levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 22 percent had no detectable residue. The 2016 report includes data from over 10,000 samples, giving consumers confidence that the products they buy for their families are safe and wholesome.” (USDA)

Who should we trust?

Why is the Environmental Working Group claiming that 70% of the conventional crops tested were contaminated with pesticide residue? And what are their credentials?

The EWG is a non-profit organization with a history of passing off shady “science” as fact. Well-funded by the organic industry marketing partners with strong ties to Washington, D.C., they are known for releasing “scientific” analyses designed to make the public worry about tiny amounts of “toxic chemicals” in everyday items, from lipstick and sunscreen to vaccines, GMOs and food pesticide residues. In fact, a nickname for the group is “The Environmental Worrying Group.”

And to be clear, there were no independent tests performed by the EWG in response to the USDA Summary. They simply analyzed the USDA data to present their own claims, which seriously mislead consumers.

The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program consistently shows that 98-99 percent of the fruits and vegetables monitored do not exceed safety limits set by the EPA and, in most cases, the residues levels found are only a fraction of the allowable levels, well within safety limits.

A matter of skewing the numbers

It is no secret that pesticides are used in both organic and conventional agriculture. So, when the EWG says that 70% of the crops tested positive for pesticide residue, they are right! But what they fail to mention is that the levels of residue are at or below the acceptable tolerance.

To be sure, the EPA’s approval and registration process for pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are very comprehensive and stringent. As part of that process, the EPA evaluates whether a chemical affects human health (hazard) and the levels that humans consume on food products (exposure) to assess the risk to human health and the environment for requested uses. Once a chemical is approved for use, there are very strict handling, application, and crop harvesting requirements. Additionally, in order to be extra cautious, the pesticide tolerance levels are set to include a wide margin of safety. In setting the tolerance level, the EPA determines the pesticide dose where no health effects were observed and then lowers that value by adding safety factors to address situations like susceptible populations such as children, the elderly, and immune-compromised consumers and other issues.

“The EPA requires pesticide manufacturers to conduct a whole battery of tests for initial registration and for registration renewal. The extensive and costly testing is conducted to determine toxicity on human health from dermal exposure, inhalation, and ingestion, and assesses human health outcomes related to reproduction, cancer, and organ systems. On the other hand, “natural” organic pesticides are not required to be tested for toxicity and have never received this level of assessment.”  – Susan Leaman, Vice President, iDecisionSciences, LLC

A 2011 analysis by the University of California, Davis stated, “the potential consumer risks from exposure to the most frequently detected pesticides on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of foods are negligible and cast doubts as to how consumers avoiding conventional forms of such produce items are improving their health status.”

As the findings stated, 99.54% of all residues were well below tolerance levels and 23% of samples had no detectable residue at all. This means our food is safe.

In the USDA report, 99.54% of 10,365 samples had pesticide levels at or below the allowed tolerance. 0.46% of these samples had elevated levels of pesticides. Calculating the math, 0.46% represents 48 samples out of 10,365.

Let’s take a look at strawberries, for example. Conventionally grown strawberries are one of the most frequently cited crops with respect to pesticide use. They are a permanent fixture at the top of EWG’s dirty dozen and often discussed in the news as being one of the most pesticide-contaminated crops. Of these 48 exceeded residue samples, 3 were strawberry samples that exceeded the EPA’s 0.50 ppm tolerance level. The exceeded samples were 0.89 ppm, 0.55 ppm, and 0.52 ppm. That’s less than 0.0001% over the EPA’s legal limit. To put this into perspective, 1 part per million is 1 grain of salt in an 8 oz. cup of sugar. And as we previously mentioned, the EPA tolerance levels leave a large margin for what is actually toxic to humans at high levels of consumption.

A woman can consume 454 servings of strawberries in one day without having any effect even if the strawberries have the highest pesticide residue recorded by the USDA. The same goes for the trace levels of pesticide present on conventionally grown spinach, which has caused quite a stir following the most recent EWG claims. The average female consumer can eat up to 774 servings of spinach in one day without experiencing any effects from pesticide residue present. See for yourself! Check out the pesticide residue calculator from

So, while it is true that this produce list had slightly higher pesticide residue than the other fruits and vegetables included in the study, this does not mean that they are not safe for consumption. The USDA performs these studies and reports their results to ensure the safety of our food supply, both domestic and imported, for U.S. consumers.

EWG damages farmers and misleads consumers

The reports organized by the EWG present conventionally grown produce in a terrible light. It makes the produce seem dangerous and the farmers that grow these fruits and vegetables sound negligent in their use of pesticides and in their stewardship of the land. It also leads the consumer to believe that organically grown produce is much safer. When in reality, there is growing concern over what has been dubbed the “the dirty organic dozen” in response to organic product recalls due to various food safety issues.

Additionally, two peer-reviewed studies have been conducted to measure the consumer damage that is done by the reports generated by the EWG. Both studies reported that fear-based marketing of produce discouraged consumers from buying any produce at all. This was particularly true with low-income consumers. Currently, only one in ten Americans eat enough fruits and veggies daily and fear-based marketing of produce only serves to discourage this already low number.

“After two decades of promoting and advancing the concept that popular and safe produce items are “dirty,” EWG should reassess this tactic and evaluate their role and responsibility in fear becoming a potential barrier to consumption.” (Safe Fruits and Veggies)

D2D on the Farm: Support Local Farms

Dirt-to-Dinner working at Versailles Farm

More and more mindful consumers are getting to know the farms in their area, attending farmers’ markets, and supporting local growers. And while connecting with farmers and understanding how your food is grown is important, dictating how a farmer should best grow their crops resembles a patient telling a doctor which medicines to prescribe! As a result, organic practices have been overemphasized and the use of genetically modified technology is very limited. The question remains: Is it clear to the consumer how safe conventionally grown fruits and vegetables actually are?

Does local mean organic?

There seems to be an inextricable link between local and organic produce. Consumers often assume when they are buying local, they are also buying organic. According to a survey done by Statista, 96% of those surveyed believe “local” means the produce was grown within 100 miles, 57% think that it is produced by a small business, and 44% believe it means natural or organic. As shown in the chart below, despite the lack of clarity around what “local” means, more and more consumers are visiting farmers’ markets to buy just that.

In reality, local does not mean organic— and there is nothing wrong with that. Despite this fact, there is a push for farmers to produce only organic crops for their local farmers’ markets. However, what the consumer doesn’t always realize is that both organic and conventional farmers have bugs, weeds, and weather issues. In order to get a good yield, farmers must utilize a variety of different tactics. Sometimes this includes pesticides, sometimes herbicides, and sometimes both. Farmers are concerned with soil and their local environments’ health.  When it comes to growing practices, it isn’t black or white. Yes, farmers are often classified as conventional or organic— but there is a lot more to it than that.

In fact, conventionally grown crops are often misrepresented and pitted against organic produce as the greater evil. As we’ve discussed on D2D, conventional farmers create safe, healthy, and affordable produce. But many consumers still believe that organic is healthier and more nutritious because it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. This impression is misguided. For instance, conventional farming practices have traditionally been held to a higher sanitation standard than organic farming, which sometimes uses improperly composted manure as opposed to more sanitary synthetic fertilizer. Or organic farmers may use copper sulfate as a fungicide and pesticide, which can be more toxic to the environment, including bees, than the conventional treatment of glyphosate.

The U.S. organic market reported a record $43.3 billion in sales in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing down. The organic food and beverage market is supposed to grow to $320.5 billion by 2050.  (Source: Organic Trade Association

As we learned on Green Cay Farm in Florida, there are many challenges that farmers face when growing crops. These include, but are not limited to, pest pressure and maintaining healthy soil. Sometimes, to deal with these challenges, a conventional input is better for the land, the farmer, and the crop.

Because there is less technology used in organic farming, inputs are more expensive. This drives up the price of the produce. One organic farmer stated, “it takes $1,800 to weed an acre of organic spinach compared to $150 an acre for conventional.” (Source: Genetic Literacy Project)

D2D discusses conventional farming practices with Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm.

In the case of Green Cay Farm, genetically modified technology could have a significant impact on the quality and availability of their corn and squash crop and would ultimately increase the profits of the farm. As Nancy Roe told us, she would like to use GM seeds but that could negatively affect her CSA subscribers. If she were able to use genetically modified crops she could yield more on less land and apply 1/3 less pesticide to her crops.

Versailles Farm, in Connecticut, takes another approach. Here, the “French-intensive method” is used to grow a variety of lettuce crops, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, edible flowers, and mushrooms. This approach combines conventional and organic inputs to produce roughly 12 acres of food on 1.5 acres of land!

Versailles Farm. The tightly packed rows using the French intensive method produces on 1.5 acres what would normally require 12 acres.

For Versailles Farm, “best practices” means fully utilizing new technologies like soil moisture sensors, irrigation sensors, and (if necessary) synthetic inputs based on detailed soil analyses. The owners, Steve and Ingrid McMenamin combine this with more old-time techniques, like the broad fork, which is a hand tool used to crack the soil before planting to allow oxygen in without disturbing the all-important microbiome of the soil web. They also grow companion plantings, like marigold flowers, nasturtium, lavender, and dill in order to naturally fight off pests. For example, lavender repels cabbage worms.  They can then harvest these companion plants for additional revenue. The bees are able to pollinate the flowers and create the honey made on the farm.

Versailles Farms grows thousands of marigolds in between crops. Acting as a companion plant this little flower is repelling insects, preventing fungus and keeping everybody healthy. Their roots contain thiophene which is toxic to certain nematodes, aphids, and beetles.  Marigolds also attract beneficial insects.


“We grow for flavor rather than compliance. Versailles Farm takes a best-practices approach in everything we do.  If organic has a best practice we use it. Same goes for conventional techniques.  Some may question how synthetic fertilizers affect the soil.  We use both organic and synthetic inputs.  We plant a cover crop and amend our soil with compost every year.  We spoon-feed our tomatoes with synthetics because they’re heavy feeders and the flavor is better.  Our soil is healthy and the worms are happy.” (Steve McMenamin, Versailles Farms)

Owners and farmers Ingrid and Steve McMenamin are responsible stewards of the land. They hold Versailles farm to the highest standards of plant culture, hygiene and flavor — they don’t feel compelled to adopt a purely organic regime in order to get a “badge.”

The health and quality of a farm’s land are extremely important to both conventional and organic farmers. If farmers don’t manage their inputs properly they are wasting money, negatively affecting their crops, and hurting overall profitability. We must trust both conventional and organic farmers to do what is right for their land given their seasonal challenges, pest threats, and growing conditions. Get to know your farmers, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the care they take of their land—even if they aren’t solely organic.

Successful farms are those who can marry the best techniques that are applicable to the crop, the soil, and the environment. It is not just one or the other – it can be both!

A big thank you to Steve and Ingrid McMenamin from Versailles Farms and Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm and Farming Systems Research. 

China, Soybeans, Pork and the American Farmer

pig on a fence in front of a soybean field

As the $375 billion trade gap between the U.S. and China continues to widen, the Trump administration is calling China to the table for unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft and posing a threat to national security. Sticking to his “America First” message, the administration is engaged in a chess match of retaliatory measures with the Chinese government, with each government threatening tariffs on a wide range of goods. U.S. and global markets have been rattled, and U.S. farmers are stuck in the middle.

Source: Barron’s

Chinese officials announced proposed tariffs on imports of 128 U.S. agricultural products from pork and soybeans to apples, strawberries, and almonds. The total value of these diverse products equals $3 billion to the American farmer.

Most notably, the Chinese have threatened to put a 25% tariff on American pork and soybeans and thus these exports are receiving the most media attention. This has created tremendous unease and uncertainty with U.S. farmers, who are already operating on thin margins. This means that for every dollar sold of American pork or soybeans, it will cost the Chinese buyer $1.25. And as a result, we are worried that the Chinese could look to other countries to buy the same product.

But these proposed tariffs are not entirely surprising. When a country wants to retaliate with trade tariffs they will strategically aim for a vulnerable product. Not to mention, China knows how critical American farmers are to President Trump’s voter base and will do their best to ‘rattle their cages’ to create political uncertainty.

Tim Burrack, a soybean farmer from Iowa, wrote on the Global Farmer Network the effect of potential tariffs:

“This week the price of hogs dropped $12 for every pig I sell.  A few mornings ago, soybeans were down 40 cents a bushel – a $1.7 billion loss to the value of U.S. soybeans.  And if I want to make new capital purchases of machinery or grain bins—anything made with steel or aluminum—I’ll have to pay a higher amount.”

Trade is important to American farmers and America

U.S. agricultural exports totaled $140.5 billion in fiscal 2017, up nearly $11 billion from the previous year to the third-highest level on record. The question is not whether trade tensions and trade wars will adversely affect that track record.  The only question is, “how much?”  At D2D, we have previously explored the effects of beef trade around the world as well as the benefits of NAFTA, which we encourage you to read as well.

Why Pork?

China is both the largest pork producer and pork consumer in the world— they consume a LOT of pig products! Keep in mind, they have 1.4 billion mouths to feed! That is 1 billion more people than the U.S. And they must do this on roughly the same amount of land. 65% of the meat they consume is pork. Additionally, China has a rising middle class that is able to afford to eat more protein. As you can see, their pork consumption and GDP per capita is expected to continue.

Large Chinese producers and smaller hog farmers raise 97% of the pork to feed their population, but they look to the European Union, the United States, and Canada to round out the remaining 3%. Approximately 1% of their imports come from the U.S. – equaling roughly 496 thousand metric tons worth $1.1 billion. China is our second largest pork export destination, after Mexico. (The United States sold 801 thousand metric tons to Mexico, which speaks to the importance of NAFTA.) However, the higher price of U.S. pork could force China to turn to the European Union and Canada – at the detriment of American pork farmers.

“The United States is a reliable supplier of pork products to China, and this decision will have an immediate impact on U.S. producers and exporters, as well as our customers in China. We are hopeful that the additional duties can be rescinded quickly so that U.S. pork can again compete on a level playing field with pork from other exporting countries.” – Dan Halstrom, Meat Export Federation President and CEO.

Why Soybeans?

China’s proposed tariffs on U.S. soybeans is also significant, albeit a bit different. Soybeans are linked to pork production as they are integral to feeding and growing approximately 435 million pigs. There are more pigs in China than people in the U.S.! Pigs need soybean meal because it has the highest protein concentration of any oilseeds or grains. Soybeans are one of those perfect foods. It has a complete range of amino acids, more than other proteins, and more protein than pork, milk, or eggs. Protein is needed in order to grow to the pig farmer’s goal of almost two pounds a day.

Soybeans are made into soybean meal (80%) to feed to animals or make into soybean oil and biodiesel (20%) for cooking and fuel. China imports its soybeans from the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. The United States is the world’s largest soybean producer and the largest exporter just ahead of Brazil and Argentina. Over the years, U.S. farmers have shipped massive quantities of soybeans to China, Japan, Mexico, Taiwan, even the European Union. As the world eats more protein, more soybeans are expected as well.

Tariffs could make the U.S. less competitive

While the United States is the largest soybean producer, we are not always the lowest cost producer. Brazil and Argentina operate with 11-28% lower costs because of cheaper land and lower capital costs. Adding a 25% tariff on our soybeans makes the U.S. even less competitive. On top of all that, the past five years have been wonderful growing seasons, which has produced a surplus of soybean crops, and this inevitably lowers the selling price.

However, fortunately for the U.S., China needs a lot of soybeans and they can’t get them all from Brazil and Argentina because the volume is not enough as they are in the Southern Hemisphere – at the opposite time of harvest in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the long run, a tariff on soybeans would stand to hurt China more than the U.S., because China will always need soybean meal for their pigs. Despite market volatility, unless the Chinese stop eating pork, U.S. soybeans will be needed in China.

Many factors affect the price of soybeans. Break even for farmers varies but is generally from $8.50/bushel – $9.00/bushel.