The use of pesticides in agriculture is nothing new in the United States. Author Rachel Carson, a former U.S. Fish, and Wildlife employee wrote a book titled “Silent Spring” in 1962 that highlighted examples drawn from many real communities where the use of pesticides had caused damage in significant numbers to birds, bees, agricultural animals and wildlife including fish, domestic pets, and even humans. The book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy and ultimately led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses. Since the publication of Silent Spring, more and more foods have become available in the United States marketplace. Including foods imported from other countries and people have become concerned about what pesticides are being used on what they eat, how much is being used, and what effect an accumulation of such chemicals might have over time.
There are certainly a wide variety of opinions on the topic. On one end are those who claim high levels of pesticide residues can cause cancer, damage the nervous, reproductive, and immune system, and cause birth defects. On the other end are those who say pesticides are perfectly safe for human consumption. Those against pesticides claim the increase in the number of people who are unable to tolerate gluten in the diet and who are experiencing leaky gut syndrome may be related to pesticides. Until more research is available regarding the use and effect of pesticides, a balanced approach would encourage consumers to learn about what kinds of chemicals are used on foods that they buy often, and learn how to avoid or at least minimize the risk of health problems that could arise.
What does the USDA say about pesticides?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for many tasks related to feeding Americans, including watching over agricultural products before they are sold to the public. With myriads of food choices in the grocery stores and other markets nationwide, there are many chances for something to go wrong with any product that you buy and eat. The use of pesticides to increase crop harvests is just one part of food safety, but it is an important part and remains a controversial issue.
When it comes to pesticides and their use in the United States, the USDA has set up a program called the Pesticide Data Program (PDP), a national pesticide residue monitoring program. This program produces the pesticide residue database in the U.S. The Monitoring Programs Division administers PDP activities, including the sampling, testing, and reporting of pesticide residues on agricultural commodities in the U.S. food supply, with an emphasis on those commodities highly consumed by infants and children. The program is implemented through cooperation with State agriculture departments and other Federal agencies.
In 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary posted the agency’s official statement on pesticides, stating that “overall pesticide chemical residues found on the foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and do not pose a safety concern.” This is the official government statement and the report is available at www.ams.usda.gov/pdp. Other data and studies link pesticides with disease. Certainly, there are advocates in the United States for reducing, if not banning outright, the use of pesticides on foods. Especially in foods marketed to children. The whole foods market and farmers market movement is partly in response to the use of pesticides and partly due to perceptions that food grown organically is more nutritious. What causes much concern among health professionals is the relationship between pesticides and disease.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the United States National Library of Medicine and a branch of the National Institutes of Health have reviewed medical data published between 1992 and 2003 on a variety of cancers – including brain, breast, kidney, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, and stomach cancer. The study showed positive associations with pesticide exposure, especially among children and pregnant women. The final conclusion and recommendation from the study encouraged family doctors to advocate for reductions in pesticide use in communities, schools, hospitals, governments, and to educate patients about the potentially harmful effects of pesticides on health. Another study reported children were at “intolerable risk” from a wide variety of potentially lethal chemicals, including daminozide, a pesticide used on apples that kids eat often. According to the official government regulations, this amount of pesticide is an amount that is legally permissible. Advocates against the use of pesticides on foods estimated the average child’s exposure was a cancer risk 240 times greater than the cancer risk considered acceptable by E.P.A. following a full lifetime of exposure. Even so, there remains disagreement and controversy about the safety of daminozide. This pesticide remains classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and is listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Prop 65.
If you have concerns about foods that have likely been sprayed with pesticides before reaching the market, one of the first things you can do is to buy organic food. Organic food is grown and brought into the marketplace by methods that promote sustainability and ecological balance. They do this (primarily) with a watchful eye on the environment in which such foods are grown, avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Although any industry has those who attempt to deceive the American public. There are organic farmers who lie about methods and use pesticides anyway to increase harvests and profits. In the United States, companies that claim to be organic must be inspected and certified.
Foods containing high levels
Buying organic foods in the grocery store often costs more. Farmers’ markets are another option in season, but what choices do consumers have when supplies are limited? When buying non-organic produce in grocery stores, it is good to be aware of some types of foods that could pose a greater risk of pesticide residue on them. It’s also important to know how to clean these foods and remove as much pesticide residue as possible before eating them.
If you do your own online research about foods that contain the highest pesticide residue, you may discover lists of foods that are considered “dirty” or “clean.” Since companies and farming methods vary, the amount of pesticides used in agriculture will also vary and those descriptive terms are relative. There are some foods that are considered more likely to contain high levels of pesticides because of the structure of the food or the way it is typically grown. Strawberries, for example always make the “dirty” list because each strawberry has small indentations that hold pesticide residue inside them. People rarely peel strawberries, so the skin is eaten, increasing the risk of ingesting more pesticide when eating this fruit. The skin of a strawberry is fragile, making it impractical to use any type of fruit brush on them. Apples are also found on lists of foods known to contain pesticide residues. Apples, like many other delicious foods, are prone to a number of diseases, and to get a beautiful apple without spots or visible damage is a challenge. The flawless apples you find in the grocery store are actually freaks of nature. In a natural world, bugs and birds and other types of wildlife want to eat the apple as much as you do, and that’s where the challenge of growing apples comes from. Apples are highly contaminated with pesticides, fungicides, and other chemicals. Especially in the indentation right where the stem is. If you peel the apple and especially avoid the indentation part, you can minimize the risk of ingesting the dozens of pesticides used on a typical apple. A better choice, as mentioned elsewhere in this article, is buying apples from an organic farm. Organic growers of apples also have to deal with insects and wildlife, but they use methods such as soap sprays and netting to protect the crop. In addition, organic apples are grown with natural fertilizers like compost and manure, instead of chemical fertilizers that can contaminate groundwater. Other foods known to contain high levels of pesticides include grapes, raisins, and wine (from the grapes); peaches and nectarines; leafy vegetables like kale, lettuces, and spinach. Recent studies are also looking at the way animals that we eat contain residue from pesticides. Animal fat in beef and poultry, as well as milk and cheese, will also contain traces of pesticides when the food that the animal has been fed contained pesticides. Some sources estimate that more than 90 percent of the pesticides Americans consume are found in the fat and tissue of meat and dairy products.
A recent article in Prevention Magazine states that the number one reason to buy organic is to avoid chemicals. Eating organically grown foods is an important and valuable way to avoid the pesticide residue present in (likely) all commercially grown food, including chocolate and coffee. Currently, there are more than 600 active chemicals registered for agricultural use in America, equaling a total of billions of pounds of pesticides into the environment every year. How much is getting to your table? About 16 pounds of chemical pesticides are eaten per person annually.
The National Academy of Sciences reports that 90 percent of the chemicals applied to foods have not been tested for long-term health effects before being deemed safe for human consumption. Advocates of banning pesticide use maintain that the Food and Drug Administration’s testing of pesticides on foods is not adequate. The FDA tests an estimated 1 percent of foods for pesticide residue. Although recent media reports are claiming conventional foods are as nutritious as organic foods, most experts do not agree. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine conducted a review of 41 published studies comparing the nutritional value of organically grown and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains and concluded that there are significantly more of several nutrients in organic foods crops. On average, organically grown foods provide 21.1 percent more iron (than their conventional counterparts); 27 percent more vitamin C; 29.3 percent more magnesium; 13.6 percent more phosphorus.
What about the “cleaner” food choices?
Cleaner grocery food lists often include products such as onions, corn, pineapple, avocado, and cabbage. These foods are considered better choices, but not because they were not grown without pesticides. The reason they are considered better is that these foods have thicker peelings that are rarely if ever eaten as part of a meal. No one eats the skin of kiwi or watermelon either.
Washing foods carefully may help
A recent story in Consumer Reports (2017) recommended rinsing, rubbing, or scrubbing fruits and vegetables at home to help remove pesticide residue. One study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts suggests soaking them in a solution of baking soda and water; others suggest using a vinegar or salt solution. Even with washing, and no matter how thoroughly you clean your foods by scrubbing, you may not be able to remove all the chemicals, because some may penetrate more deeply into the fruit depending on which pesticides they are and when they were applied. If it’s not organic, pesticides can be in your food as well as on it. Chemicals sprayed on foods sink into the most nutritious parts of fruits and vegetables—and can’t be washed or peeled off. Peeling foods may minimize the risk, but is not a guarantee of food safety.
The Mayo Clinic, says that beyond buying organic foods, there are other precautions that consumers can take. They advise selecting a variety of foods from a variety of sources for a better choice. This will reduce your likelihood of exposure to any single pesticide or chemical that could build up over time in your system and cause problems. Wash and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water, and peel or discard any outer leaves.
Consumers should always read food labels carefully. The word “organic” can mean a lot of things on a label. Companies are allowed to feature words like “contains organic ingredients” when that is only a small part of the product. Just because a product says it is organic doesn’t mean it will be better or healthier, since if it is a processed food, it could still be high in sugar, salt, and fat.