Urban Farming is Thriving – But are the Fruits of Its Labor Safe to Eat?

Munching on an apple from a neighborhood park is about as local as you can get. But is urban fruit really safe to eat? From soil contaminants to airborne contaminants here's what you should be aware of before you chomp down.

October 6, 2015
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Urban fruit trees are by all accounts beneficial to urban dwellers. They have virtually no carbon footprint, especially if the plants and trees are free of pesticides. What’s more, if you grab a garden peach on your morning walk to work, the fruit is 100 percent local. By enjoying an apple grown on a tree in your yard rather than one flown in from New Zealand, you’re reducing your impact on the earth significantly. Not to mention that fruit trees are visually pleasing and make for a pleasant walk through the city.

But is urban fruit safe to eat? And is it as healthy as fruit grown in the countryside?

Contaminants in Urban Soil

Cities are inherently more polluted than the country. From busy roads to industrial waste and leaky gas tanks, chemicals abound. But the news isn’t all bad.

While these chemicals can leave less than desirable traces of arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals in the soil, that’s most likely where they’ll stay. According to Acta Horticulturae Workgroup, heavy metal concentrations in fruit from trees tend to be very low even if they are grown in contaminated soil because the fruit doesn’t come in contact with the ground or soil. Others even claim that urban grown fruit is even less contaminated with pollutants than fruit that is grown by big agriculture because it’s not chemically treated with pesticides, fertilizers or post-harvest treatments.

Airborne Pollutants Are Different

While soil pollutants don’t end up polluting the fruit, airborne pollutants are a different matter entirely. Airborne pollutants can cling to the skin of that juicy plum and the potentially dangerous pesticide residue can get into your lungs. That’s why it’s best to avoid fruits from trees and bushes that are planted in heavy industrial areas or next to busy roads where all the exhaust has most likely taken its toll.

Digging into the Soil Directly

It’s also different if you’re an urban gardener digging into contaminated soil directly. Urban growers can be exposed to soil contaminants by direct contact with the soil. These contaminants are particularly harmful to children that are still developing. So it’s important to get to know the history of the site where you’re gardening.

For instance, was it once the site of a dry cleaning operation, gas station or industrial factory that used a number of potentially dangerous chemicals? If that is the case it may be best to stay clear. Do some research and get your soil tested with a simple kit (you can order them online), then you’ll know exactly what’s in your soil.

Other best practices for gardeners include wearing gloves, taking care not to track dirt into the house, and thoroughly washing produce. Also, consider adding topsoil and mulch to crops to reduce soil dust and using raised beds to garden when the soil just isn’t up to snuff.

Skip the Pesticides

Whether you’re enjoying a pear grown in the city or the country, pesticide residue is still an unwelcome addition to any piece of fruit. Do some due diligence and ask around if the tree you’re about to harvest fruit from has been treated with pesticides or look for signs that denote it’s been sprayed.

Urban or rural, when it comes to growing and eating fruit, avoiding synthetic pesticides is the healthiest choice for you, your family and the planet. While it’s difficult to control the amount of contaminants that may be found in the soil and those that go airborne from a car’s exhaust, you can control or preferably eliminate toxic, synthetic pesticides, especially if you’re growing the tree at home. Not only do they further contaminate the soil and groundwater, they contaminate the fruit or vegetable making it less healthy for our planet and human consumption.

Urban fruit isn’t perfect. It can contain contaminants. But in most cases, these toxins don’t actually make it into the fruit, they stay put in the soil. This means that heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and arsenic don’t contaminate the tree. What’s more, if you grab a hanging apple on your walk to work, you’re eating about as local as you can get. That piece of fruit would just go to waste if it fell to the ground or no one ate it.

The bottom line is it’s probably safe to eat urban fruit, especially if the tree is free of added pesticides. If you want to be extra cautious, rinse it thoroughly before you chomp down. Enjoy the best of the local bounty by eating some urban fruit.

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