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Daily News Blog

01
May

Pesticide Residues in Food Do Not Tell the Full Story on Hazards and the Importance of Organic

Pesticide residues on food crops

(Beyond Pesticides, May 1, 2024) According to a new analysis by Consumer Reports, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pesticide Data Program (PDP) Annual Summary has once again failed to accurately portray the safety of some of the most commonly sold fruits and vegetables in the United States. A review of seven years of PDP data show that 20% of the foods tested pose a “high risk” to the public and 12 specific commodities are so dangerous that children or pregnant people should not eat more than one serving per day, according to Consumer Reports analysis. Consumer Reports contend that U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) pesticide residue tolerances are too lenient. To better evaluate potential health risks associated with various foods, Consumer Reports applied stricter residue limits than the EPA tolerances (see here for CR’s analytical methodology). Notably, USDA certified organic food products are not permitted to be produced with the pesticides identified by the report. Pesticide residues found in organic, with rare exception, are a function of the off-target chemical-intensive agriculture pollution through pesticide drift, water contamination, or background soil residues.

The Consumer Reports results fly in the face of the rosy outlook reported by the USDA in its 2022 PDP Annual Summary, which found that 99% of the fruits and vegetables the agency tested “had residues below the established [EPA] tolerances.” Agencies typically point to acceptable or legal residues as protective of health and the environment, despite potential adverse effects associated with inadequate assessment of health outcomes, such as endocrine disruption, vulnerable population groups, exposure to mixtures and synergistic interactions, and more.

Beyond Pesticides reported in February that EPA’s methodology for calculating acceptable levels of pesticides in food has long been criticized as inadequate. Scientists at Consumer Reports note that EPA’s calculations of “tolerable” levels of pesticides in food are at least 10 times higher than they should be to adequately ensure the health and safety of the public and the country’s ecosystems. According to Consumer Reports, EPA has never applied the tenfold safety factor to certain pesticides required as by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 to protect vulnerable populations. [Readers and the public can reference Beyond Pesticides’ database Eating with a Conscience, which identifies the multiple pesticides that can be used on individual crops and the resulting exposures not only to consumers, but to farmworkers, farmers, neighboring communities, and the environment.]

Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumer Reports, states, “The way the EPA assesses pesticide risk doesn’t reflect cutting-edge science and can’t account for all the ways the chemicals might affect people’s health, especially given that people are often exposed to multiple pesticides at a time.”

To ensure the most up-to-date information, the list of pesticides to which the tenfold safety factor is applied by Consumer Reports is based on the latest scientific findings in the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a database maintained by TEDX, a nonprofit research institute that uses publicly available scientific research to identify chemicals with at least one study demonstrating endocrine-disrupting properties. The tenfold safety factor is also applied by Consumer Reports to the list of endocrine disruptors identified by the European Commission. Consumer Report’s analysis not only applies the tenfold safety factor to appropriate chemicals, but it also calculates the relative risk of each food based on the average amount, frequency, and number of pesticide residues found on each food type, and the relative potential of the pesticide to negatively affect human health. Together, this information was used to develop a ranking system from “Very Low Risk” to “Very High Risk.”

Of the 59 fruits and vegetables included in the analysis, which includes data from 2016-2024, 22 foods are identified as “Moderate Risk” or higher, including seven that were “Very High Risk.” This is based on data analyzed from nearly 30,000 samples taken between 2016-2024. With this methodology, it is advisable that some people limit their food consumption to no more than one-half serving per day for many commonly eaten vegetables, such as bell peppers, blueberries, potatoes, and strawberries.

Watermelon and green beans were identified as some of the highest risk foods. Watermelon carries a small but serious risk of contamination with oxamyl, a highly toxic insecticide. [See Beyond Pesticides’ Gateway on Pesticides here]. Similarly, while only four percent of domestically grown green beans from chemical-intensive agriculture tested positive for the insecticide acephate or one of its breakdown products, the levels found were up to 100 times higher than considered acceptable by Consumer Reports scientists. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that acephate has been illegal for use in green bean cultivation since 2011. (See here for Beyond Pesticides coverage.)

Consumer Report’s analysis highlights the inadequacy of the PDP to adequately convey the potentially serious impacts of continuing to use toxic pesticides in the production of food. Beyond Pesticides has reported on the misleading nature of the PDP annual summary and how certain mainstream organizations, such as Blue Book Services/Produce, cover the annual update by reinforcing USDA’s depiction of pesticide exposure in produce as safe.

USDA’s PDP and EPA’s risk assessment measures fail to account for vulnerable subpopulations, such as farmworkers, people with compromised health or preexisting health conditions, and children (see here and here). Beyond the residues of pesticides in and on food, exposure to pesticides used in crop production results in disproportionate risk and harm to farmworkers, their families (including children who are working as farmworkers), and ‘fence line’ communities living near farms. [See here for coverage of a January 2024 report led by Nathan Donley, PhD, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity and Robert Bullard, PhD, executive director of the Robert D. Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University in Houston].

Similarly, the PDP Annual Report also fails to adequately promote the benefits of organically grown produce. Consumer Reports found that nearly all organically grown food tested had low or very low pesticide risk and only spinach and potatoes posed a moderate risk among domestically grown varieties. Beyond Pesticides notes, organic food products have been found to have zero contact with pesticides unless due to pesticide drift from other farming operations.

Consumer Reports first began reviewing PDP data and presenting its own analysis in 2020. Since then, it has recommended that the public eat an organic diet whenever possible and has advocated for change in how pesticides are used and regulated. Not only is the production of organic food better for human health and the environment than chemical-intensive production, but emerging science reveals also what organic advocates have been saying for a long time—in addition to lacking the toxic residues of conventional foods, organic food is more nutritious.

A study published by The Organic Center reveals that organic food is higher in certain key areas, such as total antioxidant capacity, total polyphenols, and two key flavonoids, quercetin and kaempferol, all of which are nutritionally significant (read a summary in the Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog). Another study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry looked specifically at the total phenolic content of marionberries, strawberries, and corn, and found that organically grown products contained higher total phenolics. Phenolics are important for plant health (defense against insects and diseases), and human health for their “potent antioxidant activity and wide range of pharmacologic properties including anticancer, antioxidant, and platelet aggregation inhibition activity.”  For more on the health benefits of organic agriculture, see here.   

Organic agricultural practices, which reject the use of harmful pesticides, are capable of the benefits the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial is demonstrating. Not only does organic food remove the risk of ingesting toxic chemicals, it eliminates the risk posed to farmworkers and the environment. Such practices protect human and animal health, and support functional ecosystems and biodiversity. Widespread adoption of organic and certified organic regenerative agriculture can also lift human agro-activity out of its current chemical dead-end. The public has an important role to play in this transition: learn more about organic agriculture, advocate for it, and “vote” for organics by creating market demand for organic food.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources:

Produce Without Pesticides, Consumer Reports, April 18, 2024
6 Fruits and Vegetables Loaded With Pesticides, Consumer Reports, April 18, 2024
Consumer Reports recently conducted its most comprehensive review of pesticides in 59 US fruits and vegetables, The Guardian, April 18, 2024
Healthy or high risk? New analysis warns of pesticide residues on some fruits and veggies, New Lede, April 18, 2024
Agricultural Justice, Beyond Pesticides website
Gateway on Pesticide Hazards and Safe Pest Management, Beyond Pesticides website

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One Response to “Pesticide Residues in Food Do Not Tell the Full Story on Hazards and the Importance of Organic”

  1. 1
    Richard Bruce Says:

    I was poisoned 32 years ago by a mix of two organophosphate insecticides routinely added to harvested grains for decades. Investigations discovered that no authority knows the toxicity of such inevitable mixtures and their co-formulants but despite this deception was used to undermine the poisoning diagnosis and protect the chemicals and those who unlawfully mixed them.
    Subsequent testing revealed that the chemicals do not “rapidly breakdown” as claimed but are protected by the formulations.
    Disabled since the exposure, symptoms worsen with time. The USA EPA called for a ban on all organophosphorus poisons used on food crops to protect the health of children in 1997. Nothing was done and such poisons, including glyphosate, are still found at increasing levels in our food, trigging untold serious longterm illnesses in the world’s population.
    Cardorespiratory, neurological, mental, immune and hormone system are all affected depending on the target.
    It is the biggest scandal in human history.

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