Facts & Figures on Pesticide Safety & Use in Food Production [UPDATED]

Updated November 12, 2015

Recent publications, such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) review of glyphosate and Consumer Reports editorial article, question the safety of consuming traditionally-grown fruits, vegetables, and other foods containing crops treated with pesticides.

While these reports may be alarming, it is important to put them into the proper context and to look at the totality of evidence on the subject, as well as how pesticides are regulated. In doing so, the safety practices and safeguards around pesticides used in food production can provide reassurance to those with concerns.

UPDATE: For example, while there are several scientific reports that question the safety of glyphosate, including the IARC report, it is important to look at all the evidence available. The European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) conducted a peer review of the IARC report, along with a German report, which said the pesticide glyphosate did not show carcinogenic properties. ESFA findings show that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans.

Share these facts and figures to help put pesticide use and safety into perspective:

Key takeaways:

1. Both traditional and organic food production may use pesticides.
2. Pesticide residue levels on traditional and organic produce are well below that which would have any effect, as required by Federal regulation.
3. Washing fruits and vegetables prior to eating largely removes any remaining traces of pesticide residues.
4. The benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables far outweigh any risks from the use of pesticides.

Facts and Figures on Pesticide Safety and Use in Food Production

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develops strict limits (or tolerances) for residues at 100 to 1,000 times lower than levels at which health impacts might occur. These tolerance levels are considered safe based on average daily food intake by adults and children.
    • These acceptable safe levels of pesticide residues in foods that are found not to be harmful are established by the EPA for each type of pesticide, based on considerations of both the population as a whole, as well as subgroups such as children. 
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) share responsibility for monitoring levels of pesticide residues on foods.
    • Although most pesticide residues are typically well below tolerance levels before leaving the farm gate, consumers can take further steps to reduce their potential exposure to any remaining residues on fruits and vegetables, such as washing produce before cooking or consuming.

“Consumers have nothing to fear or to feel guilty about if they choose to purchase conventional forms of produce … My and others’ research demonstrates that the existing regulatory approach for pesticides, including a safety review and establishment of appropriate pesticide application practices, adequately protects the public.” - Carl Winter, PhD, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist, University of California, Davis (Food Insight, 2014)

  • Farmers use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA.
    • With the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops, a product of food biotechnology, farmers have more choices in sustainable weed management, and can select herbicides that break down more rapidly, and therefore have less impact on the environment than older herbicides.
       
  • Biotechnology has played an important role in the reduction and more precise use of pesticides, and allowing for use of more environmentally friendly herbicides.
    • From 1996-2011, biotech crops have collectively reduced global pesticide applications by 1.04 billion pounds of the active ingredient.
       
  • Despite common perceptions, organic farming, like other forms of agriculture, uses pesticides. There are more than 20 “natural” pesticides commonly used in organic agriculture that are approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).
    • However, in the case of both organic and conventional produce, the levels of pesticide residues detected are very low – far below that which USDA and EPA have deemed to be safe for human consumption – and not at a level to warrant health concerns.

The mere presence of a pesticide residue is not appropriate to justify the recommendation to avoid conventional or consume only organic produce. Such a recommendation can come only after exploring the risk that actual exposure to the pesticide residue poses to human health.  After all, organic farming uses pesticides, too.” – Carl Winter, PhD (Food Insight, 2011)

IFIC Foundation Resources for more information:

External Resources: