When Eating Greens Is Not Good For You


rainbow chardA while back I asked the boss to take me off of pesticide stories because I found them too disturbing. Killer Compost is a gardener’s worst nightmare, but the story that put me over the edge was systemic pesticides in food crops. Then last week, while innocently updating my research on cabbage aphids, I discovered that commercial growers often treat collards and kale with imidacloprid shortly before harvest to make sure the leaves are aphid free. They do? Apply systemic pesticides to food crops not as a pre-plant thing, but shortly before harvest?

At three in the morning I’m awake wondering what’s going on. Imidacloprid is the systemic pesticide found to be associated with honey bee colony collapse disorder; it will outright kill bees that collect pollen from flowers treated with the stuff. I don’t think most people want to eat it.

And yet they are. On leafy greens in particular, imidacloprid levels can run extremely high. According to the most recent analyses from the Pesticide Food Network, 74 percent of lettuce samples, 46 percent of spinach samples and 30 percent of kale (conventionally grown) showed high levels of imidacloprid.

This is all quite legal. The label for Admire (a soil-applied product) says you can apply it to leafy greens up to 21 days before harvest. A newer spray-on product called Pravado specifies a 7-day period from last application to harvest.  Bottom line: Commercially-grown greens can be reared on imidacloprid applied to the soil when the seedlings are set out, and then given more to keep high levels of the pesticide coursing through plant tissues. Aphids are effectively deterred, and so am I.

I agree that cabbage aphids are a formidable foe, though I seldom see them on collards or kale except late in the fall, when the plants are old and stressed. In their prime seasons I have no pest problems with either crop that a row cover can’t prevent or cold water can’t wash off. Systemic pesticides like imidacloprid cannot be washed off, because they are in the plants’ tissues, intended to poison aphids or whiteflies.

The most troublesome aspect of all this is that the food crops in question – dark leafy greens – are among the most nutritious vegetables one can eat. As a side dish, there is no comparison between a bowl of cooked greens and an order of fries, particularly if the greens are fresh and organically grown. But what compromises are made when the kale in your favorite restaurant’s potato-kale soup came from a wholesaler’s truck? You may have a healthful food choice tainted with systemic pesticides.

Barbara Pleasant
3/31/2013 12:16:10 PM

Organic greens are always in good supply at local stores in my tiny town, which I take as evidence that leafy greens can be grown successfully using organic methods in places other than my garden. This is indeed scary stuff! A new study that broke last week reports that imidicloprid-treated corn seeds are toxic to birds. If a small song sparrow picks up one treated seed spilled in planting, it's curtains. These chemicals collectively known as neonics should not be in our food, our fields, our world.

2/26/2013 1:23:27 PM

I can grow greens all day long using natural measures when I'm growing just for my family but can't imagine managing a large field of greens without chemicals. I don't see anyway of making a profit, managing pests, and keeping prices affordable for the consumer without chemicals when you are growing on a large scale. I think this is just the chance you have to take if you can't grow your own.

t brandt
2/26/2013 12:31:50 PM

It's not the one hole in one leaf that matters. It's when an infestation wipes out your whole crop and you have to sell the farm to pay your bills that matters. That's why commercial farmers use chemicals. We who don't rely on our production for economic survival can afford to avoid the chemicals. ...Like eating dog meat, eating chemical residue may insult the sensibilites of some of us, but it doesn't actually harm us..

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