Are Organic Vegetables free from Pesticides?

A few weeks ago, Strait Times’ Andy Ho published an article playing the devil’s advocate to the organic industry’s claim of being better and safer.   Perhaps I have been naive or perhaps I had never thought it through properly but before reading it, I had thought that being organic meant using organic fertilizers to grow the produce. It had never occurred to me that organic pesticides were used in organic farming.

In Singapore, one of the biggest supplier is Zenxin and this is an excerpt from their response to the article.

“As a responsible organic farm manager, I read the organic standards clearly before allow any input to be used in the organic farm.”

You can read the full Zenxin response here.

The jury is still out on synthetic vs organic pesticides.  According to Jeff Gillman, a professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota and organic practice expert, it depends on the amount used:

“To control fire blight on the same acre of land,” he explains, “I could use a tiny amount of a potent synthetic that has proved safe over the last 50 years, or a much larger amount of an organic pesticide.” He demurs on saying which is better, saying, “I want people to know that there are definitely tradeoffs.”


So we can go on and on about how safe are the pesticides used in organic veg/fruits or the concentrations levels of organic vs synthetic pesticides, but  what can we actively do as consumers to protect ourselves and our families?

1. Spread your risks

Eat a variety of foods. Don’t stick to 1 brand or 1 type of food. Just like your investments, spread your risks. Keep eating a single type of fish and you may end up with mercury poisoning or perhaps now you may also get a few extra isotopes! Same with fruits and vegetables, eat a variety.

2. Know your food source

I generally avoid foods from countries where there are lax enforcement of food safety.  I know Singapore’s AVA probably does a good job in keeping our foods safe but then you have a choice of difference sources for  the same vegetable, I’d rather go for a country with a better track record.

3. Love those holes

So I don’t do organic vegetables 90% of the time but I do look out for healthy looking vegetables with sometimes little holes in them, and am even happier to find a worm or two. The other day, I was browsing in an Indian vegetable shop (you can find these shops in your neighbourhood HDB which cater to the Indian community) and I found cauliflower from India. These cauliflower are much smaller and you can actually find at least 1 little worm in it. (the worm is really small, like the size of your little finger’s fingernail) – doesn’t it make you wonder how come those from China seem so perfect?!!

4. Go local

Try to buy your leafy vegetables from sources as close to your location as possible. That way, you eliminate exposure to chemicals needed to spray on the vegetable to keep it fresh for the journey. Another example is the humble potato – have you wondered why is it that some potatoes don’t sprout even when you keep it for a few weeks? That’s because the farmers spray something on it to prevent sprouting.  By the way, potatoes from Indonesia sprout. 🙂

5. Stretch your dollars on organic produce

One of the switches I’ve made it to buy organic apples. I figured, it should be less pesticides than the regular apple (although I still wash it squeaky clean, ha ha). It’s only a $2 difference but since  apples have the highest level of pesticides among fruits* (it tops the dirty dozen with celery being next), I think it’s good bang for my buck.

6. Wash & soak

When I watch those cooking shows where Jamie Oliver cheerfully takes his organic kale and happily chops it up without washing, I always think – how nice! one less step for the cook! ( did I mention that Jamie Oliver has his own huge vegetable garden with a gardener to go with it too?).

For us kitchen cooks, we just have to do it the old fashion way – soaking. I usually soak my vegetables for 20 to 30 mins.

There is another variation on soaking –

A. Soaking it in 1 part vinegar and 4 parts water

B. Add salt when you are soaking

Whatever the method, don’t forget to agitate the water to and rinse twice.

For fruits,  I usually wash them with a vegetable wash. Not all pesticides break down in water, oil based ones probably comes off better with a vegetable/fruit soap.

7. Peel your fruits

I have to admit, I am not consistent with this. Most of the time I think it’s such a waste to peel the part of the fruit which has the most vitamins! But then again, it probably has some extra unwanted vitamins too!  So it goes back to the first rule again – eat a variety of fruits! Fruits like melons, oranges, kiwis – you have to peel anyway.

Realistically, we probably can’t eliminate pesticides from our food 100 %  but I think little steps like these can help to minimise pesticide exposure without killing the food budget!



According to the Environmental Working Group‘s analysis of USDA data, pesticides showed up on 98 percent of the more than 700 apple samples tested (yes, they were washed).  And it wasn’t just one pesticide either – apples from around the country, domestically grown and imported, were found to have up to 48 different kinds of pesticides on them.  While less than the 69 types used on cucumbers, that’s still far more than the single pesticide found in sweet corn (shucked) or the 15 on oranges (peeled).

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