Don’t be a guinea pig

Avoid produce irrigated with toxic wastewater by shopping locally

If you needed another reason to shop for local produce—and by that, we mean foods grown in the North State—look no further than Southern California, Kern County in particular, where many farmers irrigate their crops with oil wastewater.

That parched region of the state is desperate for water and increasingly purchasing “recycled” water from oil companies (see “Contaminated crops?” Greenways, page 14). Thing is, the wastewater is known to contain carcinogens, such as benzene, and the government has failed to establish adequate controls and testing requirements to determine whether the food grown with it is safe.

In this scenario, the consumer is the guinea pig.

Moreover, the general public has no way to determine which products have been irrigated with the toxin-laden water. That’s because there is no labeling requirement to identify the farms that use the effluent. In fact, without labels, it’s likely grocers aren’t aware of this issue.

The group Protect California Food is sponsoring a petition that calls on Gov. Jerry Brown and state water officials to ban the use of oil wastewater in farming. Thus far, it’s been signed by more than a quarter-million people, including local residents, thanks to volunteers in our region. Still, food-safety advocates foresee an uphill battle to prohibit the practice.

In the meantime, we urge shoppers to take caution. In the North State, residents can avoid purchasing wastewater-irrigated produce by shopping at farmers’ markets and independent grocers that stock their shelves with local goods. When in doubt, ask questions.