Sweet Poison: Non-Organic Strawberries

Strawberries in SaladIt’s that time of year again: time for sweet, juicy local strawberries.

Last year, I wrote about the joy of eating fresh, local strawberries and the risk of pesticides if those berries are grown by conventional methods. Conventionally-grown strawberries are subjected to up to 13 different chemicals, some absorbed into the berries through the roots and some sprayed right onto the berries. Many growers, when asked, talk of their “low-spray” program: a comfort, maybe, but not a real solution.

At the time of that post, I’d just picked a box full of juicy, perfectly ripe, but non-organic local strawberries, something I do at least a few times every June. What I don’t eat on the spot, I pack into the freezer with strawberries for smoothies the following winter.

I love strawberries.

In anticipation of this year’s strawberry season—anticipation actually began months ago—I gave some thought to this issue that troubles me every year. My discomfort with the idea of ingesting pesticides has grown, especially in the face of increasing health challenges. I’ve found that I’m reluctant to choose anything that threatens my health further.

Strawberries made it onto the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list again this year, in spot number three. It’s nearly impossible to wash the chemicals off strawberries’ bumpy, delicate skin, and washing isn’t a panacea, anyway. Some of those 13 chemicals known to be present in strawberries are absorbed through the roots end up in the sweet, juicy flesh. No amount of washing will help.

Our government is looking out for us with fruits and vegetables, encouraging us at every turn to eat more, for our health. In the years following the explosion of agricultural chemical use after World War II, we’ve seen the development of careful guidelines dictating what’s too much to be considered healthy. Knowing that the levels of carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters in and on my produce are within federal guidelines for “safe” levels should be a comfort to me, right? But it’s not. Call me a literal person, but those words are just too scary to ignore. Besides, it seems clear to me that, in setting these so-called “safe” levels, my health interests don’t weigh as heavily with the EPA as the concerns of pesticide manufacturers and big ag. Just a hunch.

Do I want to accept low levels of neurotoxins in my food? Carcinogens or endocrine disrupters? The answer this year is an easy “no.” Invisible and tasteless as they may be, knowing that they’re present is enough for me to make another choice.

When organic is an option, I often choose organic, no matter what the food. Choosing organic is casting a vote for farming methods that respect living soil, biodiversity and my own health. When buying from local farms, I don’t rely on the certified organic label alone, however. Some of my favorite farms use organic methods but aren’t certified organic—by choice.

But organically-grown strawberries are hard to find around here, and impossible to find as pick-your-own. In light of my penchant for stocking the freezer, choosing pick-your-own is an important factor in keeping costs down. I paid $4.50 a pint for organic strawberries in Vermont this week; hardly a price that allows for filling gallon bags in the freezer.

The farmers at the two area strawberry farms I usually support here at home have assured me that they use a very small amount of chemicals—commonly called a “low-spray” pesticide program. Generally, this means that pesticides are applied up until the plants bloom; after they set fruit, no more spraying.

What the chemicals are is not even the point, at least not for me. The point is that they are classified as neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. Faced with the facts, I can only rationally conclude that I don’t want these chemicals in my body. Parents of small children have even more reason to be concerned, since pesticide residues have been linked to attention deficit disorder and other behavioral problems. In my case, I just can’t choose to introduce toxic chemicals into my body.

Ignorance was bliss.

I’ll be choosing organic strawberries this year, probably putting fewer berries away in my freezer.

What guides your choices when deciding on organic versus non-organic?

Did you notice the subliminal hint in the photo above? It’s not too late to throw your name into the drawing for Ben Hewitt’s two books: Making Supper Safe and The Town That Food Saved. (By the way, that’s my yummy salad: spinach, radiccio, purslane, cucumber, goat cheese, pecans and strawberries. All organic.)

27 responses

  1. Ahhh, strawberries. You are SO RIGHT about the chemicals & choosing organic! I’m with you 100%………but I often find myself buying ‘regular’ berries when I can’t find organic. It’s frustrating! Hannafords usually has a good organic selection. Worth looking at!

    • This is a tough one! When local, non-organic strawberries are looking & smelling so yummy, it’s hard to believe there’s anything unhealthy about them.

  2. Thanks for the reminder… I got lazy on this one as our love of fresh strawberries, after a long winter, has been strong. Will refortify my will power!

  3. Argh! I was supposed to go strawberry picking today but the orchard was closed to let them ripen more. (Plus…it was raining). The plan was to put up a ton of preserves. What to do? Another dilemma. This orchard is low-spray but…you never know for sure.

  4. I know right? That’s what I keep trying to tell people. Strawberries are only a treat – very difficult to grow organically. We have to stop acting like consumers who’ve been spoiled by impossible deliveries fulfilled by the corporate machine.

    • You raise a really good point, Wendy. We are completely spoiled, expecting what we want, when we want it, and as much of it as we want, and perfect, too. And cheap on top of all that. Thanks!

  5. I’ve always had a hard time with “acceptable levels of toxins.” Really? A bit of an oxymoron. In my book the acceptable level of toxins should be zero. Glenn doesn’t eat strawberries, so the few that I grow organically (read misshapen and sparse, but tasty) are usually what I end up with. But those beautiful, plump, juicy-sweet, ruby jewels are so difficult to resist – they are a sign-post to summer in New England!

    • We can still choose to eat them, but it’s important to acknowledge the presence of chemicals, rather than fool ourselves into thinking “low-spray” protects us. Or, that there’s anything acceptable about chemicals like this. There simply is not.

  6. I love strawberries too and this post is a good reminder of the chemicals that are so widely used. I do try to buy organic as much as possible and I hope to be able to grow my own soon – although I know they won’t look as good as those big ones in the store.

    • I’ve talked to so many people about this issue lately, and many seem to feel that they’ll continue buying conventionally-grown strawberries because the benefits outweigh the risk, for them. In the end, I think the important thing is that we have all the information we need to make informed decisions. There’s no one rule that fits us all. Good luck with your own choices. It’s not easy!

  7. Any decent sized flower bed will grow plenty of strawberries. The first year you pick off all the blossoms. The second year I put 20 quarts in the freezer from a bed the size of my dining room table. In the following years, I moved berry plants to other old flowerbeds and last year put 60 quarts in the freezer, plus made at least 4 pies. All organic. Easy as pie! Fertilize with organic composted cow manure from the nursery, and mulch with straw. The amount of rain they get in the fall determines the size of the berries next season. This year I am going to experiment with dehydrating them on cookie sheets in my hot car.

    • Wow! Twenty quarts! I all too often feel that my tiny garden can’t produce much, but wow! Just converting my 4X8 bed would provide me with strawberries for a year, as long as I have the patience to wait a year. Thank you for putting this thought in my brain!

  8. I am all for organic produce, but after reading this article months ago, I simply stopped buying non organic strawberries…which means I didn’t eat them since most of the year the organic strawberries are $8 pint. Now…I feel I have lost out on the benefits of this wonderful fruit. I think we sometimes underestimate our body’s ability to filter toxins. We need some of the enzymes, fiber and vitamins from these wonderful fruits and veggies to be able to function well enough to eliminate the toxins that we encounter on a regular basis just by breathing…and if we withhold those things on the basis of not introducing a few more toxins, our bodies become unable to filter out any of them and we get sick. It’s a balance. Everyone is different. I just wanted to offer up another perspective before people just eliminate beneficial things from their diet because they cannot afford them or do not have a green thumb! Choose organic when possible…but do not eliminate healthy things from your diet! Think about what you might be replacing them with if you aren’t eating them? For me, it was alot less healthy foods! =)

    • You’re right. These are complex decisions, and we each have to weigh all the factors that are important to us, personally. It continues to be hard to find organic strawberries around these parts. Once again, this year, I broke down and picked a box at a local farm that uses very light and early chemical applications. I didn’t feel great about it, but the desire for fresh, juicy strawberries won out. There is no black and white in this business. I know my body is loaded with toxins from many sources, and I’m working hard to limit my conscious intake of new toxins. In a generally clean diet, I’m hopeful that one choice like this won’t cause great harm. The truth is, I don’t know. I’ll continue to do the best I can. Thanks for offering this important perspective.

  9. I think it’s unreasonable to say you must have a “toxin free” life. Right now, you’re probably breathing in trace amounts of formaldehyde and other pollutants. I mistakenly got conventionally grown strawberries. They do taste a bit worse than organic ones in my opinion, but I’m sure my body can handle trace toxins. If eating conventionally grown produce was truly poisonous, then wouldn’t millions of people the world over be dead or in poor health by now?

    • I get your point—it’s probably unreasonable to think that it’s possible to live a toxin-free life, because we’re swimming in toxic chemicals right now, even if we’re trying to avoid them. My goal is to avoid any that I can reasonably avoid, and food is one area where I have a good amount of control. I also believe that millions of people are already sick. The overload of chemicals has disrupted our endocrine systems, depleted our immune systems and, in others, caused diseases like cancer. We are not a healthy people. You’re right: a healthy body can handle some toxins, clearing them through the liver, kidneys and skin. All the more reason to keep the toxic burden light, to ease the load on the organs. Good luck with your own eating decisions. These are very personal choices! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  10. I’ve not been able to bring myself to purchase non-organic strawberries for years now. I think the above comment that we are ingesting trace elements of toxins all the time is exactly the point. Why add more? Why support those toxins when you have a choice? I admit the strawberries can be expensive. That’s why I don’t buy many and savor every bite. Thanks for a great read.

  11. I’m sorry, I know this is an old thread, but I came across it and really found it interesting. I try to buy organic strawberries for my young daughter whenever possible because she LOVES them. But now, with all the radiation being found in California produce (especially green leafy one and strawberries), I’m torn as to what to do. Do I choose organic and risk feeding my child the radiation tainted berries, or give her the conventional ones that are treated with pesticides? Either way i feel great unease in what I’m feeding her.

  12. We eat only organic strawberries, but we’re very fortunate to have them available at a low price. Ours are only $3.99 per pound at the grocery. Sometimes they go on sale for $3 per pound while the conventional ones are $2.50 per pound! So they’re not a real budget breaker.

    When they’re not available, we just eat other fruits and also get organic frozen berries in bulk.

  13. Obviously we, as a society, should care about chemicals found in our food and household products. In a major study, 95% of consumers said they buy organic food to avoid pesticides. But, let’s start with the facts – organic simply does not mean pesticide-free or funicide-free. Organic farmers can and very often do use pesticides. In fact, there are over 20 chemicals that are approved and commonly used in growing organic fruits and vegetables . . . some are ‘natural’, but even several synthetic chemicals are approved for use in organic farming. What makes organic farming different is not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Of course people assume that ‘natural’ pesticides are safer than the ‘synthetic’ ones, but there are certainly exceptions. Some pesticides, such as Rotenone, (which is allowed in organic farming), is far more toxic than many synthetic pesticides. Just because something is natural does not make it non-toxic or safe. Not only are organic pesticides not all safe, they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry. Also, even if your organic food is free of pesticides, it does not mean that it’s safe to consume. Studies have shown that thousands of people have become ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli. Many organic foods are to blame for that because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens. For example, one study found E.coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farm samples, as compared to 2% from conventional farms. The same study also found Salmonella only in the samples from organic farms. The prevalence of higher pathogens in organic produce is likely due to the use of manure instead of artificial fertilizers, as many pathogens are spread through fecal contamination. It’s a great idea to do the research and know your facts, instead of just assuming that ‘organic’ means non-toxic or more nutritious.
    On a personal note, we do grow delicious strawberries, which were only sprayed once this year (while they were blooming). We have spoken with producers at local organic farms who spray their produce a lot more often than that! So go ahead and pick strawberries from your local u-pick and enjoy smoothies all year!

  14. This is a dilemma for me every year when strawberry season rolls around! We love strawberries but organic berries are prohibitively expensive. A few years ago, we started picking strawberries at a local, low-spray farm, hoping it was a better choice than conventional berries at the store at least. But even that still nagged at me a bit. Now I’m thinking it is going to be best to just plant our own. Although, one thing that always comes to mind when I’m weighing the ‘organic or not’ in my own mind–a presentation I went to a few years ago on the many health benefits of eating lots of fruits and veggies. The presenter noted that all the studies she was citing on those benefits were done with people eating conventional fruits and veggies, not organic. Who knows–perhaps there may have been greater benefits seen if the studies were done with organic produce only, but there is still much to be said for eating more fruits and veggies, period. I know I tend to default to other, junky foods too often at the expense of eating fewer fruits and vegetables. Maybe I should just focus on eating that rainbow of produce every day and worry less about all the rest… :)

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