The Top 12 Fruits and Vegetables for Pesticide Residues

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

Spraying pesticides on fruit trees

Growing your own food is the best way to ensure that you know exactly what went into producing it.  However, most gardeners are unable to be completely self-sufficient in food and have to also rely on fruit and vegetables grown commercially.  It is this which makes the question of pesticide residues so important – what exactly is on the fruit and vegetables we buy?  Should we only buy higher priced organic produce or is it OK to compromise?  The best way to answer this is to look at the extent of the pesticide problem...

Pesticides are of particular concern because they are, by very nature, designed to be toxic to some living creatures or plants.  Unlike fertilisers, they must contain characteristics that kill or disrupt normal growth of the things they are designed to control.  To find out just what is on non-organic produce, take a look at the recently launched What’s On My Food? website put together by the Pesticide Action Network (who have branches in the UK and US).  Just click on a food on their list and you get a complete breakdown of all the pesticides on it together with how often they are found and how serious they are.  There’s even a comparison of conventional vs organic for each type.  Equally enlightening is the EWG’s Food News site.

Government legislation requires that pesticides are tested for toxicity and safety but many groups question the methodologies used.  Required tests are usually high-dose exposures designed to measure obvious side-effects in isolation from other factors.  What happens in the real world is that we consume pesticide residues in un-tested low-dose combinations over extended periods.  Children are thought to be particularly at risk during critical periods of their development.  Even if we were to grow all our own food, there is still the issue of pesticides leaching into drinking water.

The objection usually raised is that pesticide levels are kept low and are regulated.  Yet even this statement can be misleading.  Firstly, safety levels are continually being revised, so just what is ‘low’?  Pesticides such as DDT, chlordane and dursban were all widely considered safe and used until the day they were banned and there is considerable variation in what is considered safe by different countries.  Many people not only call into question the methodologies but also the motives of the regulatory bodies and companies who produce pesticides (who continue to report large profits).  Although seemingly small, the doses really add up.  Across the US, 888 million lb of pesticides are applied annually – the equivalent of almost 3lb per person – and although most of this does not remain on the food we buy the cumulative effect of small doses is the real problem.

Organic agriculture is clearly the answer and much is being done to counter the arguments of the big agricultural companies that it doesn’t produce as much food or scale well.  In fact, a recent independent report part-funded by the Soil Association found that organic ‘is, perhaps, mainstream agriculture in waiting’ and can match the output of non-organic methods if we reduce our meat and dairy consumption (both sensible steps when reducing the greenhouse gases produced by agriculture).  Buying organic almost always guarantees no pesticides (although it has been known for supposedly organic produce to contain pesticides).  But not everything is available organically and it often costs more or sells out.

So what are the worst offenders, the things that we should only source organically?  The EWG lists the ‘Dirty Dozen’ – those with worst pesticide residues – as:

  • Peach
  • Apples
  • Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarine
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Grapes
  • Carrots
  • Pears

What surprised me as a gardener is that these aren’t the plants I would expect to be sprayed the most because of vulnerability to pests.  I grow several of these myself with very few pest problems and would have expected brassicas (other than kale which is usually less affected) and bush-grown fruit to be the most sprayed.  So if you aren’t able to afford organic produce, particularly if you have children, then this list is a great way to prioritize what to grow at home.  Home grown fruit is very seasonal, so it’s not a year-round solution but it does give you a guarantee that the harvest will be full of nutritional benefits with none of the chemicals.

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Show Comments


"I have grown my own veg for a few years now and I can see why farmers would use pesticides. There are so many bugs that attack your veg it can be quite disheartening sometimes! You just have to be vigilant though and pick off what bugs you can or deter others without pesticides. Guess that's harder to do on a large scale. I'm glad I grow my own veg though - it's nice to know most of our food doesn't have pesticides on it!"
Sherri Glynn on Saturday 18 July 2009
"Many people don't realize that in addition to spray-on foliar pesticides, many food crops are treated with systemic pesticides that circulate through their systems. It's very scary! We grow most of our own veggies and fruits, and keep things very diversified. I haven't sprayed anything (organic or synthetic) for a couple of years. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 18 July 2009
"An interesting study has just been published on the resistance of children to a common pesticide group at"
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 22 July 2009
"i think that if farmers are using pestisides on vegetables and fruits then we need to suggest them that they use a very little quantity of pestisides on vegges and fruits .so people wll not be m much harmed by these use pestisides to save their crops from viruses ,bacteria,insects .and i need to suggest people that they wash vegges befoere use and its good to boil vegetables before use."
nisha choudhary on Saturday 28 January 2012
"My concern is the glyphosate sprayed on weeds (on Asparagus beds)and on crops that are required to dry quickly (rape) Monsanto declares this is broken down in the soil within 2 weeks, but other reports state that remains of it linger for 4 years and is then taken up by plants. It is reported to have a damaging effect on foetal development"
Carol Kramer on Tuesday 13 August 2013
"The problem also is that we buy so much food from overseas. Certain countries inspire more confidence in their integrity than others. It would be interesting for apples and pears,which are given several doses during the growing season, could be analysed to find how much remains in the fruit and where it is concentrated. Is it in the core, or on the skin?. The skin is nutritionally valuable, so should not be peeled off unecessarily"
carol on Thursday 21 January 2016
"Carol, you suspect rightly, that the heaviest pesticide residues are on fruit skins. These days, I would not eat an apple or strawberry that was not grown organically. You can learn more at Scary stuff!"
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 21 January 2016
"Lets get the list of the dirty dozen pesticides"
Amen Xaba on Tuesday 12 January 2021
"The EWG list is for fruit and veg on the American market, does anyone know if there is a similar list for UK/Europe? It may, or may not, be similar but I'm sure it won't be identical."
Tom Murray on Monday 17 October 2022

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