“Pesticide” can be an ominous sounding word to the average consumer. The suffix “cide,” which comes from Latin cidere meaning “to kill,” has its roots in Shakespearean literature (“Beware the ides of March.”) But in today’s modern world, it has very little to do with Shakespeare. Pesticides have come under scrutiny by some groups and individuals expressing concerns about everything from food safety to nutritional quality to children’s health. However, the facts about pesticides and how they are used safely in food production often are not in the headlines. Instead, the latest study with the flashiest headline is shared without the context of how it fits in to the overall body of research, or without a proper critique of its methods to determine its credibility. Food Insight addresses the myths and facts and shares what you need to know about pesticide safety, use, and health.
What are pesticides and why are they used?
Pesticides include a broad class of synthetic and “natural” compounds that help to protect crops from devastating pests and weeds. Types of pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides. Whether conventional or organic, farmers safely and judiciously use pesticides as necessary to control insects, weeds, and fungus (Organic farming does permit the use of certain pesticides). Coupled with droughts and other weather-related natural disasters, insects, pests, and weeds can prevent food crops from reaching their full productivity, resulting in lower yield, which can lead to increased food costs.
Why are there pesticide residues on foods?
Pesticide residues are very small amounts of pesticides that may remain on food from their application to crops while being grown on the farm. Some crops are less susceptible to pesticide residues, such as those with a husk (e.g. corn), shell (e.g. peanuts), or skin (e.g. bananas). However, even those without an outer layer are safe to eat, and simply washing raw fruits and vegetables before eating them removes most traces of pesticide residues.
Acceptable safe levels of pesticide residues in foods that are found not to be harmful are established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for each type of pesticide, based on considerations of both the population as a whole, as well as subgroups such as children. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA have ongoing monitoring of pesticide residues on foods in place.
The FDA uses the Total Diet Study to determine pesticide residues in foods. The study limits pesticide residues to five to ten times lower than is found to be safe. In short, these residues are regulated to levels that are considered safe based on the average daily food intake of both adults and children.
Do pesticides cause autism in children?
A recent study (Shelton, et al., 2014) attempting to link pesticide use to autism in children drew media attention and raised concerns among moms and other consumers. However, the study made inaccurate and questionable associations between the proximity of children to pesticide use and neurodevelopmental disorders. Merely using observational cues such as these cannot be used to demonstrate causation.
Experts called the study “inaccurate” and “misleading” to the public. According to Dr. Penny Fenner-Crisp, retired former Senior Science Advisor, Deputy Director, and Director of the Health Effects Division of the Office of Pesticide Programs at the EPA, “The study does not allow one to conclude with any degree of certainty that exposure to individual or classes of pesticides or insecticides results in increased rates of autism and other developmental disabilities in the offspring of potentially-exposed mothers.” To determine any possible adverse health effects would require a much more robust study, with measurements of indicators such as biomarkers in blood or urine (Chang et al. 2014).
While the conclusions of this study raise interesting questions, it should be re-examined by credible environmental exposure experts before raising unnecessary and undue concerns among consumers and especially moms.
Both conventional and organic farmers use pesticides only when necessary. Whether synthetic or natural, they must be used in compliance with regulatory standards to ensure continued safety.
Return to current issue.
MARCH 2016: Editor’s Note: “Marching” Toward Better Health • 3 Tips to “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right” This National Nutrition Month • 8 Spices from Around the World • Future of Food, Part II: Serving Up Meat, Over Glass • Tip o’ the Mornin’ to You: Don’t Feel Green on St. Patrick’s Day (or Any Day)
FEBRUARY 2016: Editor’s Note: Future Foods, Coming to a Plate Near You • Future of Food, Part I: Food Innovations of Tomorrow • Why You Should Check Food Labels for Potential Allergens • Super Confused About Super Foods? An Educated Consumer Is a Healthy Consumer • How Librarians Prevent the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” • Citrus: Great Fruits for Heart Health
JANUARY 2016: Editor’s Note: Gold Medals and Silver Anniversaries • Feeling List-less? Then Check Out This Litany of New Year’s Food Trends • Happy 25th Anniversary, IFIC Foundation!: Serving Up Food Insights • A History of Communication: Insights from IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellows
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015: Chew on This: A Food Technologist Puts Red and Processed Meat in Perspective • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part III: Research Funding • Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part II • Achoo!: Food and Other "Prescriptions" for Surviving Cold and Flu Season • When Nutrition Gets Personal: Study Shows New Frontiers in Understanding Glycemic Response
OCTOBER 2015: Orphan Crops • Answering the Challenge of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" • Weeding Through the Facts on Herbicide Resistance • Rainy Day in Nashville Fails to Dampen RDs' Spirits • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part II • Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part I
SEPTEMBER 2015: 4 Clever Food Safety Hacks • Hashtags & Hyperbole • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part I
SUMMER 2015: What's Your Health Worth?, EXPO Milano 2015, "Single Study Syndrome"
MAY 2015: Future of Food (EXPO Milano), Grilling Tips, Food & Health Survey Webcast
APRIL 2015: Food & Nutrition Lessons from Mom, Microbiome, Flowers & Food Security
MARCH 2015: Chemophobia, Fitness Trackers, Dietary Guidelines 2015
FEBRUARY 2015: Farming Cocoa for Your Valentine’s Day Chocolate, At the Heart of Fats and Oils
DECEMBER 2014/JANUARY 2015: 2015 Food Trends Forecast, Gluten & Health, Life after PHOs
NOVEMBER 2014: A Very Southern Farm Tour, Diabetes Awareness, Turkey Safety for Thanksgiving
OCTOBER 2014: RDNs for Nutrition Expertise, Nutrition Behavior Profiles, Fall Food Days
SEPTEMBER 2014: Food Safety Month, Physical Activity & Obesity, Using Video for Education
AUGUST 2014: Back-to-School Nutrition, Pesticide & Health, Sustainable Nutrition
JULY 2014: Perceptions of Food Technology, Millennial Food Preferences, Introducing the FACTS Network
MAY/JUNE 2014: Food & Health Survey, Produce Safety, Summer Grilling Tips
APRIL 2014: ASN & Processed Food, "Banned Ingredients"
MARCH 2014: Nutrition is in Bloom - Changes to the NFP, Nutrient Adequacy, Trans Fat Q&A