I’ve been a proponent of choosing “organic” food for a long time, mostly because I didn’t want to consume pesticides or herbicides. Many “experts” suggest that if you can peel the food, it’s okay to consume even if it isn’t organically grown. That means bananas, mangoes, avocados are okay even if they’re conventionally grown, but not lettuce or grapes which can’t be peeled — unless you have a crew of Roman slaves, in the case of grapes.
Grapes are a very special case. I’m old enough to remember the grape boycotts which emerged over labor issues. Farm workers who picked the grapes were asking for better wages and working conditions, things like outhouses and drinking water in the fields where they worked.
As I learned more about organic vs. “conventional” agricultural practices, I made a point of only buying organic grapes because I believe no one should have to endure chemical exposure in order to harvest our food. Most Americans don’t care about that, preferring perfect-looking produce, free of any blemish. Producers and retailers get the message from shoppers that they won’t buy an apple or a banana with spots — meaning my husband’s favored “ripe” bananas are never allowed to sit in a super market display and are thrown away, adding to the tons of food wasted annually in this country.
Trying to lighten my own psychic burden about choices (OG or conventional, paper or plastic, to pick up roadside trash or not) has led me to just go ahead and buy the conventionally grown fruit that I can peel, including those nice little easy-to-peel tangerines. But no more. Once again I read too much and therefore know too much.
What I read was a Dec. 27 New York Times special report, “This is our Reality Now,” a review of the Trump administration’s removal of a variety of environmental protections. You might assume that “environmental” means trees, fish, birds and whether cows can poop in your local trout stream; however, environmental protections have much more to do with whether your water is safe to drink and your air is safe to breathe.
Living on the upper left edge of the North American continent, I realize I assume our water and air are safe because we don’t have the heavy industry that creates so much pollution in other parts of the U.S. We pay for our relatively clean environment on the coast with fewer high-paying jobs. It’s a trade-off, one I’m willing to accommodate by living frugally.
Others are not so fortunate; they live in areas where work opportunities are very limited and industries that provide employment also provide chemical pollution that will impact workers’ health for the rest of their lives. Coal-burning power plants emitting sulfur dioxide create risks for heart and respiratory conditions, not just for those living and working nearby, but for other communities downwind. After spills, chemicals used in the coal industry drain into watersheds, impacting potable water. President Trump’s reasoning is that rules that he’s eliminating are a “major threat to jobs.” Constituting a major threat to corporate profits is more like it.
The issue that really caught my attention, however, was the Trump rollback of a regulation prohibiting the agricultural use of chlorpyrifos, a nerve agent that acts as a broad spectrum pesticide that kills virtually every kind of insect, ensuring that those tangerines I’ve purchased have no blemishes. According to the New York Times article, chlorpyrifos is in the same chemical family as sarin nerve gas, the stuff the U.S. government believes Saddam Hussein was using against his opponents. Chlorpyrifos is produced by DowDuPont. Agent Orange was another of their products; we finally recognize the health impacts from veterans’ exposure during the undeclared Vietnam war.
Also troubling for me was learning the specific health impacts from people caught in “drift” from crop dusters spraying this chemical, including “convulsions, unconsciousness and death.” One incident in May 2017 was due to spray drift from tangerine orchards owned by a large grower of small mandarin oranges. Cute? Though perfect in appearance, they are no longer cute to me. I’ll no longer buy them. The quest for produce without a blemish, without an insect bite, just isn’t that important to me. I can’t do a lot to stop the onslaught on public health by the Trump administration, but I can stop giving the perpetrators my money at the grocery store.
Victoria Stoppiello is a long-time Observer contributor. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.