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What's in Your Apple?

Buying your apples locally - and in season - reduces your risk of exposure to pesticides.

You might have heard the news last summer: Conventionally grown apples topped the list of the most contaminated produce in America, according to the watchdog Environmental Working Group's 2011 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce

Celery, strawberries, peaches and spinach rounded out the top five.

I asked my friend, , what she thought about the news. Would she still eat apples or had she given them up entirely? 

"We do still eat apples," McCormick said. "We love apples in our house." As a locavore, McCormick prefers locally grown apples.  But, she said, "If we're buying grocery store apples off-season, we only buy organic."

If you want to reduce your risk of exposure to pesticides, McCormick's strategy is sound.  Some of the chemicals that were reported in the EWG study were a direct result of longterm storage of fruit, according to Charles Schuster, a commercial horticultural educator for the University of Maryland Extension's Montgomery County office. 

Conventionally grown apples are given a coat of wax to preserve their moisture content and to seal the apple against rot.  Fungicides are frequently applied to apples that are destined for longterm storage.  Purchasing your apples locally — and in season — eliminates the need for this final fungicide application.  However, it might be difficult to find locally grown organic apples. 

“I don’t know of any grower in Maryland that’s growing any organic apples,” said Susan Butler of .  “Everyone is really in tune to integrated pest management," Butler said.  "As growers, we’re really trying to reduce any materials that we use in the orchards and only use them when we need to.”

Lewis Orchards in Dickerson also relies upon integrated pest management.  “If we have a problem we’ll spray, whether organic or conventional, to combat whatever problem we have,” said Linda Lewis, co-owner. "If there’s no problem, then we don’t treat. We’ll try different things to see what works the best."

Under integrated pest management, apple trees might be monitored every five to seven days. Sticky traps can provide a real-time assessment of what types of pests are present in the orchard. Computer modelling may be used to predict which pests might emerge. During the winter months, trees are pruned of damaged wood to remove places where pests could harbor themselves and impact the next growing season.

At Butler’s Orchard, a mating disruption was used to control the population of codling moths.  The pheromone confused the insects and impaired their ability to find mates. This kept the insect from repopulating and damaging the crop.       

"Integrated pest management looks at all of the potential management options, starting with the least invasive and working upwards," explained Schuster. 

Plant health, crop rotation, pruning methods and naturally occurring predators may be used to control pests before introducing organic or synthetic pesticides. The goal is to strike a balance between controlling pest damage in an economical way while minimizing risks to human health and the environment.  

But only you can decide whether to eat apples. 

Despite the findings of their study, the EWG states that the benefits of eating fresh fruit outweigh the risk of pesticides.  Available data suggest that to reduce your risk of pesticide exposure from apples, try organically grown varieties, followed by locally grown conventional apples, and finally, conventional apples grown remotely and purchased out of season.  

"The best thing that you can do with any apple you get is to wash it and wash it well," said Schuster. 

Lewis offered similar advice. 

"If you’re worried about pesticides," Lewis said, "You should wash the apples and take their skins off."

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