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Pesticide Residue
Why You Shouldn't Be Concerned
John Swarthout
John Swarthout
Scientific Outreach and Issues Management Lead

Did you know that the food supplies in the US, Canada, and several countries in the EU are among the most secure and safest in the world? You might have guessed that, but would you have guessed that the safest and most secure food supply is in Singapore? According to the Global Food Security Index, Singapore ranks at the top of a list of countries in terms of food affordability, availability, quality and safety. Numerous factors play a part in maintaining food security. Including all the tools, technologies and agricultural practices which make up modern agriculture. Principal among these practices is the use of crop protection products to control pests such as insects, rodents, weeds, bacteria, mold and fungus.

 

Regulatory agencies (e.g. EPA, EFSA) evaluate new and existing pesticides to ensure that they can be used with a reasonable certainty of no harm. In a recent European Union report, a comprehensive analysis for pesticide residues in commonly consumed foods was performed to determine the potential dietary risk related to the exposure of European consumers. EFSA concluded that long‐term dietary exposure to pesticides was unlikely to pose any health risk.

When the headlines draw attention to residues in your food, rest assured that just because residues are present, doesn’t mean they are harmful to you and your family.
John Swarthout
Technology Safety Acceptance

Nevertheless, you may have read headlines touting reports of the detection of trace pesticide residues in food and conclusions that connect the mere detection to concerns about safety. Often, these claims are accompanied by statements that conventional agricultural practices are more likely to produce foods with pesticide residues than other practices including organic agriculture. In fact, there is a widely-accepted belief that crops produced organically do not use any pesticides at all.

 

For example, in a recent study (Fagan et al., 2020) urine samples were collected from participants before and after “organic diet intervention.”  The authors concluded that switching to an organic diet reduced levels of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup® brand herbicides, in the urine and that diet is the primary source of glyphosate exposure. Honestly, these results are not surprising as switching your diet away from foods that may contain glyphosate would naturally reduce the level of glyphosate in urine. However, what the authors fail to mention is that the levels detected are orders of magnitude below any level of concern or that switching to an all organic diet will conversely increase the levels of pesticides used in organic agriculture that can be detected. That’s because organic farmers use approved pesticides too (Scientific American, 2011). Furthermore, the authors fail to test for the presence of these organic pesticide residues and thus potentially are misleading the consumer.

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Organic foods do not equate to pesticide-free, nor do they equate to safer or more nutritious food. Detectable residues are in many foods regardless of agriculture practice, including both organic and conventional agriculture. However, according to physicians and other food safety experts, the mere presence of a chemical itself is not a human health hazard. It’s the amount, or dose, that matters. In the EU, the maximum amount that can be consumed and considered safe is called the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) and is a health-based guidance value that assumes there will not be an appreciable health risk. In the U.S. an equivalent health-based guidance is the Reference Dose (RfD) and is set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

 

For glyphosate, the available monitoring data in humans indicate actual exposures are far below allowable intake levels. This includes the study by Fagan et al. which provides no indication that a conventional diet poses a risk that differs in any meaningful way from an organic diet. In fact, the maximum measured glyphosate levels for children and for adults after switching to a conventional diet was 6.22 ng/ml and 0.82 ng/ml, respectively. These values represent 0.5 percent for a child and 0.03 percent for an adult of the acceptable daily intake.

 

Reports like the one by Fagan et al. do not prove that organic food is lower in pesticide residues than conventional food, and do not show that organic food is safer. The fact is, there is no way you can reduce your exposure to pesticides (or other chemicals) to zero, but you can keep your exposure to a safe level just by eating a balanced diet. So, when the headlines draw attention to residues in your food, rest assured that just because residues are present, doesn’t mean they are harmful to you and your family.