Taking on EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ List: Considerations For Kale and Pesticide Safety

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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It’s been all over social media this week—Kale (that wonderful super food) has been added to the “Dirty Dozen” list.  Laden with insecticides, the word out now is forgo this healthful green.  It’s just not good for your body anymore with all those neuro-toxins. 

For some of you, this may be a real downer.  “What?  Not kale!  I just got to liking kale!”  And for some of you, it may secretly be a pleasure that you no longer have to keep pretending to like kale (not that I can blame you, if you’ve only had access to the limp, tough, ashen material that hasn’t seen a field in a while).

But should we really throw out all kale because of this finding?  Is the issue really kale’s fault?

The short answer is no.  For the longer, more nuanced answer, read on.

Pesticides don’t naturally grow in kale.  They arrive on the kale in the grocery store because the crop was sprayed in the field (likely multiple times).  Nobody likes to knowingly share their meal with insects, and kale is a crop that doesn’t offer a way to hide any nibbling evidence.  You buy the whole leaf, and any chew-holes would be noticeable.

In our current fetish for perfect looking fruits and vegetables, such blemishes as bug chews here or there are unacceptable.  But not all bugs only take a nibble—some can wipe out an entire crop at alarming speeds.  This is most likely to happen when growing only one crop on large acreage.

Imagine, kale hits the boom as the new super food because of all its innate goodness by being a member of the broccoli family.  Suddenly, there is a larger market for kale.  Growers respond by planting large fields of kale…and nothing but kale.  It makes harvesting and mechanical tilling easier.  All is well until a pest finds out that now there’s this big festival of kale growing next door, which is that particular bug’s favorite thing to eat.

It eats voraciously, multiplying at numbers that put rabbits to shame, and soon the field is so infested that the crop is lost.  Only gnawed-on stems remain of once flourishing plants.  Or…at least they looked like they were flourishing on the outside.  Insects are particularly adept at noticing which plants are struggling (reading the UV light they emit) and attacking weak plants first.  Plants living in a mono-cropped system (which is the name for growing just one type of plant) are much more likely to give off these distress signals.

So what’s the solution to this munching bug invasion?  Chemicals, and plenty of them because more eggs will be hatching soon and the war continues in a never-ending cycle of band-aid fixes to epic management problems.

A Quick Fix?

But does this have to be the story for kale?  Absolutely not.  While chemical solutions may be a quick-fix (albeit a toxic one), the real long-term solution is a biodynamic one.

If you look anywhere in nature, nothing is mono-cropped.  Within a single square foot of prairie or forest floor, dozens of plant species may be found, if not more.  They are living together in a symbiotic relationship, along with the bugs and worms and birds and wildlife.  That’s asking for problems.

When utilizing biodiversity, even if a pest enters the garden, it can’t eat everything.  Most insects are species-specific eaters.  It’s very fortunate that the potato beetles on our farm have no interest in our winter squash or green beans.  If you mix the plants around, moving their location every year, it’s much tougher for the nasty bugs to find their favorite plant, slowing their spread.  In smaller-scale operations, where tending is by hand rather than giant machine, the farmer can spot an invasion when it starts and act quickly before there is a disaster. 

In our aquaponics greenhouse, biodynamic practices flourish as well.  While many production aquaponics systems focus on one to three crops, we typically have 50-60 species and varieties growing at the same time—from tomatoes to fresh herbs, greens to members of the broccoli family, beets to micro-greens.  Here, too, it’s hard for an insect pest to take over completely because of the variety and spotty nature of the plantings.  

Just the other day, I discovered some spider mites on an older stand of swiss chard.  Instead of getting out a pesticide spray (which the tilapia fish in the system cannot tolerate), I bagged and removed the infested plants, duly feeding them to the happy Kunekune pigs.  Nothing was wasted, the surrounding crop was saved (including the other stands of swiss chard), and there were no chemicals involved.  At other times, we have purchased beneficial insects that eat the pests—waging their own natural bug-on-bug competition.

Basically, the issue is learning to work with a problem rather than battling against it.  Just has warfare has turned increasingly chemical over the years, so has the mentality against insects (and even weeds) in agribusiness practices.  Because of this systemic issue, Round-Up is now found in California wines and kale has been added to the “Dirty Dozen” list. 

This is all the more reason to know who is growing your food and how.  This means bringing relationship and integrity back into our food systems.  What better way is there to do this than to know your local growers?  Visit their farms, learn about their practices, and support their commitment to a biodynamic solution for growing what ends up on your plate.  You just might discover that the biodynamic, local, fresh kale tastes leagues better than what you used to buy! 

Time to go pick some more spray-free aquaponics kale.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Happy, spray-free kale growing in our aquaponics greenhouse.  Photo by Kara Berlage.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com