Our food supply is being contaminated with pesticides. But most consumers don’t know about this, and those that do don’t do anything about it. More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and grapes tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides. Kale, collard and mustard greens, as well as hot peppers and bell peppers, had the most pesticides detected, 103 and 101 pesticides in total, respectively.
Yes, Organic Food Has Pesticides—but That Shouldn’t Scare You Off of Veggiesl
True or false: Organic produce is always grown without pesticides.
If you answered true…sorry, but you’ve got it twisted. Surprising, right?
The truth is that many organic farmers rely on pesticides and herbicides—substances used protect crops from insects, weeds, and infections—from a relatively small list that’s regularly vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But that doesn’t mean that organic food is unsafe to eat. Here’s the lowdown about pesticides in organic food.
Why do we use pesticides again?
Even with the best farming practices, it’s hard to control every potential pest problem in food production. “Pests threaten farmers’ livelihoods,” says Mary Ann Rose, PhD, director of the Pesticide Safety Education Program at the Ohio State University Extension, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. “We’d all like pesticide residues to be zero, but it’s not realistic. It would be very difficult to produce the amount of food we do in the United States without it.”
Pesticides and herbicides help control the potentially harmful mold, mildew, fungi, weeds, bacteria, insects, and rodents that can damage crops or carry plant diseases. “Each farm’s ecosystem is unique and responds differently to pest control methods. For some organic farms, pesticides are the best option,” says registered dietitian-nutritionist Malina Malkani, RDN, CDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of Solve Picky Eating.
That said, organic farmers only use pesticides after other preventive, less invasive measures fail, Malkani adds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which certifies organic farms, requires organic farmers to emphasize prevention over treatment, focusing on pest-control measures like insect traps, the careful selection of disease-resistant varieties of certain crops, and the use of predator insects and beneficial microorganisms to help control pests that may damage certain crops.
What pesticides are used in organic produce?
The USDA manages the list of approved pesticides allowed in organic produce. Most pesticides used in organic farming are natural (or non-synthetic), which the USDA defines as substances that have been produced or extracted from a natural source, like plants or other living organisms. The only chemical changes in natural pesticides come from naturally-occurring processes such as composting, fermentation, heating, or enzymatic digestion.
“In general, pesticides approved for organic production are lower in toxicity than conventional pesticides, and most are derived from naturally-occurring substances,” says Dr. Rose.
Pesticides approved for use in organic farming include neem oil, made from the neem tree, and pyrethrin, which is made from chrysanthemum plants. A few synthetic chemicals are also allowed in organic farming. Examples include copper sulfate, alcohols, chlorine products, hydrogen peroxide, and soaps.
Conventional farming, on the other hand, allows many more synthetic—i.e., man-made—pesticides and herbicides. Some are similarly virtually nontoxic, notes Dr. Rose, while others are extremely toxic. Risks aren’t always universally agreed upon; the weed killer glyphosate, for example, is commonly used in conventional agriculture in the U.S. but was controversially declared “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer and has been largely banned in France and Germany. Newer conventional pesticides tend to target a very specific process in the plant, often making them effective in much smaller doses than organic pesticides.
How freaked out should I be about this information?
Despite the fact that even organic produce depends on pesticides, eating organic will likely expose you to fewer pesticides in your diet. A comprehensive 2014 paper looking at 343 studies found that organic produce had four times less pesticide residue than conventional produce. Another 2012 review study by Stanford researchers found organic produce was 30 percent less likely to have pesticide residue than conventional produce. This same study and other research also suggest that an organic diet appears to decrease levels of pesticides in our urine.
Even foods with pesticide residue shouldn’t necessarily be panic-inducing. While high amounts of pesticide exposure has been associated with increased cancer risk and other health effects, the EPA regularly tests samples crops to ensure pesticide residues fall within safe limits. A 2017 EPA report looking at more than 10,000 samples of conventional and organic food found that more than 99 percent were within safe and acceptable limits, and more than half of the samples had no detectable pesticide residue.
“How much you’re exposed to is as important as the absolute toxicity of the pesticide,” says Dr. Rose. “Our risk from anything is a function of both the toxicity and the exposure, or dose. It’s true of every substance.” Eating fruits and vegetables on the regular, even ones that have trace amounts of pesticides on them, is likely nowhere near as harmful as being exposed to them as part of your job (like gardeners or farmworkers who spray their fields with pesticides).
Malkani adds that organic farming practices are healthier for the environment and animals and tend to enrich instead of deplete the soil of nutrients. “The reason to purchase organic goes beyond pesticides—it’s also a way of agriculture that supports a more biodiverse, sustainable ecosystem,” says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, the Plant-Powered Dietitian.
So what should I do if I’m worried about pesticide exposure in organics?
No one wants to eat pesticides. But try to keep things in perspective. As mentioned above, pesticides go through rigorous registration process by the EPA that assesses their impact on human health and the environment, says Dr. Rose; certified organic farmers use an even smaller subset of pesticides mostly derived from natural sources that are in general lower in toxicity.
Most of us should worry more about eating more fruits and veggies in the first place, notes Malkani, who adds that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Cancer Society and American Medical Association all say the health benefits of a fruit and vegetable-rich diet far outweigh the potential risks associated with pesticides.
Malkani says the following steps can help further reduce your exposure to pesticides:
- Always wash fruits and veggies under running water (forget the store-bought produce soaps; they aren’t worth the money)
- Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables like cabbage
- Clean the fiber-rich edible peels of foods like apples and carrots with a scrub brush
- Scrub the inedible rinds of produce (like melon) to reduce residues that can enter the food when it’s cut
- Different crops require different pesticides, so eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables minimizes your risks associated with specific pesticides and provides a wider range of nutritional benefits
If you’re still concerned, hit your local farmers market to get the inside scoop from the source. Some organic farmers don’t use any pesticides at all—even approved ones, notes Palmer. “Get to know the people who produce your food and find out how they produce it,” she says.
Are Pesticides Safe for Food Consumption?
Food safety is an important issue and there have been conversations about food safety and pesticide use. We’re taking a look at some questions about pesticides Are Pesticides Needed to Grow Food? Are Pesticides Safe for the Environment? What’s the Difference Between Pesticide-Free and Organic?
Is food that is grown using pesticides safe to eat? We got in touch with three scientists to ask them about pesticides and food safety. Dr. William Vencill is a Professor of Crop and Soil Sciences, University of Georgia; Jeff Graybill is an Extension Educator in Agronomy, Penn State University; and Dr. Stephen Baenziger is a Professor of Plant Sciences, University of Nebraska.
The experts all pointed out that pesticides, because they do involve an amount of risk, are very closely regulated by government agencies to make sure food is safe.
“Since these chemicals are designed to kill a specific weed or pest, they must be respected, so when looking at human and animal health implications, regulatory agencies have very stringent standards,” Mr. Graybill noted. “Any pesticide that comes to market must be approved and certified by the EPA, USDA and FDA. Toxicology data is peer reviewed and is combed over very intensely. The government agencies then make a determination if there are any negative impacts and whether those negative impacts are outweighed by the good that the chemical will do.”
Pesticides have been used in some form for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Romans. Synthetic compounds were developed in the 1940s. Over the course of time, these chemicals have undergone extensive testing. Some of those that were determined to be less safe have been removed from the market. Each year, the FDA tests many samples of food to determine if they have unsafe levels of pesticide present.
Even though the presence of a pesticide may be detected, that does not mean that it would have an effect on humans, Dr. Vencill said.
“A misconception is that pesticides at any level are bad for you,” he said. Sometimes, pesticides make a food safer by removing fungus that can be toxic to humans.
Check out these detailed answers from the experts to address questions about pesticides and food safety.
Are pesticides safe for food consumption?
Vencill: “I would say that nothing is totally safe – there is a risk to whatever we do and this applies to pesticide residues in food. Pesticides are rigorously tested for short-term and long-term health impact by the EPA and other regulatory bodies around the world. They weigh the risks against the benefits of a pesticide in question. In this risk analysis, safety factors of 100 to 1,000-fold are built in to the levels of pesticide residues that could cause harm with a calculated exposure of 70 years.
“So, when a person sees a media report that some group has discovered the presence of a pesticide in a given food product, a couple of things need to be considered. Presence does not equal danger. Analytical chemists are now able to identify pesticide residues at levels far below any possible concentration that has been shown to cause harm.”
Graybill: The United States has an extensive regulatory system, and whether it’s household chemicals or agricultural herbicides and insecticides, all chemicals go through extensive toxicology testing to look at the benefits and the risks of the product. This is especially true of pesticides used on food crops.
“Since these chemicals are designed to kill a specific weed or pest, they must be respected, so when looking at human and animal health implications, regulatory agencies have very stringent standards. Any pesticide that comes to market must be approved and certified by the EPA, USDA and FDA. Toxicology data is peer reviewed and is combed over very intensely. The government agencies then make a determination if there are any negative impacts and whether those negative impacts are outweighed by the good that the chemical will do.”
Baenziger: “Clearly, some levels of pesticides would be toxic to humans, but at low levels they are safe to consume. Also, keep in mind that plants naturally produce many chemicals to protect themselves from the effects and damages caused by insects and pathogens. We have eaten these “natural” pesticides for millennia and foods containing these compounds. If the natural pesticides or the applied synthetic pesticides are known to be harmful to humans, they are monitored and checked before the food product can be sold.”
How long have pesticides been used by farmers … can you give us a brief history of pesticide usage?
Vencill: “In some forms, pesticides have been used for thousands of years. The ancient Romans used table salt as a pesticide. In the 19th century, many farmers used inorganic salts such as copper and sulfur as pesticides for plant pathogen control. These materials are still used and can be used for certified organic foods.
“The use of synthetic compounds for pesticides really began in the 1940s. A number of halogenated chlorine insecticides such as DDT were used for insect control. Around this same time, 2,4-D, a different molecule, was introduced. It was the first compound that could kill weeds without harming crops (known as selective herbicides).”
In fact, 2,4-D is still used today because it continues to meet all safety standards that have been established by regulatory agencies. It has been studied extensively and approved by more than 90 counties.
“Throughout the 1960s, a number of herbicides that are still the standard of weed control in some systems were introduced (atrazine for weed control in corn, metolachlor in corn and soybean, the dinitroanilines in a number of crops). These materials were typically soil applied at 1-to-4 pounds of product per acre. In the early 1980s, we saw a revolution of sorts in the herbicide world as materials were introduced for weed control that could be applied at very low rates. Since the 1980s, most new herbicide introductions have been low-dose herbicides. The next revolution came in the mid-‘90s with the introduction of glyphosate-resistant, commonly called “Roundup Ready” crops due to the first product name for glyphosate. By the mid-2000s, greater than 90 percent of corn, soybean, and cotton were glyphosate-resistant.”
Graybill: “Modern agricultural chemicals began to be used in the mid to late 1960s. Many products have a long track record of safety, while the more toxic ones have been weeded out and replaced with new products which are less dangerous to humans and the environment.”
Baenziger: “Pesticides have a long history of use. Most people think of synthetic pesticides of the 1940s and thereafter. However, Bordeaux Mixture, a fungicide containing copper sulphate and lime, has been used on grapes for hundreds of years. Copper can be a detriment or pollutant to the environment.”
What are some common misconceptions about how pesticides effect food safety?
Vencill: “One misconception is that we can have a food supply with zero risk of harm. There are natural pesticides in plant products that are present, but usually cause minimal risk. Since they are natural, most people do not think about them. A corollary to this is that the presence of a compound equals danger. If a pesticide is found, at what level to approved residue levels were present?
“Another misconception is that some pesticides are not regulated. All pesticides used in the U.S. are regulated. Finally, there is a misconception that organically certified products do not have pesticide residues. They do; they are just from a different list.”
Graybill: “Many people don’t realize that pesticides can actually increase the quality of foods. This is because they will control the diseases and insects which can destroy a crop or cause it to become rotten. When crops have less disease and insect damage they can be stored longer and shipped longer distances, giving us a great variety of food products to choose from.”
Baenziger: “Some believe if a pesticide is toxic to an insect, weed or disease, it must also be toxic to humanity. Some pesticides affect one or a few organisms, but not humans. Another misconception is that pesticides at any level are bad for you and that the effect of pesticides on human health are greater than would be the effects of the insects or fungus they are meant to control. For example, some plant fungal pathogens produce very high levels of toxins if they are not controlled. Fungicides actually control some fungi and prevent them from making very severe health-affecting chemical products such as mycotoxins. The presence of mycotoxins is strictly monitored and must be lower than a well-defined level for the crop to be sold legally or ethically into the food system.”
What safeguards are in place to ensure people are not consuming unsafe levels of pesticides?
Vencill: “All pesticides are rigorously evaluated for their potential impact on human health. Any compound that shows a potential for harm is pulled from development and commercialization is stopped. Regulatory agencies determine the safe levels of residues in all food products. These residue levels have 100 and 1,000-fold safety factors built-in. Furthermore, the FDA regularly conducts market surveys of food products where they purchase food products from a grocery store and analyze for a wide range of pesticide residues. These market basket surveys do show some food products that contain pesticide residues, but they are usually below any residue limit which could cause harm to people.”
Graybill: “All pesticides used in farming have strict labels with instructions on their use. The label is actually the law. It’s a legal document which, if violated, the farmer can incur a fine or other punishment. Also, farmers must have training and a pesticide license in order to apply pesticides. This shows that they are knowledgeable about the risks and benefits of pesticides and how to use them safely for their own farm family and for their customers.”
Baenziger: “Imported foods and domestic food markets are heavily monitored to ensure everyone has a safe food supply.”
What’s your advice to people who would rather not purchase food from producers who use pesticides?
Vencill: “One beauty of our free-market system is that foods that claim to be pesticide free are available to those who can afford them. However, I feel it is unjust to try to impose that view on others in the U.S. and worldwide because of the potential to deprive people of access to what I think is the healthiest and safest food supply in the history of humanity.
“A diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables is considered the healthiest. Many people cannot afford to buy organic produce and to spread opinion that consuming traditional food products is not safe because of pesticides is troublesome. It can cause those without the means to purchase other processed food products that are probably less healthy. For developing countries, limiting the food supply because of narrow choices can lead to starvation.”
Graybill: “You can purchase USDA certified organic if you have specific concerns. These products are monitored to ensure that they were grown without synthetic pesticides. Many will, however, have been sprayed with ‘organically certified natural pesticides’.”
Baenziger: “People are free to buy regulated organic food products, but that is a choice. A perceived need to purchase organic food for food safety reasons is not based on science.”
Pesticides used on crops are closely regulated in the United States to make sure the food supply is safe. Samples are routinely tested to make sure no chemicals are present at unsafe levels on the food we eat. Food that is certified organic is raised without synthetic pesticides, but may be raised with organically certified pesticides.
Pesticide Residues in Foods
The food supply of the U.S. is among the safest in the world. However, beginning even before birth, we are exposed to low levels of pesticide residues through our foods. Consumers are very concerned about pesticide residues on food. Recent surveys of consumers have indicated that more than 80 percent view pesticide residues as a “serious hazard.” This far outranks concerns over drugs and hormones in meat, nitrates in foods, irradiated foods, additives, or artificial colors.
People are confronted with many cancer-causing and other health threats that they can do little to avoid including: second-hand tobacco smoke, exhaust emissions, lead poisoning, and occupational hazards at work. However, some feel that pesticide residues in food are unnecessary and preventable types of contamination. Are children or other groups at greater risk to pesticide residues? Consumers are confused as well as concerned. With this volatile issue, it is important to maintain the facts and concerns in a proper perspective.
To regulate the safety of foods, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set tolerance levels, or maximum legal limits for pesticide residues on food commodities for sale in the U.S. EPA tolerances are based on a very conservative set of assumptions including that each pesticide is applied at the maximum rate allowed by the label, the maximum number of applications are made, and only the minimum permissible interval is allowed between applications. Scientists find the safe daily intake level, “No Observable Effects Level (NOEL),” and build in a 100 fold or more margin of safety. This procedure sets a legal residue level. If the maximum possible exposure to a chemical is less than the legal residue level, the EPA grants a tolerance.
Tolerances represent the upper limit of pesticide residues and these levels rarely occur in ready-to-eat food commodities. In the most recent FDA studies, dietary levels of most pesticides were less than 1 percent of the Acceptable Daily Intake established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
EPA applies a “negligible-risk” standard to pesticides to may cause cancer. In other words, the standard strives to achieve for any food-use pesticide is a theoretical cancer risk no greater than a risk in the range of one in one million over the average person’s 70-year lifetime. This is not a “zero-risk” approach, rather it relies on toxicological studies which indicate that risk from exposure to a substance depends upon the dose of the substance and not simply its presence.
The FDA stresses that pesticides pose much less of a safety hazard than other food contaminants, such as food poisoning microorganisms that cause everything from diarrhea to deadly botulism. The FDA also emphasizes that cancer- causing compounds that occur naturally in the food supply are a much greater threat than are synthetic carcinogens. In some instances, the chemicals applied to agricultural commodities can in fact safeguard from naturally occurring health threats. Thus natural does not always mean better, and chemicals do not always mean bad.
Bruce Ames, Director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California, has analyzed pesticides in detail. He concluded that more than 99 percent of the pesticides in the human diet are naturally occurring chemicals that plants and other organisms produce to defend themselves. The notion that a poison, by virtue of occurring naturally, is somehow better, safer, or gentler to the environment is hardly logical.
A National Academy of Science (NAS) report issued in 1989 on diet and cancer concluded that there is no evidence that pesticides or natural toxicants in food contribute significantly to cancer risk in the U.S. In the NAS recommended that people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid risks of cancer and other chronic diseases. Even though these foods contain low levels of pesticide residues, any potential small increase in health risks would be greatly outweighed by the benefits to good health from greater consumption of fruits and vegetables.
It is important to note that farmers generally use pesticides very judiciously. Chemicals are one of the most expensive “inputs” that a farmer can use. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Sustainable Agriculture provide alternative technologies that allow farmers to reduce pesticide usage while maintaining productivity and profitability. IPM integrates all pest management techniques into one crop management strategy. Pesticides may be used to control a pest only when other the pest has reach a certain level and is threatening economic losses to the crop. IPM programs rely on biological control, scouting of crops, and other cultural practices as well as reduced chemical inputs.