A pound of strawberries… and a little something special


One of the things that interested me about last years’ e.coli in spinach thing was that it underlined how little we know about where/how our food is produced. There’s a whole vast network of growers, packagers, distributors, and sales outlets and we have a pretty imperfect understanding of what happens to, say, our lettuce or spinach before it gets to our table.

Enter, once again, Environmental Working Group. I like these folks because they’re data-oriented. They gather information, and make it available to consumers so that we can make more educated decisions about what we stick into our bodies. In this case, they’ve got a handy wallet card that tells you which fruits and veggies are loaded with pesticides.

The Shopper’s Guide was developed by Environmental Working Group (EWG), based on the results of nearly 43,000 tests for pesticides on produce by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration between 2000 and 2004. EWG’s computer analysis found that consumers could cut their pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead.

Eating the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables will expose a person to about 15 pesticides a day, on average. Eating the 12 least contaminated will expose a person to fewer than two pesticides a day.

In my mind, this is cool for several reasons:

1) Buying organic is still painfully expensive, so it’s nice to know where you can get the most bang for your organic buck. If you’re on a budget (or you’re a tightwad like me), you should spend more for the organic lettuce, but not worry about breaking the bank for organic broccoli.

2) Information like this allows us to make rational buying decisions, and (not to put too fine a point on it) it allows us to punish bad actors in the agricultural industry. Without this information, a faceless set of supply chain links gets to decide how many and what kinds of pesticides you put in your body, and you don’t get a vote. This way, you can start influencing their behavior, using the only language they really understand: profits. Don’t buy their pesticide-laden products, and they’ll figure out how to provide a safer alternative.

3) This leads to my final bit about EWG and consumer information in general. The thing I hate about the free-market let-capitalism-run-rampant crowd is that they continually downplay the aspect of economic theory that demands a transparent market in order to produce rational economic outcomes.

If information is obscured, then the markets themselves are distorted. I just want strawberries. I can’t see the pesticide load on them, so I don’t know that I’m getting strawberries plus a special gift dose of chemical residue. So my demand for strawberries at a certain price point (insert captain of industry here, mouthing off about how consumers want strawberries for the cheapest price possible) will always be completely misguided, unless I know everything that I’m getting.

Even with this info, I may *still* decide to buy inexpensive pesticide-laden fruits and veggies. But if I know how many pesticides I’m getting (and in the future it would be nice if we better understood how pesticides affect our health and our children’s health), then I really am making an informed buying decision. I may be crazy or reckless, but at least I’m informed.

Viva la free market.