Scientific data on the safety of conventionally raised produce have been mixed. In 2012, Stanford researchers concluded that there are no nutritional differences between organic and conventional produce, and many nutritionists also contend that there are no clear advantages to buying organic. But more recent studies show that higher consumption of pesticide is linked to shorter gestation period and lower birth rate. And a recently released study by the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California – Berkeley concludes that pregnant women living within a 3 mile radius of conventional strawberry farms using methyl bromide had lower birth weight babies. The difference between average birth weights of babies in affected areas and non-affected areas was substantial: 4 oz, which is about half the difference between babies born to smokers and non-smokers. The effect is even more striking considering that smoking is something you actively engage in, while pesticide exposure is environmental. Yet another study shows the dangerous effects of pesticide exposure on pregnant women: children born to women whose pesticide levels were highest performed 4-7% lower on IQ tests by the time they entered elementary school. And researchers at Harvard University and the University of Montreal also found that children with highest levels of pesticides were 93% more likely to receive ADHD diagnosis. Furthermore, pesticide use has been cited as the cause of higher cancer rates for farmers and agricultural workers around the world.
These findings make clear that while conventional crops might have similar nutritional profile as organic ones, they do not have equal effect on your health–and the health of the farmers who grow them. Keep in mind, though, that the label Organic doesn’t always mean what you think: first, even organic produce have trace amount of pesticides, so it is crucial that you wash everything thoroughly before eating. Secondly, although organic farming has less environmental impact per acre, the lower yield per area means each unit of produce actually leaves a bigger environmental footprint. And organic produce are inevitably much more expensive than conventional ones, so sometimes you might be compelled to buy the latter. The situation is definitely complex, but here are some basic rules to help you make the best choices:
1. Prioritize buying organic for these veggies and fruit: Here are the produce that have the most pesticide residue.
-Strawberries, apples, peaches, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, celery, grapes, nectarine, spinach, hot peppers, kale, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, summer squash
2. Always wash all produce–fresh, frozen, canned–thoroughly by scrubbing under running water for at least 30 seconds, and dry off with paper towel; and if applicable, peel before eating.
3. If you are pregnant or may become pregnant, or have small children, switch to all organic produce.
4. Get to know your farmers–having a relationship with the people who grow your food can help you navigate the confusing landscape of local v. USDA certified organic v. not certified but sustainably raised.
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