The Environmental Working Group made a marketing mistake when it picked the name for its annual list of least-favorite foods: “The Dirty Dozen.” At least for me, that title brings to mind a great American war movie about a suicide mission against the Nazis.
Just as we’re supposed to cheer for the film’s 12 rough-and-ready GIs—a cast that includes Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and even football legend Jim Brown—I’m a fan of the food that the EWG seeks to condemn.
Here’s a complete list, in order, of the dozen kinds of food that the EWG urges folks to avoid: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes.
I’ve grown many of these fruits and vegetables on my farm in New Jersey—and this list makes no sense. These are some of the most delicious and nutritious foods available.
The problem, it seems to me, isn’t that Americans eat too much of the food on this list, but rather that we don’t eat enough of it.
How are we supposed to tackle problems like obesity and malnutrition when we’re also warned away from strawberries and spinach?
The EWG, of course, doesn’t exactly say that the food itself is bad for you. That would be truly absurd. Instead, it makes the slightly different claim that farmers who grow these fruits and vegetables rely too much on pesticides.
This ridiculous allegation requires the EWG to peddle a pair of myths.
The first myth is that people can enjoy these fruits and vegetables without the benefit of crop-protection products.
Have you ever bitten into an apple and discovered half a worm? This is a common event in cartoons but it rarely happens in real life, at least among people who buy apples that come from commercial farms.
That’s because farmers use bug-killing sprays to keep their fruit healthy and whole. When you take a bite from an apple today, you can admire the bright and juicy part beneath the skin. I remember that when my father and grandfather bit into an apple—before the advent of effective crop-protection technologies—they’d study it not in admiration but in apprehension, wondering if they could take a second bite. They were searching for wormholes.
This leads to the second myth, which is that the sprays that prevent bugs and fungus from spoiling our food are unsafe.
What utter nonsense. Sprays must comply with tough standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Many states, including my own, enforce their own standards that are even stricter that those of the federal government.
Moreover, we collaborate with scientists: For years, I’ve worked with extension agents from Rutgers University who study crop-protection strategies. One of the things I’ve learned from them is that we’d have to increase the toxicity of our sprays by something like a hundred times their ordinary strength to cause harm in rats.
Finally, pesticides are built to break down. The ordinary weather of sun and rain limits their effectiveness to about two days. On top of that, farmers stop using sprays a couple of weeks before harvest. By the time our produce reaches consumers, the residue of crop protection is long gone. And of course many people take the additional step of washing their fruits and vegetables at home—a common practice that does nothing but help.
You know who should really worry about pesticides on fruit and vegetables? Not the professional activists at EWG, from the comfort of their office suites in Washington, D.C.—but rather me on my farm.
For decades, we grew an enormous number of peaches on about 250 acres. We also protected them with pesticides.
Every day during this period, I probably ate three to five peaches. There aren’t many Americans who have eaten more peaches than me. And yet they never caused me a health problem. In fact, I’m pretty sure they improved my health because peaches are low-calorie storehouses of minerals such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium as well as dietary fiber.
So when the EWG puts out its annual “Dirty Dozen” list, it misrepresents the basic facts of farming. It also discourages Americans from eating healthy foods. And it even defames a classic movie about brave men on an impossible mission.
The conclusion is obvious: EWG is rotten to the core.