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Just Peachy, Thanks

Sometimes Thinking Globally And Eating Locally Doesn't Mean Pesticide-Free

Mel Guapo

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 9/26/2007

I have a fruit dilemma, one that I have been trying to resolve all summer. There are compelling reasons to buy and eat organic foods; there are also compelling reasons to buy and eat locally produced foods. Happily, it's often possible to have both at once: Organic, locally grown vegetables (and meat, eggs, and milk) are abundant in Maryland. Fruit, not so much.

Our climate is the problem. Berries do well here, so we enjoy luscious, local, unsprayed strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries in season. But tree fruits such as cherries, apples, and particularly peaches are difficult to grow in Maryland's humid conditions and require, at a minimum, fungicide to combat mold growth. As local organic farmer Robert Hamilton told me, "In Maryland, `organic peaches' is an oxymoron." Most local orchards spray away in order to maximize their fruit trees' productivity, the problem being that thin-skinned tree fruits absorb applied chemicals into their flesh--washing or even peeling them doesn't remove the pesticide.

It's one thing to understand the issue intellectually and another just to want to eat some fruit already. Back in June, on an outing with my brother and his family, we stopped at an orchard to buy cherries. They were gorgeous: plump, gleaming, bursting with juice--and coated with a powdery white residue. Maybe it was harmless fruit mildew? The teenage attendant had no idea. "Our cherries always have that white stuff," she told me. "It just washes off."

The orchard wasn't using organic practices, so I could only assume that "that white stuff" was chemical residue. Much to the dismay of my 4-year-old son Jack I declined to buy any cherries even as my brother's kids were wolfing down mouthfuls of jewel-like fruit. Jack was so upset that I sought out organic cherries at a natural foods store, breaking my own rule against buying produce that needs a plane ticket to reach our region. The small, puckered organic cherries were from Washington state and clearly less than fresh.

Jack was happy enough with his replacement cherries, but I was not. Why is it that if I want to protect my young son from exposure to toxic chemicals, the only choice is elderly fruit shipped from 3,000 miles away? My mother and brother both frankly think I'm nuts to worry about this, and even more insane to pay as much as double when I go for organic over conventionally raised foods. "The government regulates all this stuff," my brother said as his kids chowed on their cherries. "If it was harmful, they wouldn't allow it."

Yes, but pesticides are by definition toxic: They kill pests that prey on food crops. There are numerous well-designed animal studies that demonstrate adverse effects from pesticide exposure, with these effects ranging from birth defects to cancer, nervous system damage, and reproductive anomalies. The chemical companies like to use statements such as "there is no conclusive evidence of harm to humans" from exposure to various pesticides. While this is true--it would be unethical to expose human beings to toxins in order to study their effects--it's also misleading: Absence of proof does not equal lack of danger.

To reduce our family's pesticide exposure we utilize the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list of the top 12 pesticide-containing fruits and vegetables (peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, potatoes; more at www.foodnews.org). The average eater can reduce their pesticide exposure by 90 percent by purchasing organically grown versions of these items or simply avoiding them altogether.

However, we are firmly committed to eating locally produced foods whenever possible, and strict adherence to the Dirty Dozen rule means potentially eliminating some things from our plates. Things like peaches, my absolute favorite fruit. At the farmers' market this summer I eyed the beautiful peaches from local orchards, but knowledge can be a real appetite suppressant--conventionally grown peaches are the most pesticide-laden produce of all. While standing there agonizing I struck up a conversation with Joan Norman, co-owner of One Straw Farm, an organic vegetable farm in White Hall, and asked her for advice.

"I would always buy organic, locally grown produce first," she told me. "Then I'd probably choose local, after that national organic, and then, if I had to, national conventionally grown." OK, but what about peaches? Organic farmer Norman, it turns out, recently traded some of her produce for two bushels of conventionally grown peaches from a local orchard. She shrugged philosophically. "Sometimes," she said, "you just have to make a decision the best you can."

Hmmm. Balance my desire for a luscious, juicy peach against my desire to not get cancer some day. I stood there feeling like J. Alfred Prufrock, wondering: Do I dare to eat a peach?

Fortunately I was able to hop down from the horns of my dilemma that day at the farmers' market; the very last vendor I approached, Reid's Orchard, produces their peaches using Integrated Pest Management, an approach that applies pesticides only as a crop-saving last resort. So occasionally, if you just keep looking and asking questions, you can have your almost-organic, locally grown peach cake and eat it, too.

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More from Michelle Gienow

Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple

Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it

Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff

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