What You Need to Know about the Use of Pesticides in American Agriculture

September 21, 2018

Modernconsumers have to be diligent about what is found in and on the foods that theyeat. Many companies choose to put chemical additives in their foods as preservatives or colorings and pass them off as“natural” when they are, in reality, artificial.

Additionally,chemicals are often used in the production of food as a measure to control weeds,insects, bacteria, mold, fungus, and more. Even with organic farming, thesepesticides may find their way onto the surface of foods that we consume.


TheFood Quality Protection Act requires farmers use only chemicals that meet thesafety standards created by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). Over time,less-toxic pesticides have become available, and the EPA continuously updatesits guidelines to reduce risk to consumers. However, the risk is far from zero.Here’s what you need to know about the use of pesticides in Americanagriculture.


The Use of Pesticides on Conventional and Organic Produce


Eachyear, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of the 12 varietiesof produce their testing revealed to have the highest levels of pesticideresidue. EWG also produces a list of the 15 fruits and vegetables with thelowest traces of pesticides so that consumers can make informed decisions.


Forthe so-called “dirty dozen," the organization recommends purchasingorganically farmed fruits and vegetables. The top produce on the 2018 list isthe strawberry, followed by spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, and peaches.


Toproduce its list, the EWG looks at a variety of samples and determines how manydifferent pesticides are detected. This means that it does not provide dataabout the exact chemicals or amounts. The list is simply meant to serve as aguide for consumers who wish to minimize their exposure to pesticides.


TheUnited States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the production oforganic foods in the United States. Organic farming is more about protectingthe environment than making produce healthier. Despite this, many people thinkthat organic means farmers do not use pesticides. This belief is incorrect.


Organicfarmers can use a variety of “naturally derived” pesticides that are notcompletely synthetic. However, it is important to remember that anything used tokill pests is, in fact a poison.


Afood researcher at the University of California, Davis (UCD) has cautionedagainst thinking of natural pesticides as somehow safer than synthetic ones. Anarticle that this researcher published in the Journal of Toxicology found that consuming foods on the EWG list of12 “dirty” foods versus organic varieties did not significantly reduce risk,largely because the inherent risk is very small in both cases.



Looking at the Real Risk Posed by Pesticide Use in Agriculture


Toxicologiststhink of risk in three different ways. First, how much of the substance is onthe food that we consume? Second, how much food are we actually eating? Third,what is the risk of ingested insecticide? Because the EWG report does notquantify the amount of pesticide found on food, these questions are difficultto answer.


TheUCD researcher says that the most important factor in thinking about pesticideconsumption is the dose. According to his research, people do not generallyconsume enough pesticide, whether natural or synthetic, to warrant undue concern.


Certainly,the science behind pesticide exposure provides no clear answers. Many studiesfocus on correlation rather than causation. This means that these studiescannot make a causal link between pesticides and disease. Other studies focuson farm workers, who are exposed to much higher doses than average Americans.


Atthe same time, some of the correlation studies have raised a lot of concerns amongthe general public—and for good reason. For example, a relatively recent studyfound a link between pesticide exposure and poor pregnancy outcomes among womenreceiving treatment for infertility.


However,this study used a method similar to that of EWG, which means that it did notlook for a dose-response relationship. Furthermore, the women with the highestexposure to pesticide residue also ate more organic produce on average. Thismeans that they simply consumed more produce all around.


Thereis a lot of concern among the general public, and certainly among certainresearch communities, particularly regarding vulnerable populations. Vulnerableindividuals include women trying to conceive, pregnant women, and youngchildren.



Options for People Who Want to Avoid Pesticide Residues


Peoplewho want to limit their exposure to pesticide do have some options. Individualsshould research where their food comes from and, when possible, buy local sothat they know exactly what chemicals their produce may contain.


Manysmaller farms and organic farmers are reducing their reliance on pesticidesaltogether by using other methods. These techniques include populating theircrops with protective insects that feed on destructive species. Also, farmsthat use hydroponic techniques produce their fruits and vegetables in agreenhouse, which often eliminates the need for pesticide use.


Evenamong conventional farms, there has been a push to reduce pesticide use. As aresult, we may see more produce becoming commercially available that is grown withoutchemicals.