A couple of years ago there was a story going around that if you didn’t want to suffer pesticide poisoning, you had to chop at least the first two inches off a carrot because of the amount of pesticides which would have soaked into the top part of it.
But how true are these kinds of stories and which foods contain pesticide pollutants?
What Is A Pesticide?
Pesticides are chemicals used in agriculture, farming, and food production to protect the food crop from damage or destruction from pests such as insects, rodents, other plants, and fungi. They are generally designed to kill the pest or limit its activity.
Can Pesticides Be Harmful To Man?
Yes, by their nature, pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides contain strong, toxic chemicals capable of killing many organisms. Research has shown that these chemicals can also harm the health of people who work closely with them and harm larger animals that they might have been tested on.
It stands to reason, then, that pesticides can be harmful to man. However, their use is controlled in such a way that the amount we consume is not expected to cause problems.
Are Pesticides Regulated?
The types and amount of pesticides used on food are strictly controlled. They have to pass stringent safety tests before approval and their use is regulated by the Government. The employment of pesticides on food crops is assessed by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP), an independent scientific committee, and overseen by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Are Pesticides Left On Food?
If pesticides have been used on food, then there is almost certainly an amount left on it at point of sale to the general public. This is called pesticide residue. Many pesticides are applied during growth, but some are actually used after harvesting to keep such foods as soft fruit, free from bugs and to prolong their shelf-life.
Some of the residue can be reduced by washing, scrubbing or peeling the food before its eaten, but other types of pesticide work systemically, which means they are absorbed into the food and therefore can never be entirely removed. This means that pesticides do enter the food chain and we would expect to be consuming small amounts on fruit and vegetables.
Maximum Residue Levels
An independent government advisory body, the Pesticides Residues Committee (PRC), associated institutions and involved government departments arrive at a decision as to what might be deemed ‘good practice’ by stringently working out the maximum amount of pesticide which could be left on food.
These levels are low enough so as not to be deemed to cause harm if a person ate it every day of the week and are termed the Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs).
These levels were standardised for Europe as of September 2008 and also apply to any imported foodstuffs from outside the EU.
Can Pesticides be Harmful in Food?
Although the maximum residue levels allowed for food are not expected to harm people, they are still not officially labelled as ‘safe’. Whilst pesticide scientists consider human health not to suffer from low levels of pesticides in the food chain, long-term effects are not known and the jury is still out on links being made to life-threatening conditions such as cancer.
However, many environmentalists and organic growers believe that even very small amounts of chemical pesticides, not only pollute the crop they are controlling, pollute the wider environment, upset natural biodiversity, but are also detrimental to our health.
Is it Possible To Buy Food Without Pesticides?
Yes. Food which is grown without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers is termed ‘Organic’. For this reason organically grown crops are sometimes less ‘perfect’ or uniform looking. To keep the food from being excessively damaged, farmers and growers will use natural methods to limit pests such as biological control, inter-planting with secondary crops and so on.
The end price of organic food for the consumer may be slightly higher, but they will be reducing any risk of health problems through food which contains pesticide pollutants.