The organic versus pesticides debate has trundled around the Western world for decades now, with neither side the clear winner. In Israel, that discussion plays out regularly in the daily newspapers.
The latest report on pesticide use on Israeli farms has caused a slew of reactions, from environmental groups to leading religious figures.
After testing samples of fruits and vegetables, the Ministry of Health found that 56 percent of them contained pesticide residues and 11 percent had residues above the limits set by the government. Despite this, they insist the public is safe. “These levels do not pose a risk to the population,” the Ministry of Health told Al Jazeera in a statement.
Others, however, argue that just because levels of pesticides are not high enough to kill people, the effects of life-long exposure could be dangerous.
“The problem here is that we’re not looking at acute toxicity – we’re not talking about something where you take a bite and you keel over and die,” said Sarit Caspi-Oron, an environmental scientist with the Israel Union for Environmental Defence. “We’re talking about long-term exposure – what’s called chronic exposure – to very, very low doses. So it’s hard to scientifically create a direct correlation between cause and effect, between this consumption and outcomes.”
Just because the longer-term effects are not yet known, she argues, doesn’t mean there is no link between worrying health trends among Israelis such as lowered male fertility, increased rates of testicular cancer and earlier sexual development among young girls.
One study by Jerusalem’s Hebrew University into pesticide-related traces in pregnant Israel women found them to be four to six times higher than in average pregnant American women, according to the local environmental organisation Green Planet.
Caspi-Oron’s organisation responded to the Israeli Health Ministry’s study with one of their own, ranking fruits and vegetables according to pesticide levels.
Health trends such as early puberty for girls and rising cancer rates, however, are reflective of what is happening in other Western countries as well. Without a more transparent regulatory framework, Israel could be at a higher risk, says Caspi-Oron. She argues that while regulations on farmers are in place, they aren’t transparent enough for the consumer to be informed.
“To them [the ultra-Orthodox], eating pesticides is like eating pork.“
– Eilan Zmora, owner of an organic store in Jerusalem
“Pesticide levels in urine samples in Israel were found to be higher than those in the US and Canada, although similar to those in France, so I’m necessarily sure that in Israel we are special,” she said. “However, the regulatory framework – the laws in Israel – are not formulated in order to protect us enough from these exposures, and that’s opposed to the EU that does have a set of laws that are working towards decreasing population exposure to chemicals of this sort.”
It’s not just concerned environmentalists, however, who have weighed in on this debate. Last month, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbinate threatened to withdraw kosher certification from farmers who use too many dangerous pesticides, according to Haaretz newspaper.
In many ways, the religious element is what makes the chemicals issue crucial to Israelis. Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, who strictly adhere to religious rules concerning food, believe pesticides make their food less kosher.
At one small organic shop in Jerusalem, at least half of the customers browsing the aisles were ultra-Orthodox. The shop’s owner, Eilan Zmora, said they contribute hugely to his business, and are prepared to spend more on organic produce even though they have many mouths to feed at home in their traditionally large families.
“To them, eating pesticides is like eating pork,” said Zmora.
He started out selling fruits and vegetables from organic farmers to a small group of families in Jerusalem, and now owns three shops in the city. The success of his business, however, doesn’t reflect a big shift in shopping patterns among Israelis.
Traditional Friday markets in Jerusalem, selling non-organic fruits and vegetables, are crammed with shoppers. Even those who stop to chat and say they are very concerned about the recent studies of chemicals on their food are carrying bags full of the very same vegetables and salad items that were tested.
Israelis are feeling a serious pinch from the global economic downturn and the rising cost of living. So while they may say they worry about pesticide use, most then carry on with their shopping. “I just clean my vegetables with a lot of water,” said one woman.