The short answer: probably, but it's still better to eat any fruit or vegetable, no matter how it was grown.
The world's most respected scientists have reviewed research and concluded that synthetic pesticides are probably carcinogenic, and acknowledge that they cause other health and environmental problems. But it's very difficult to get definitive results because we don't have controlled tests on humans.
Conventional farming (non organic), doesn't improve the flavor, nutrition, or sustainability of our food. It also comes with health risks. So buying organic seems worth it, if it's in your budget. But affordability is a concern, and it's very important to note that eating fresh fruits and vegetables, even if they aren't organic, are better than eating none at all.
(Note: this does not cover the GMO topic, which is whole topic in itself. While organic currently doesn't allow GMO crops, that doesn't factor into the organic considerations of this article).
Before we dive in, let's define "organic"
"Pesticides" is used as a blanket term that includes herbicides (weed killers), insecticides (bug killers), and fungicides (fungus killers). This includes synthetic (man-made) and 'organic' pesticides (yes, there are organic pesticides).
When something is certified organic, it means that only approved pesticides are used. Not all organic pesticides are allowed, since you can find toxic substances in nature and spraying that on crops would be bad.
There are a handful of synthetic pesticides that are allowed in organic farming, only after a committee of organic growers (among other people) discuss and vote on them. One example is the use of some specific pheromones that confuse pests and their mating habits. The big, controversial synthetic pesticides are not allowed.
How bad are synthetic pesticides?
There are a lot of pesticides that have been used over the years, let's take a look at some of the most controversial ones.
DDT - A pesticide so bad, the entire world banned it
DDT was one of the first mass manufactured pesticides that was widely used in the 40s. Years later, the EPA voiced concerns that the pesticide lasted in the environment for a long time, and was causing problems.
In 1972, the EPA banned DDT in the US, and the rest of the world soon followed. However, since it lasts so long in the environment, we're still consuming DDT, 75 years later. Scientific American has a nice article on the continuing effects of DDT today.
Glyphosate - a current pesticide struggle
Glyphosate (made by Monsanto and found in Roundup) is sprayed on nearly all of our corn, grains and about 70 different crops. Farmers started using it in 1974, and it has been blanketing crops around the globe since then, surpassing levels of mass pesticide use that we've never seen before.
Its popularity skyrocketed when crops were genetically modified to resist the herbicide. It increased efficiency, allowing farmers to spray as much as they needed to kill weeds without harming their crops.
It's great for business, but not for consumers or the environment.
In 2015, top scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) unanimously agreed to classify glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." Probably is the key word since it's very hard to get conclusive evidence.
Evidence around other health issues caused by glyphosate is stacking up. Research has shown that glyphosate causes liver and reproductive damage in rats, interferes with hormones, and kills beneficial gut bacteria. Food Democracy Now has a very in-depth report that is easy for us non-scientists to understand and links to all of the studies.
The pesticide spreads easily through the environment. A big study that collected rainwater samples all across the Midwest found glyphosate in 75% of the samples. It's also been found in our fresh water supplies and trace amounts in our drinking water.
Putting the health risks into perspective
It is really easy to get worried about the health risks of consuming non-organic food. The extra stress caused by this worrying is also bad for our health. So some context seems necessary.
Let's turn to one of our most beloved vices to put this in perspective, alcohol.
Alcohol is classified as a group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization (that's worse than their classification of glyphosate), and it's also known to cause liver problems.
Even though alcohol is bad (and I still drink it), that doesn't mean I want to add more toxins to my diet. That's one of the reasons I buy organic when at all possible.
But let's be clear: eating fresh fruits and vegetables, even if they aren't organic, is better than not eating them at all.
Buying organic & making it more affordable
Today, being able to buy organic produce comes with some privilege. So let's take a look at some aspects of the actual issue of cost.
Reducing waste at home can cover the extra cost of buying organic.
We waste a lot of food in the US, with the average household throwing away nearly 30% of all fresh produce after we bring it home.
The average increased cost to buy organic (across all produce) is 50%. So if I buy 10 lbs of non-organic carrots and $10 a lb, that's $20. But if I didn't waste 30% of them, I would only have to buy 7 lbs. The 50% organic markup prices it at $3 a lb, for a total of $21. That's pretty close in price.
This doesn't help people who already use up all of their produce and the families who struggle to make enough to afford their next meal. The entire food supply chain is very wasteful, and if we focus on fixing that, prices would come down on all food, for all people. In fact, nearly all grocery stores throw produce away instead of donating it to food shelters, because it's more profitable to do so.
The efficiency in farming has made it more profitable to waste food than to try and conserve it. About 20% of totally edible farmed crops never make it to the grocery store, often times because the produce is ugly or sized wrong. At least another 10% is thrown away by the grocery store because they overstock shelves and offering discount bins reduces their profit.
These problems are getting worldwide attention. Imperfect Produce (US) delivers produce to consumers that grocery stores turn away. Several European countries introduced regulations to deter waste from grocery stores and restaurants. And the UK's dedication to reducing waste has dropped it by 15% over the past 5 years.
Another cause of waste are when farmers have a surplus of crops due to perfect weather. Grocery stores don't take the extra supply, its too much for food shelters to take it all, and it's actually not trivial to get it to a mass processing plant (to turn extra tomatoes into sauce, for example). Eating seasonally and shopping at farmers markets helps take advantage of extra supplies, and farmers usually mark the price way down.
Lastly, some major retailers are taking notice for organic produce and making a difference. Whole Foods has been well-known for this, but they've also been known for really high prices, making it inaccessible to a large part of the population. On the other end of the spectrum, Costco recently surpassed Whole Foods in amount of organic produce that is sold, and at much cheaper prices.
It turns out that organic farmers aren't able to keep up with Costco's demand, so Costco has some pilot programs in testing that help farmers expand their operations and to help conventional farmers turn organic. I would imagine then, that if a farmer has a surplus, Costco could move the product and get it into customers' hands - since people shopping there are prepared to buy in bulk and love a deal with a good price. Now, we just have to make sure those bulk purchases don't go to waste - maybe make some jam?!
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to the cost issue. But these pieces are getting worldwide attention and it will be interesting to see how the market adapts.
So should I buy organic?
One more thing worth mentioning is that pesticides are found in varying amounts, and with different levels of toxicity, based on the crop. For example, blueberries have very low levels of pesticides when conventionally farmed, putting them at near-organic levels. But mandarins have a lot higher concentration of pesticides with more health risks, on just the edible parts. To help you decide if and when you want to buy organic, check out the in-season section of this site, where each piece of produce has testing data from the EPA, which was further analyzed by Consumer Reports.
Researchers have shown that these synthetic pesticides are harmful to our health, but admit it's difficult to know just how harmful and what levels of exposure are safe. Just like alcohol - studies show alcohol to be harmful and that drinking in excess greatly increases the health risks.
These pesticides also take a toll on the environment. Since they are so widely used, it brings up a lot of concern on the real environmental impact which we don't fully understand right now.
Not everyone can afford organic produce, and eating fresh produce is a key part of our diet, even if it isn't organic. But with a deliberate effort to reduce food waste, we can bring organic prices down.
One last parting thought: it's easy to feel superior for buying organic, but it's a complex topic. Everyone has different levels of access to organic food and different budgets. It's important to come together and support each other for cooking with produce at home (organic or not), which arguably has a bigger impact on our health.