Pesticides and food: what consumers need to know

What are pesticides and why are they used?

I recently was asked to respond to the question:  How can I find food that hasn’t been treated with pesticides?  This isn’t a surprising question, every day we are bombarded with news stories and social media posts that call into question the intentions of major pesticide manufacturers and the ability of the government to keep our food supply safe. Many of these authors use half-truths and unfounded assertions that are scary if you don’t work directly with the agriculture and food industries.

If you are concerned about the pesticide residues on your food, there are a few things that you should know, including what a ‘pesticide’ is, why farmers use pesticides, and how pesticides and food safety are regulated in the U.S. 

Pesticides are any a substance used for mitigating the negative effects of a pest (disease, insect, weed). Pesticides include everything from the biological caterpillar control Bacillus thuringiensis (“Bt”) to the somewhat infamous glyphosate (Roundup). Not surprisingly, people may feel differently about the presences or absence of a pesticide based on its characteristics, most importantly it’s toxicity to non-target organism (e.g. you and me).

It is critical when talking about pesticide residues to discuss the idea of toxicity and exposure or dose. Toxicity is the ability of a substance to cause injury to a living organism and in the case of pesticides, toxicity levels to mammals, fish, birds and plants are all of concern. But toxicity is not a characteristic unique to pesticides, in fact most substances can become toxic to people with a high enough exposure level, even those we commonly view as benign or beneficial including water or salt. Substances cannot simply be sorted into toxic or non-toxic categories. This concept of toxicity and exposure is how we assure a safe food supply, by limiting the dose and exposure of the public to pesticides based on rigorous residue and toxicity testing for each individual material and intended use or crop. 

So let’s take this conversation out onto the farm and talk about a few of the better known production systems that are utilized in agriculture today, including conventional and organic. Conventional growers are simply growers that utilize synthetic pesticides—or those created by man. Organic producers are commonly limited to using only naturally occurring pesticides. You’ll note that these production systems are not at all defined by the toxicity level of the pesticides utilized. The fact of the matter is that both production systems yield a safe food supply that is carefully regulated to protect the environment and consumer.

The vast majority of organic and conventional farmers use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, which involve scouting for pests, understanding their life cycles and choosing an intervention based on that information. IPM also emphasizes using the least toxic and most effective intervention necessary to control pests and in the least harmful way, to reduce potential impacts on humans, animals and the environment. Many controls don’t involve spraying pesticides and can include preventative measures, companion plants that repel insects, trapping, soil cultivation, knocking bugs off plants and even using other insects to control the pest. For example, ladybugs will eat destructive aphids. 

The fact of the modern food system is, it is nearly impossible to locate food produced with no pesticides, unless you grow it yourself.  Without pesticides yields and quality are greatly diminished. Consumers can increase the safety of their produce by simply washing with water to reduce dirt, germs and pesticide residues remaining on fruit and vegetable surfaces. No washing method is 100 percent effective for removing all pesticide residues but according to the National Pesticide Information Center, holding the fruit or vegetable under flowing water is the best option for removing pesticide residues.

Ensuring that our food supply is safe and wholesome is a priority for federal, state and local governments, farmers and food producers and Michigan State University Extension. If you have questions about our food system, please reach out to a member of the Community Food Systems team of MSU Extension. 

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