When Big Ag Attacks: Government-Sponsored Pesticide Propaganda

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The White House garden may be green and unsullied by agricultural chemicals, but Obama's United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) just forked over $180,000 to fund an agribusiness-backed smear campaign against the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides," which includes the "Dirty Dozen," a list of the foods most commonly found to have pesticide residue.

In July, a website called SafeFruitsandVeggies.com was launched with the sole purpose of debunking the EWG's guide. The website, with the headline, "The Real Dangers of the Dirty Dozen List," was started by the Alliance for Food and Farming, a California-based group that bills itself as a non-profit organization made up of farmers and farm groups who want to "communicate their commitment to food safety and care for the land."

The agriculture department is paying an industry group to raise questions about its own data. It's more than a little baffling.

In fact, the alliance is little more than a PR front whose directors include executives from corporate agricultural interests such as Sunkist, Western Growers, California Strawberry Commission, California Tomato Farmers, and the California Association of Pest Control Advisors. The alliance requested the federal dollars through the California Department of Food and Agriculture to "correct the misconception that some fresh produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues," according to the alliance's grant application (PDF). "Claims by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides have been widely reported in the media for many years, but have largely gone uncontested." Presumably, the money will enable the alliance to maintain the site.

"So far their campaign has solely been directed at us," EWG spokesperson Leeann Brown said in an interview.

What is the nature of the EWG's "misconceptions"? Here's how the EWG introduces its guide:

Eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides" to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.

Whew! Pretty controversial stuff.

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Environmental Working Group

"Our list does not say that the levels of chemicals are necessarily going to harm you, it just gives you a way to prioritize," Brown said.

The EWG compiled the information contained in its guide directly from studies conducted by the USDA. Which means the agriculture department is paying an industry group to raise questions about its own data. It's more than a little baffling. It also seems unfair. The EWG is an independent nonprofit organization. It doesn't receive a penny from the government, according to Brown, and is funded mostly by foundations, but 30 to 40 percent of its backing comes from individuals.

Fortunately, it appears that the industry group's efforts to belittle the work of the EWG have backfired, only serving to draw attention to the reality that conventionally raised fruits and vegetables are laced with chemicals. "That they were challenging us proves the point that we are trying to make, and we were happy to engage the media in a back and forth with them," Brown said.

Here's a link to the EWG's ranking of 49 common produce items.

But please, don't let the USDA know that you read it here.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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