BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Some experts say the presence of pesticide chemicals in fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean there’s a risk. But many consumers still have concerns about the long-term effects of chemical exposure even in tiny amounts.
“Chemicals, pesticides… don’t know where the food comes from. We buy local as much as possible,” said Daneen Vincent who has her own preference when it comes down to buying organic or conventional.
Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University says, “The average American that consumes 3 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is exposed 5 to 12 different pesticides on a daily basis through their diet.”
Benbrook has developed a variety of analytical systems quantifying food quality and safety, and the impacts of agricultural technology and policy.
EXPLORE MORE | Check out Benbrook’s analysis of pesticides on foods data
“The most worrisome source of high residue and high risk foods are imported fruits and vegetables that many of us depend on in the winter,” he said.
But contrary to what some people think, “organic” does not always mean “pesticide-free”; and “local” doesn’t always mean “chemical-free”.
Marvin Pritts, a Horticulture professor at Cornell University, says plants actually produce their own pesticides, “The pesticides that are used in organic production are naturally derived. So they’re not synthetically manufactured in any way.”
At Arden Farm in East Aurora, Dan Roelofs grows certified organic mixed vegetables and some fruit.
“This ground has been in my family for over 100 years and I want to take care of it,” said Roelofs, who uses natural sprays to fight off pests.
“One is called Surround and that’s Kaolin Clay which is basically potter’s clay,” he said. “You can eat it. It might aid in your digestion. It’s not going to really hurt you.”
Roelofs believes there’s no other way to take care of the soil. “I want to take care of it the best I possibly can for future generations,” he said.
Mike and Gayle Thorpe operate Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm outside of East Aurora. They used to have a conventional farm but switched over to organic in 1999.
“We made the switch because we were sick of dealing with chemicals and handling chemicals,” said Mike Thorpe.
Taking care of 2,300 acres is no small task especially when it requires a certain amount of hand work in the field.
“We’ve got a large labor bill that a conventional farmer wouldn’t incur and that’s tough, that’s difficult,” he said.
The Thorpes also use a beneficial bug strategy in which good insects, like the ladybug, wreak havoc on the bad ones.
“Basically bug warfare is easier. It’s worked fairly well for us,” said Gayle Thorpe. “The lady bug is a terrific friend of the organic farmer. With conventional farming you can hurt your friendly beneficials.”
Organic farmers look for creative ways to control pests and disease.
“A normal organic grower will not reach for a chemical the first time there’s a problem. And that’s their last resort for that. They’ll look for other ways to try to manage their pests,” said Pritts.
“Sprays are expensive. We don’t want to spray if we don’t have to. We only spray for what’s necessary,” said Jim Bittner, President and General Manager of Bittner-Singer Orchards, a conventional fruit supplier to Western New York’s major grocery stores in Appleton, Niagara County along Lake Ontario.
He continued to tell News 4 that disease issues are a big threat in humid climate, “We want to cut back on sprays as much as possible but at the same time our customers [are] demanding perfect product.”
“They don’t want to see defects. They don’t want spoilage. It’s a balancing act,” he added.
“A conventional grower might be more likely to say, ‘Oh, I have a pest what might I spray for it?’ So there’s a little bit of difference of philosophy there,” said Professor Pritts. “A lot of the fertilizers that organic growers use are slowed released fertilizers. They release their nutrients over time. It takes a while to do that.”
Bittner says he tries to predict disease issues in the spring so workers only spray what’s necessary.
“The conventional products that we use, I mean, they’re highly regulated,” he explained. “We do residue testing and our customers [fruit packers] do residue testing to make sure nothing’s over legal limits. And we’re far below any legal limits.”
Randy Goodman of Goodman Farms, in Ransomville, says he has to spray for things like early and late tomato blight.
“It spreads extremely fast. It’ll sporulate and reinfect other parts of the plant, and you can lose a field of tomatoes in a week,” said Goodman who sells produce throughout Western New York.
He says only approved chemicals are used, and that guidelines on pesticide labels are carefully followed. “I feel that the produce, following those guidelines, is safe,” said Goodman. “We also wash everything that we pick and we run it all through a washer.”
Neither organic nor conventional farmers can afford to lose their crops to an insect or disease attack.
How they fight back appears to be the dividing line for many organic lovers like shopper Michelle King-Moore. “There’s natural ways. There’s organic ways,” said King-Moore. “It is important to me to have the pesticide-free vegetables and fruits and everything.”
Richard Dorr, owner of Niagara County Produce at Millersport and Transit, happens to be a fan of conventional produce. He thinks some of the rhetoric out there about pesticides is misleading.
Dorr says everything is washed and graded thoroughly before his store receives it.
“Nobody’s dying from it. It’s fine,” said Dorr. “There’s no harm to the customer at all. Everything is very, very good. There’s no germs or no pesticides by the time you eat it.”
In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited, according to the National Organic Program(NOP).
The NOP develops the laws that regulate the creation, production, handling, labeling, trade, and enforcement of all USDA organic products.
According to NOP, the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies substances that may and may not be used in organic crop and livestock production.