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The dirty dozen

Anna Bowen

Are we only interested in ourselves?

The recent uproar over the provocative (dare I say titillating) May 2012 Time magazine cover on attachment parenting has got me thinking again about local food. The old joke among lactating mothers is that breast milk is the most local you can get.

The other thing about the article that made me think was Nathan Thornburgh’s sidebar “The Detached Dad’s Manifesto: How fathers can contribute by just chilling out” in which he frames mothers as organic-food and baby-Einstein-obsessed and praises himself for being so relaxed by suggesting that his form of “detachment fathering” includes “not feeling a twinge of guilt if you don’t want to splurge on organic vegetables.”

It’s true that the upper-middle class has a complex relationship to guilt in which food purity—especially for helpless babes—figures highly.  But our obsession with purity, sadly, doesn’t even find its end in natural breast milk.  Breast milk can contain bioconcentrated pesticides that are stored in the fat of mothers’ milk and passed on to little ones (though it is reported that vegetarians and vegans, because they are lower on the food chain, tend to store and pass on less pesticides).

When I think of “pure” foods, in addition to breast milk I think of brown rice—though not in the same bowl. But the CBC recently reported that even organic, whole grain brown rice syrup has been shown to contain traces of arsenic, sapped up from fields formerly used as cotton plantations (and this is foreign arsenic, not naturally occurring arsenic sometimes found in soil).

So we might as well admit it:  no food is ever going to be totally pure.  Even if those foods were available, they would only be affordable to an elite few.

Some health-conscious consumers, acknowledging this fact, have turned to the Environmental Working Groups’ (EWG) annual report on the “dirty dozen” to assuage their fears.  With the aim of “reducing your exposure [to pesticides] as much as possible” the EWG offers a list of the twelve most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies (you can find them here if you haven’t already) as well as the “clean fifteen” (fruits and veggies with the lowest concentrations of pesticides) in order to help consumers spend their pennies (nickels) wisely.  So (guacamole-types rejoice!) don’t bother spending your hard-earned cash on organic avocadoes or mangoes (of the clean fifteen) but instead, suggests the EWG, go ahead and splurge on organic strawberries, potatoes, and blueberries, since these are where the real damage is. No surprise that obsessed consumers can, of course, download a free iphone app at to help them navigate produce aisles that potentially include pesticides that boast carcinogens, hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, developmental or reproductive toxins, and bee toxins.

But back up just a second here.  Why is the so-called dirty dozen just about us?  Aren’t our pesticide-packed bodies part of a greater system of consumption, with both environmental and social implications? Leafy greans, for example, are part of the dirty dozen but actually require a minimal amount of pesticide per acre and so rate highest among earth-friendly produce, reported Slate.

Besides the old dirty twelve, a rule of thumb for eating “green” includes buying thin-skinned produce like lettuce, strawberries, and apples organic, whereas thick-skinned produce like oranges and avocados are a go-ahead because the thick skin is where the pesticide residues hang out.  Bananas have a thick skin, which means that whether the plantation they came from is causing workers to become ill from pesticides and affecting the land for future use, the inner fruit will be acceptable to organic-minded upper-middle class folks.  (In 2002, a Human Rights Watch report examined both child labor practices as well as pesticide effects on workers in banana plantations in Ecuador and condemned the industry for both hiring underage workers and exposing these more vulnerable children to pesticides).

A 2008 New York Times article reported on a study which explored whether local food was actually good for your health:  “so far, there’s not real evidence that eating locally farmed food is better for you.”  Regardless of the outcome of the study, dividing our focus into health issues versus environmental issues misses the point.  We are a part of a flawed system in which even strawberries, breast milk, and brown rice carry the signs of a short-sighted approach to food and the environment. The question isn’t whether eating locally farmed food is better for you; the question is whether it’s good for everyone.

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