Is the “Dirty Dozen” a Distraction from the Real Issue?

Is the EWG’s list of pesticide-heavy foods a weapon consumers can wield in the grocery aisle, or is it a distraction from the real issue?

It’s that time of year again, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its annual Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen report. It’s a “sticky” shorthand for pesticide levels that highlights the best and worst in the fruit and vegetable aisle. While the report doesn’t have much relevance to the Pure Branding team’s diets this time of year (we’ve all got CSA shares), it did spark a lively discussion.

As someone who thoroughly enjoys a healthy debate, no matter which side of the argument I’m on (just ask my wife!), I’ve done my best to Jekyll-and-Hyde both sides of the issue.

Diatribe against the dirty dozen

In short: The dirty dozen is a distraction. The real solution here is organic. By reinforcing the idea that there are shades of gray on this issue, this list undermines a compelling case to cut chemical agriculture completely.

With the annual release of the Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen report, a massive distraction is taking consumers’ attention away from the real issue. If you’re looking for an excuse to avoid going organic, here it is! This is just one more example of progressives being unable to sing from the same song sheet. It’s time for us to learn a little from the right, get on the same page, and stick to our story.

“Dear Mrs. Shopper, you don’t need organic. Just buy these 15 ‘not so bad’ options and your family will be safe and sound.”

By offering up this cop-out, the EWG is doing a great job short-circuiting the organic rallying cry. The bottom line is that for many conscious consumers, it’s about more than just what ends up in their family’s belly. Maybe that conventional kiwi contains fewer contaminants than a carrot, but every time you purchase one, you’ve just stripped a buck from an organic farmer, a farmer who is playing by Mother Nature’s rules and doing his/her part for not just your family, but everyone’s families.

Consider this: Sweet corn is ranked number 2 on the EWG’s clean list because their testing shows little-to-no pesticide residue on the final product. That’s nice, but according to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” The list fails miserably by turning a blind eye to the disastrous impact corn production has on our environment and long-term health. A quick spin on the Web tells tales of hypoxia, dead zones and agricultural runoff in vital marine environments, and terrifyingly ominous genetic modification successesConventional corn may be clean once it reaches the store, but buying it supports some of the most unsustainable farming practices known to modern man.

Clean Fifteen? Sounds a lot like “clean coal.”

Less poisonous does not equal more better. Not better for you. Not better for the earth. The EWG’s report bolsters Americans’ endless capacity to miss the big picture, think short-term, and worry first about ourselves and secondly about anyone else.

Case for the clean fifteen

In short: In this economy, few can afford organic. Knowing when to go organic and when to let it slide can open the door to conscious consumption, bringing new voices into the conversation while empowering consumers to participate.

While organic is grossly misunderstood by many consumers (read more on that topic here), the Environmental Working Group’s list is sticky, easy to understand and draws a clear distinction between good and evil — something organic has been hard-pressed to do in the 21-year existence of the National Organic Program.

Thanks to the EWG, consumers who want to protect themselves and their family from the harmful effects of pesticide-ridden fruits and vegetables can make a more informed choice, without having to pay the organic premium every time. When consumers are working to a budget and still wanting what’s best for their family, the Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen list can help them cut back personal pesticide intake as much as 92 percent… and simply! With that, the EWG has effectively broken down the barrier of entry into the conventional-farming conversation, and that’s a good thing no matter how you slice it.

By understanding these two lists and mentally cataloging them, or downloading the handy app before a shopping trip, consumers are empowered to make smart choices for their health and the health of their family. With empowerment comes a renewed sense of control, which opens the door to conscious consumer participation and involvement.

When organic advocates continue to hold a hard line and propagate an exclusive, “in the club” attitude, they’re making it that much harder for Jane and John Mainstream to join the conversation. In the long run, that’s unhealthy for everyone.