According to a 2015 survey conducted by Consumer Reports, a huge majority of Americans (85%) are worried about the presence of pesticides in fruits and vegetables. Certainly, there’s no question that most of us would prefer to avoid ingesting harmful chemicals every time we bite into an apple. But is this high level of concern really justified by the reality when it comes to pesticide residue in food?
While the debate over pesticide residue is a contentious one (as is so often the case when it comes to conversations about food safety issues), many experts are of the opinion that we probably don’t need to be quite as worried as we are. However, one of the things that makes this challenging is the fact that pesticide use in farming is not well understood by most consumers, and a great deal of the discussion about pesticide residue tends to be presented without enough context to help people make a truly informed decision about risk.
To this end, organizations like the International Food Information Council Foundation and Consumer Reports have worked to put together clear and concise answers to some of the top questions consumers have about pesticides and food. These include:
What are pesticides and how are they used?
As the name implies, pesticides are chemicals that are applied to crops in order to protect them from pests, which include insects, rodents, and weeds and fungal growths. The use of these pesticides is regulated by government agencies (like the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration), and growers who farm with pesticides must carefully document their use.
What are some of the main concerns about the use of pesticides?
There are serious concerns about the impact that pesticides can have on groundwater, soil, and air, and on the health of farm workers who are regularly exposed to it. However, from a consumer perspective, the primary concern about pesticides relates to the residues that build up on fruits and vegetables as they grow, and to whether it’s harmful to consume produce that contains these residues.
Are pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables safe to eat?
When considering this question, it’s important to take a few additional questions into account: specifically, how much pesticide residue does a particular food contain, how much of the food are you eating, and what is the impact of that particular amount? These details are available from sources like the FDA’s annual Pesticide Residue Report, which contains the results from the testing of 7,000 foods for residues of over 700 different pesticides, as well as selected industrial compounds. According to the 2016 report, which was released earlier this year, more than half the samples analyzed contained no pesticide residues at all, while 94% of samples were compliant with established federal safety standards.
Speaking to the website QuickAndDirtyTips.com, Dr. Carl Winter—a toxicologist at the University of California, Davis—said that it’s understandable that consumers are worried about pesticide residues, but it’s equally important to realize that many of these concerns are based on values rather than on science. Winter’s work supports this idea, with research recently published in the Journal of Toxicology indicating that consuming foods containing allegedly high levels of pesticide residue doesn’t pose a significant health risk. Furthermore, most experts agree that it’s a far bigger health risk not to consume enough fruits and vegetables in the first place, regardless of the farming techniques used to produce them.
Are some fruits and vegetables worse than others when it comes to pesticide residue?
If you’re someone who is concerned about pesticide residues in food, you’ve probably heard of the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen.” These are lists produced by the Environmental Working Group that reveal the fruits and vegetables with, respectively, the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue, according to the organization’s methodology.
While these lists are an excellent guide for consumers who are looking to limit consumption of produce high in pesticide residues, once again it’s important to understand that they don’t tell the whole story. That is, these lists only give information about a particular item’s pesticide content relative to the pesticide content of other types of produce. These lists don’t actually give details about how much residue these fruits and vegetables contain in absolute terms, nor about the significance of that degree of residue exposure. This is certainly not to say that these lists are unhelpful—simply that additional details are required to properly interpret the information they present.
Can I avoid pesticide residues by purchasing organic produce?
Organically farmed produce offers many benefits to the environment and to human health, but not everyone realizes that organic produce is not pesticide-free. While synthetic pesticides are not permitted for use in organic farming, pesticides derived from natural substances are. But, as with synthetic chemicals, residues of natural pesticides tend to be present in such small amounts that, according to scientists like Dr. Winter, there is no cause for concern.