January 15, 2009

The Dirty Dozen

No, not THAT Dirty Dozen - though it is one of the greatest WWII movies of all time. The Dirty Dozen I want to talk about is the list of the most pesticide-laden foods hence the ones worth buying organic or not at all. I've always found it a helpful guide, especially during the winter when local produce is mostly unavailable. The list typically focuses exclusively on fruit and vegetables - which isn't a bad thing, of course - but pesticides aren't exactly limited to those foods. So it's nice to see the Daily Green updating the Dirty Dozen to include a broader range of foods. They are:
  1. Meat
  2. Milk
  3. Coffee
  4. Peaches
  5. Apples
  6. Bell Peppers
  7. Celery
  8. Strawberries
  9. Leafy Greens
  10. Grapes
  11. Potatoes
  12. Tomatoes
A food qualifies for membership if it 1) absorbs pesticides at a high rate or 2) it faces abundant threats of pests that require heavy use of multiple pesticides. Potatoes are the prime example of the latter. I vividly recall the chapters in Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire where he details the lengths to which conventional potato farmers must go to protect their crop. They first chemically sterilize the soil (i.e. kill every living thing whether good or bad) and then add back in via synthetic fertilizers just the nutrients potatoes require. It's only then that they douse the plants with huge amounts fungicides and pesticides. Yummy!

Meanwhile, I do like the fact that meat, milk and coffee make the list. The reasons for the first two should be obvious to readers of this blog. But coffee deserves special mention as another crop whose production can incorporate the extremes of either conventional or sustainable agriculture, depending on how it's done. It used to be ridiculously difficult to find fair trade organic coffee - Starbucks as recently as a few years ago had a single fair trade blend for sale. It's now too easy to find to excuse drinking anything else. And for more on coffee's role in agriculture in the developing world, I point you to a resident of Sao Paolo, Brazil who commented on an otherwise ill-advised anti-coffee screed from Treehugger:
Coffee is one of the few remaining crops that is some sort of permaculture, with even 30 year old plants regularly being harvested. Our region has seen a dramatic shift from coffee, literally being ripped out, to cane production for ethanol... Coffee, like anything, is wonderful in moderation... Coffee provides many jobs to people who NEED them and can be farmed in an eco-friendly manner.

Of the dominant crops in our region - corn, cane, beef, soy and coffee - java for certain is the most environmentally friendly crop, from a feet on the ground perspective. It is normal for field workers to reach deals with land owners where rows between coffee plants are used for family plots, beans, corn, even lettuce can be found in between the endless rows of coffee plants. This is not done with any of the other local crops. No way the land currently occupied by coffee, if torn out, gets planted with anything that does not have a more costly environmental impact on the world, and... shade grown is catching on, even in this area where quantity coffee is 99% of the crop...

Wait - drinking more coffee means less ethanol! Hot Damn! Hmm. Perhaps you noticed my sensitivity on the coffee subject? Moving on.

The Daily Green also provided the Dirty Dozen's converse (or is it obverse? contrapositive? I was never good at that stuff), the list of foods for which it is less important to always buy organic. It doesn't have a catchy, Lee Marvin-inspired nickname so this list is clearly less significant. But still, I must serve the public interest, so here it is:
  1. Asparagus
  2. Avocado
  3. Bananas
  4. Broccoli
  5. Clean Cabbage
  6. Kiwi
  7. Mango
  8. Onions
  9. Papaya
  10. Pineapple
These fruits and vegetables all have impermeable skins or lack pests. Several are also tropical fruits that frankly I don't by all that often anyway. But broccoli and onions are certainly staples - so that's something.

That's all I got. Now go have a cup of organic fair-trade coffee.

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