Are our fruit and veggies toxic? Plus why support organic businesses with BioGro

10 March 2015

The US-based, non-partisan Environmental Working Group (EWG) has identified fruit and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides. Find out why you should support organic food businesses with advice from BioGro.

The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, based on analyses of over 34,000 washed and peeled fruit and vegetables, ranks fruits and vegetables according to their contamination level from pesticides. This includes: the percentage that showed detectable pesticides, the average amount of pesticides found on a single sample and the number of different pesticides used.  

The results, which have been updated annually since 2004, are based on scrutinous testing by the United States’ Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. They aim to expose the risks of pesticides and chemicals used in food.

Almost two thirds of the tested produce was found to contain pesticide residues, and a whopping 165 different types of pesticides were found over the thousands of fruit and vegetables sampled. Shockingly, a single grape sample and one sweet bell pepper sample were shown to contain 15 pesticides.

This was the fifth year that apples topped the Dirty Dozen, fruits and vegetables which contain the largest amount of pesticides. The fruit is doused with chemicals both before harvest and after to extend shelf life, and 99 per cent of American apple samples contained the residue of at least one pesticide. Peaches took out second place, followed by nectarines. Other members of the dirty dozen were: strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.

Also included as extras were leafy greens and chilli peppers, products that are often contaminated with toxic insecticides.

The Clean Fifteen, which highlights the fruit and vegetables with the lowest levels of pesticides, was topped by avocadoes (one per cent of samples detected pesticides, good news for guacamole-lovers!) along with sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi fruit, eggplants, grapefruit, melon and cauliflowers.

“We are saying, eat your fruits and vegetables,” said Sonya Lunder, EWG’s senior analyst. “But know which ones have the highest amounts of pesticides so you can opt for the organic versions, if available and affordable, or grab a snack off the Clean Fifteen™.”

Studies have shown that those who buy organic have lower levels of organophosphate insecticides in their bodies. A huge analysis last year revealed that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of cadmium and lower pesticide residues than non-organics. The increased number of antioxidants would be the equivalent of one or two extra servings of non-organic produce per day.

The organics sector is booming in New Zealand. From 2009 to 2012 the number of organic businesses grew by nearly 25 per cent. The market for organic food and beverages is expected to reach $104.5 billion by 2015. Currently, the market is unregulated, meaning that consumers need to be wary of greenwashing and look for certified organics, or logos like New Zealand’s leading organic certifier, BioGro.

Why organics? With Lucy Terpstra, Communities Manager at BioGro.

The big reasons are: it is better for the environment, animal welfare and consumer health. Buying organic also supports New Zealand’s local organic farmers and growers.


  • Organic farming increases nutrient levels and soil fertility (the healthier the soil, the better the crops for you).
  • Growing organically increases the land’s value – the land will be more profitable and usable for longer.
  • Organic production can also help manage and lower the effect of climate change. For example, on organic dairy farms, up to 50% less nitrogen is leached into the atmosphere versus conventionally managed farms.
  • Synthetic pesticides and herbicides also have impacts on the wider ecosystem.
  • Organic farms are held to higher water use and runoff standards so produce fishable and drinkable levels of runoff depending on the location.

Animal welfare

  • BioGro’s organic livestock programme ensures that animals are treated humanely and appropriately to their breed, age and favoured living conditions.
  • Organic meat and poultry is also healthier (and tastier) to eat as it hasn’t been subjected to the routine use of antibiotics and hormones.

Consumer health

  • Organic products have been produced without genetic modification or the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides (whose levels can increase in the body, impacting consumer health).
  • All organic farms have a traceability system built in, so there is real assurance of where the food is coming from and who produced it.

Support local growers

  • Buying local organic produce supports New Zealand’s farmers, growers and producers.
  • Organic products can be more expensive as consumers are paying the real cost of real food. However, the price will drop as consumer demand increases.
  • The more people who buy organic, the more prominent organics will become in the New Zealand market, which will lower the overall cost. 

Doesn’t organic produce also use pesticides such as copper sprays?

Certain non-synthetic pesticides are used by organic growers. These are regulated, screened and assessed for compliance with organic management, food safety, work safety and environmental impact both here in New Zealand and overseas (EU, US, Canada, Taiwan, Japan).

Particular forms of copper have been approved for disease management in organic production under these standards. These are strictly regulated and have restrictions regarding their use. They are only to be used with other organic methods such as maintaining healthy soil and plants. There is also a limit on the amount that can be used.

It is fundamentally important to note that there is a difference between synthetic pesticides and the types of substances organic producers can use. Organic agriculture also encourages the use of natural and cultural methods to control pests, weeds and disease. For instance, we encourage mechanical weeding or hand weeding where possible.

Are the Dirty Dozen in NZ similar to the dirty dozen in this report (i.e. do our apples etc. have a lot of pesticides in them?)

I can’t say that the same methods are used in New Zealand to rank them as there are different methodologies at play.  Items such as apples, berries, celery and stone fruit do tend to hold residues more as they are higher in water or fat content.

We recommend supporting the New Zealand companies that sell organic food products, including: All Good Organics, Commonsense Organics, Green Drop, Kokako, People’s Coffee,  Scarborough Fair  and Purefresh Organic.

The Sustainable Business Network has a work stream on Restoring New Zealand’s Food System. To find out more or get involved contact Emily Dowding-Smith.