top of page

How Pesticides are Harmful and Is Organic Food Worth the Cost?

Updated: May 4

cabbage garden

Following up to last week's post, How to Help the Planet (and Your Health!) From Your Kitchen, and continuing in the theme of Earth Month, I wanted to answer a common question I hear — Is organic produce worth the cost?

Before we talk about organic, we need to talk about pesticides. One might think that they're safe, because they're so commonly used. Home and garden stores sell pesticides for home use. There are signs all over neighborhoods, placed in yards after they've been sprayed with pesticides. They're used in public places across the country, including playgrounds, parks, school yards, and golf courses. Surely, since they're so ubiquitous, pesticides must be okay, right? Not exactly.

What are pesticides?

farmer spraying pesticides

Pesticides are synthetic chemicals used to protect agricultural crops and people's home gardens and yards by killing or controlling insects, fungi, and plant life that are considered a nuisance or that ruin crops. The term, pesticides, includes these types of chemicals:

  • Herbicides kill or control weeds and other plants. They don't discriminate and may kill any plant it touches, unless that plant has been genetically modified to withstand the herbicide.

  • Insecticides kill or control insects by either attacking the insect's nervous system or their exoskeleton. They are widely used in agriculture and households.

  • Fungicides control fungi and can be used on plants or other surfaces where mold or mildew grow.

Here's an alarming number: Over 900 pesticides are registered for use in the United States. The European Union also uses quite a bit, just over 450 pesticides. They've banned many of the pesticides that are still used in the U.S. because of their adverse effects on human and planetary health. In fact, the only country that uses more pesticides than the U.S. is China.

Because of the widespread use, humans are exposed to pesticide residues through a variety of ways from eating, drinking, breathing, and skin contact.

What's wrong with pesticides?

kids playing in the grass

While many pesticides are effective against pests and widely used to prevent crop, lawn, and garden damage, they also harm non-targeted species, including pets and humans (both adults and children). Pesticides can enter your pets' system through the air they breathe, contact with their skin, or by them licking their paws after walking or playing on chemically-treated lawn. One study showed that pesticides may increase the risk for cancer in dogs.

The adverse health effects shown in humans include skin, gastrointestinal, neurological, respiratory, reproductive and endocrine issues — and that doesn't even include the gobs of research showing a link between pesticides and cancer! The National Institutes of Health reports research linking pesticides to the following types of cancer: breast, ovarian, kidney, lung, pancreatic, prostate, stomach, brain, leukemia, lymphoma, and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. One recent research article read, "Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture."

There have been more than 200 peer reviewed scientific papers published on the risk of pesticides. The research articles have linked pesticides to increased risk for Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, kidney diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and shingles, among other health issues. Evidence suggests that children are even more susceptible to adverse effects from exposure to pesticides, including neurodevelopmental effects.

Pesticides and the environment

bumble bee on a flower

In addition to their effect on humans, you may not be surprised to hear that pesticides also wreak havoc on the environment. They kill honey bees, which are critical to the ecosystem as a whole and also essential in growing many types of the food we eat. Pesticides can wipe out entire ecosystems by making grass unsafe for wild animals to consume, causing fish to leave their habitat after entering waterways, and destroying land and trees. These chemicals enter and contaminate our water supplies. They also destroy nutrients in the soil making the food we eat much less nutritious. Finally, they're harmful to farmers who are spraying them daily. Pesticides.Don't.Discriminate.

How to reduce your pesticide exposure

woman shopping for tomatoes

Okay, I am sorry for the bad news. Now let's talk about the good news! There are ways to minimize your exposure to these chemicals by taking individual actions.

  • Install an under sink or countertop water filter is one way to reduce your exposure through drinking water.

  • Use natural solutions to treat your yard that are safe for your family and pets.

  • Get involved with local neighborhood organizations (or start your own!) to get neighbors and your community on board with safer solutions.

  • Whenever possible, purchase organic produce, which brings us to the next section ...

What does Organic Certification mean?

farmers market with herbs

Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods as much as they're able. Fruits and vegetables can be labeled as organic if they're certified to have grown on soil that had no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides applied for three years prior to harvest. Also, organic foods can never be genetically modified. (Of note, genetically modified crops have been modified to withstand massive amounts of pesticides. Therefore, GMO foods often have some of the highest amounts of pesticides.)

The USDA Organic label indicates that the food has been produced through practices that minimize or reuse resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers may not be used, but there are 25 approved natural pesticides and fertilizers.

Is organic food worth the cost?

produce on grocery store shelves

Organic can definitely be more expensive, I get it. The expense for companies to get certified is costly. When I had a chocolate company, I was able to afford organic certification the first year in business, but unfortunately, I wasn't able to sustain it annually. While I let the official organic certification go, I still made sure there were no harmful chemicals in the ingredients I used. I called every supplier I used from the almond supplier to the walnut supplier to the chocolate supplier. Some were certified organic (if they could afford it) while others were simply "no spray," meaning that they did not spray their crops with synthetic pesticides. While I felt good knowing that my products were safe for humans, consumers wouldn't know this by looking at the food label since we didn't have the official organic symbol. I'm sharing this with you, because it's worth getting to know your favorite brands and asking them questions, like, "do you use chemicals in the making of your product?"

Personally, if I could purchase every single item organic, I would, simply knowing it's better for the planet and reduces exposure to harmful chemicals. However, from a financial perspective, that can sometimes be a challenge. Therefore, I pick and choose which produce I purchase as organic and which I purchase as conventional. For example, I might get conventional avocado or banana since I’m not eating the skin (although it's still important to rinse them well or wash them). I also try to choose organic fruits and veggies that are a part of the Dirty Dozen List The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests a variety of fruits and vegetables every year to see which contain the most pesticides. The items that contain the most pesticides make the Dirty Dozen list as the most contaminated (not the top 12 list to brag about making!).

Another trick I use is growing my own produce that is not organically available in the store. For example, I love jalapeños, but I cannot find local organic jalapeño peppers and peppers top the Dirty Dozen list. Therefore, I grow my own. Luckily they're easy to grow! In fact, one year, I had what looked like a jalapeño tree.

The point is, do your best and don't beat yourself up about it. Simply being aware is an awesome thing. Choosing organic means supporting sustainable agricultural practices but, if it's not always financially feasible, simply do what you can. Eating conventional fruits and veggies is absolutely better than not eating any at all. Just wash them thoroughly under cold water or check out this article from Food Revolution Network on how to remove pesticides from produce (hint: a simple solution of baking soda and water does the trick!). Or, consider growing your top favorites at home or in your backyard.

organic apples

To sum it up, here is how growing and purchasing organic produce helps your health and the health of the planet. Choosing organic may:

  1. Lesson your exposure to harmful chemicals that have been associated with many health conditions, like cancer, diabetes, and hormone disruption.

  2. Be more nutritious. Since organic farming promotes healthy soil by reducing runoff, sequestering carbon, and making available soil nutrients for plants, it ultimately leads to more nutrition for us.

  3. Feed the earth. Organic soil can be healthier and more nutrient-rich.

  4. Support the environment through less pollution, soil erosion, and energy.

  5. Protect nearby birds, animals, communities and the farmers working on the farms.

  6. Support pollinators (essential for the entire ecosystem!), including butterflies and bees, and promote biodiversity.

  7. Keep toxins out of the air and drinking water.

  8. Support agricultural biodiversity that leads to healthier and more nutrient-rich soil. Growing a variety of plants is critical for human survival and all life on the planet.

  9. Support farmers who work hard to use sustainable practices, protecting the planet and future generations.

Supporting organic agriculture supports ecosystems that are essential for the health of the planet and all of its inhabitants.

If you’re able, vote with your dollar for a healthy and sustainable planet by purchasing organic whenever possible, buying from local farmers who are “no spray,” or growing your own favorite foods without the use of chemicals.

The planet and future generations will thank you. 🦋🦅🌳🌍💚


bottom of page