Strawberries: Top Toxic Fruit

Most people don’t realize they’re adding toxic fruit to that morning cereal when topping the bowl with strawberries. They think it’s a healthy choice, and it certainly would be, except for the fact that conventionally grown strawberries from California are made possible only by using an astronomical amount of pesticides. Since that’s where over 75% of the strawberries grown in the U.S. come from, and unless you made sure to buy organic berries, or they were grown in-season locally… they will test positive for things you probably don’t want to eat.

Strawberries are #1 on the 2016 Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides, or the most toxic pesticides. The list is compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group based on the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program. Given their thin, fragile skin and easily perishable nature, it’s not surprising that conventionally grown strawberries test positive for pesticides. It’s what they tested positive for, and the sheer amount of toxic chemicals that goes into growing them is cause for concern. The revelation will no doubt drive many to switch to organic berries, or develop the determination to start growing their own.

Testing data used was the most recently published, from 2014 harvests, and while most of the sample batches were from U.S. farms, 15% of the strawberries were imported from Mexico. The EWG analysis revealed that 98% of the 176 samples tested positive for at least one pesticides from the 60 chemicals that strawberry growers use, and 40% retained residues from 10 or more, while one sample was found to contain 17 different pesticides. That last one is super ‘dirty’ – even scary dirty, but not all pesticides are equally dangerous, some are rather harmles. But what about the others? The EWG does a fine job of mapping out the possible chemical hazards from eating conventionally grown market strawberries, along with the regulation situation:

“…some are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems. Among the worst:

  • Carbendazim, a hormone-disrupting fungicide that damages the male reproductive system, was detected on 30 percent of 2014 samples. The European Union has banned it because of its intense toxicity.
  • Bifenthrin, found on more than 40 percent of samples in 2014, is an insecticide that California regulators have designated a possible human carcinogen.
  • Malathion, found on more than 20 percent of samples in 2009 and 10 percent in 2014, is toxic to the nervous system and, according to the International Agency for Cancer Research, a probable human carcinogen. It is often sprayed to eradicate mosquitoes and other insects. In addition, malaoxon, a particularly toxic chemical formed when malathion breaks down, showed up on more than 10 percent of the 2009 samples.

As disturbing as these results are, they do not violate weak U.S. laws and regulations on pesticides on food.

Only about seven percent of the strawberries sampled in 2014 had levels of pesticide residues considered illegal. Five samples had pesticide levels that exceeded the “tolerance level,” the legally permissible level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nine samples contained pesticides illegal for use on strawberries.

The EPA’s tolerance levels are too lenient to protect public health. They are a yardstick to help the agency’s personnel determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. They were set years ago and they do not account for newer research showing that toxic chemicals can be harmful at very small doses, particularly when people are exposed to combinations of chemicals.

If pesticide tolerance levels were set to protect the health of children, who are more vulnerable than adults to small doses, more fruits and vegetables would fail. The current EPA pesticide tolerances are like having a 500 mph speed limit – if the rules of the road are so loose it’s impossible to violate them, no one can feel safe.”

A Pesticide Overload

There are 300 pounds of pesticides applied per acre annually on California’s industrial strawberry farms. A jaw-dropping amount to be sure, but strawberries are a fragile crop, especially when smart farming practices like crop rotation aren’t in place. So pests and diseases that plague the berry can only be eradicated with some serious chemical warfare, because a modern strawberry farm never deviates from growing berries, year in , and year out. It’s a highly profitable harvest, even though you can buy them cheap all year long. But your constant luxury is possible only because of these chemicals.

The biggest portion of chemicals used in commercial strawberry growing will never show up as residue in the fruit, at least not with current testing procedures. Eighty percent of the pesticides applied to strawberry fields are nasty, extremely toxic soil fumigants that kill any living thing in the soil: bugs, weeds, disease, and microorganisms. It’s so lethal that a full 2 weeks must pass before planting or the new crop will die too. Still, California agriculture data for 2014 accounts that 9.7 million pounds soil fumigants were applied to strawberry fields.

Of course, this is part of the reason they need so many pounds of chemicals per acre. The plants are totally reliable on farming inputs after even the good soil life web was wiped out. They were raised in sterile soil, and mature to bear fruit in the same conditions – there is no hope of developing resistance to pests and diseases. Plus they are all clones of a hybrid parent created especially for market growers, which lowers immune levels even further.

Soil fumigant gases include methyl bromide which was a gas used in chemical warfare, and was internationally banned in 1987, because it destroys the ozone. Agriculture got a special exception that California strawberry growers fought to keep firmly in place for decades, but the EPA has been phasing it out, and it can’t be used on strawberry fields any longer as of next year. Replacement fumigants aren’t any less hazardous to human health, in fact, both of them are banned in Europe. They include a chemical used in tear gas, chloropicrin, and a plastics manufacturing by-product sold by Dow as Telone, which is thought to be a carcinogen.

While the fumigated fields are covered after injection, some of the gases leak out, creating health hazards to the community, not to mention to farm workers themselves. One can only wonder how much faster the hole in Earth’s ozone layer might have repaired itself if 40,000 acres of farmland weren’t being fumigated with methyl bromide 30-40 years after the world banned it. Of course, organic strawberry farms wouldn’t be fumigating, but according to a 2009 report by the Giannini Foundation at the University of California, only 1178 acres of strawberries were organic. That leaves about 38,822 acres of conventional berry growing going on, which if you divide the amount of soil fumigants applied by the acreage amounts to just under 250 pounds per acre applied.

Further Info:

P.S… Industrial farmed kale and hot peppers are contaminated with toxic insecticides. See the Dirty Dozen Plus section on the last link shared above for more on that.


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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.