Extra Pesticides: Americans are sold on organics

PesticidesOver the past decade, organic produce sales have soared from 3 percent of the retail produce market in the U.S. in 2000 to nearly 11 percent last year, to $9.5 billion. According to surveys by the Organic Trade Association, organic produce’s precipitous trajectory barely slowed when the global financial crisis took hold in late 2008.

Organic salad greens have fared even more impressively. According to Nielsen surveys, fresh cut salad greens increased their market share from 8.3 percent in 2006 to 15 percent so far this year. Pre-packaged specialty salads have grabbed a whopping 46 percent of that market sector, compared to 29 percent.

The stunning gains make a sharp contrast to the otherwise lackluster market for fruits and vegetables in recent years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) reports that Americans’ per capita annual consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has been roughly flat for the past two decades. In fact, according to the ERS, U.S. vegetable consumption has slumped slightly, to 92.2 pounds per person per year in 2008, from an all-time peak of 101 pounds in 1999.

These troubling eating habits have persisted despite warnings from a succession of U.S. Surgeons General that the national obesity epidemic is rivaled only by tobacco as a danger to public health.

There are many reasons Americans aren’t eating healthier. Surveys of consumer expenditures conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2008, Americans spent 58 percent of their food dollars on food eaten in the home and 42 percent for food eaten out. According to the ERS, Americans spent only 26 percent of their food dollars eating in 1970. The calorie count of those meals climbed accordingly, ERS says, and nutritional value declined. ERS statisticians have cited a number of factors behind the demise of home cooking, including the rising number of two-earner families, cheaper, prevalent fast-food outlets, relentless promotion by restaurant and fast-food chains and generational preferences.

What no thinking person will believe is the latest claim from industrial agribusiness – that Americans aren’t consuming more fruits and vegetables because Environmental Working Group publishes its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides™ on produce.

This bizarre charge comes from the Alliance for Food and Farming, a Watsonville, California-based association of large produce growers and marketers and pesticide sellers.

“Small wonder Americans don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables,” says Ken Cook, EWG president and co-founder. “These guys couldn’t market their way out of a disposable plastic produce bag.”

By every objective measure, an increasing number of Americans are voting with their pocketbooks for produce free of pesticides.

“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion,” says Cook, “that the chemical farming coalition members are less concerned about EWG’s “dirty dozen” list, or the health and girth of the American people, than they are about losing so much market share in recent years to organic fruits and vegetables.”

The expansion of the organic food sector is not news to EWG. Nearly 100,000 readers have downloaded our Shopper’s Guide in the last two months. These are people who are actively seeking objective facts about pesticide residues on various conventionally-raised produce items. EWG recommends that people eat more fruits and vegetables because the health benefits of these foods outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.

The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides™ has been praised as a key resource for consumers aiming for healthier diets. Since many shoppers can’t find or afford organic produce, they can use the Shopper’s Guide to avoid those conventional fruits and vegetables found to be highest in pesticides – the Dirty Dozen™ – and, instead, choose items from the Clean Fifteen™ list.

But, we are sorry to say, EWG and the many other groups that advocate pesticide-free food cannot yet claim credit for transforming mass buying habits. Since we began publishing the Shopper’s Guide in 1995, consumption of many items on the Dirty Dozen™ list has actually increased. Take spinach, a charter member of the Dirty Dozen™: the ERS estimates that Americans ate two-thirds of a pound in 2008, a 142 percent increase over 1995. Per-capita leaf lettuce consumption nearly doubled in that period. The same trend held true for other Dirty Dozen™ perennials, like bell peppers (up 40 percent), cherries (up 250 percent), strawberries (up 57 percent) and grapes (up 14 percent).

If Big Agriculture wants to promote healthier diets, it should stop attacking critics and focus on growing vegetables and fruits that are chemical-free – and also tasty.

“These are the same geniuses who for decades have brought us tomatoes as hard as baseballs, apples that mush in your mouth, and lettuce fit for shredding at fast food joints,” says Cook. “Their motto ought to be: ‘Less flavor! Tastes grate!’ And they wonder why the American public hasn’t responded to their sermonizing to eat more fruit and vegetables.”

“Americans can’t seem to get enough of the organic industry’s delicious, healthy food,” says Cook. “It has emerged as one of the most dynamic sectors in the American food industry. One of the main reasons? Believe it or not, people don’t want to eat pesticides with their produce if they don’t have to. And with EWG’s guide, they don’t.”

That is why EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides™ has become so popular among consumers and why the agribusiness industry is objecting to it. At EWG, we remember what Big Ag has long since forgotten or forsaken – the foundation stone of American commerce, that the customer is always right.

When customers say they want fresh, appetizing and diverse offering of fruits and vegetables without a load of pesticides, we say, give it to them.

What Big Agriculture seems to be saying is, “Shut up and eat your pesticides.”


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