Though we carry locally grown strawberries when we can get them, chances are good that you’ll find certified organic California-grown strawberries on our shelves this month. Why? Though we have some great local berry growers, no one yet has been able to produce enough to satisfy our demand for the tasty red fruits. At the two Willy Street Co-op stores alone, we go through more than 3,000 pounds of strawberries per week in peak season!
One thing you will never find in our produce aisles are conventionally grown strawberries from California. This is one crop where buying organic is clearly the best way to go. Here’s why:
Conventional strawberries have been identified by the Environmental Working Group as the number two most contaminated produce item currently on the market (apples are number one).
According to testing done in 2008 by the USDA Pesticide Data Program, there are 54 different types of pesticide residues found on conventionally grown strawberries, including 9 known or probable carcinogens, 24 suspected hormone disruptors, 11 neurotoxins, 12 developmental or reproductive toxins, and a whopping 19 substances that are known to be toxic to those critical pollinators, the honeybees.
Not exactly what I want to feed to my children.
Because strawberries grow very close to the ground, they are particularly susceptible to diseases that may come from the soil. In order to mitigate this risk, most conventional farmers literally inject their soils with a gaseous fumigant called methyl bromide before planting. The chemical kills all life in the soil—eliminating both the pathogens and the beneficial microorganisms. Because it is a gas, the methyl bromide eventually drifts out of the fields, into nearby neighborhoods, and eventually into the atmosphere.
Farmworkers and their families are commonly exposed to high levels of methyl bromide. It is classified by the EPA as “highly toxic” and can cause serious respiratory issues and other long-term health issues. Studies have shown that babies born in homes located within three miles of fields where methyl bromide was applied have lower birth weights and delayed development.
To make matters worse, methyl bromide has been banned internationally because of environmental concerns. Once the gas finds its way into our atmosphere, it is a very effective ozone depletor. The US has signed treaties pledging to phase out its use, but we continue to grant waivers to strawberry growers to use it because of their claims that there is no viable alternative.
The Organic Alternative
Lucky for us, there is a viable alternative: organic agriculture.
Organic strawberry growers manage disease using a variety of methods including rotating their crops, planting less densely, and using beneficial microorganisms to combat the pathogenic ones.
Even with the arsenal of techniques that have been developed to produce strawberries organically, yields of organic berries are typically about 20% less than strawberries grown using conventional methods. This is one crop where it’s very easy to explain the premium you pay for organic—it simply takes more work for less yield.
Here at the Co-op, we believe it’s worth a few extra cents for berries that are not only delicious and full of nutrients; but are also free of dangerous chemicals and contribute to healthy farming communities, and a healthier planet.