Updated November 12, 2015 with additional information under #2.
Call it the straw that broke the camel’s very, very overwhelmed back.
The latest crazy headline driving people away from fruits and vegetables was too much for us. The last couple weeks have been a heyday for pesticide residue misquotes, misrepresentations, and misinformation. Here are seven of the worst offenders, along with why they don’t need to push you away from some of the most nutrient-dense foods in your kitchen: your produce.
1. I read that pesticide residues can cause male infertility.
This question comes from one recent study. Because the study was “observational,” it cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship. In addition, information on the amount of “pesticides” consumed was based on self-reported intake of fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest level of pesticide residues.
Researchers also failed to record whether participants washed their produce. The amount of pesticide residue on each fruit or vegetable they actually consumed was essentially unknown. Participants completed just one food-frequency questionnaire to report how much produce they ate over an entire year. Could you recall all the fruits and veggies you ate over the past year?
Studies that make wild, headline-grabbing leaps like this could cause men to further avoid fruits and vegetables (which they already do in great numbers). If that’s the case, the health impacts would be far worse than a highly dubious linkage to sperm count.
2. Will pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables give me cancer?
Update (November 12, 2015): The European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) conducted a peer review of a German report, which said the pesticide glyphosate did not show carcinogenic properties, and the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer report, which said that the chemical was potentially carcinogenic. The ESFA findings show that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans.
Human epidemiology does not support the hypothesis that cancer or other human illnesses are related to pesticides as food residues. As Reuters described, “Regulators in the United States and many other countries have long considered glyphosate among the safest herbicides in use. A review of the chemical by the German government for the European Union last year concluded that no link to cancer has been established.”
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on March 20, 2015, announced that it was classifying glyphosate [PDF link] as “probably carcinogenic.” However, numerous experts have said that IARC’s determination is based on flawed and discredited science. Shockingly, the scientist who conducted one of the studies that was key to IARC’s findings stated that IARC’s conclusion was “totally wrong” (emphasis added).
An article in Western Producer represents virtually the only attention the media has given to this disturbing revelation. The article further states: “National regulatory agencies around the globe have evaluated glyphosate and concluded the weed killer is not a human health risk. As an example, a recent German report concluded that glyphosate is probably not a carcinogen.”
The body of credible science stands in stark contrast to IARC’s review, which bafflingly excluded several studies that showed glyphosate not to be carcinogenic.
3. I’ve heard pesticide residues on food cause autism in children.
A recent study attempted to link pesticide use to autism in children, of course spurring media attention and concerns among moms. However, experts called this assertion “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.” It’s fear-mongering at its worst.
4. Non-organic farmers just douse their land in pesticide and hurt the environment.
Farmers use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA. The precision with which farmers can apply pest control products is better than ever with the help of GPS technology, like that on our cell phones. Farmers pinpoint the exact areas that need pest control and leave other areas alone. Pesticides are expensive, so it would not be fiscally responsible for farmers to waste or overuse them. In addition, if pesticide use harmed the land, farmers wouldn’t use them, as they would be destroying their investment in their family’s future.
5. Isn’t biotechnology (imprecisely referred to as “GMOs”) creating crazy pesticides that are worse for us?
Biotechnology has actually reduced pesticide use 37%. In fact, from 1996-2011, biotech crops have collectively reduced global pesticide applications by 1.04 billion pounds of the active ingredient. Biotechnology has played an important role in the reduction and more precise use of pesticides, and allowing for use of more environmentally friendly herbicides.
6. Pesticides can make farm workers sick, right? So isn’t it bad to ingest at any level?
Environmental and occupational exposure to pesticide, particularly in situations where handling instructions aren’t followed, is not remotely akin to trace amounts on food. Dr. Carl Winter, Director of the FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, makes it clear that “dietary exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides pose negligible risks to consumers.” In fact, because farmers can use less insecticide with Bt crops, farmers are more protected from accidental poisoning.
7. But I’m really better off eating organic, right?
Nope. Both organic and traditional farmers use pesticide (organic farmers cannot use synthetic pesticides, but may use approved naturally sourced pesticides), and both types of produce are nutritious and safe to eat. As if that weren’t bad enough, organic fruits and vegetables are currently being recalled at much higher rates than their traditionally produced counterparts because of foodborne illnesses. But whether you choose organic or traditionally produced fruit and vegetables, the important thing is to get plenty of servings of fruits and vegetables each day and to handle all food safely to prevent foodborne illness.
8. What about this new-fangled 2,4-D we’ve been hearing about? A new cause for concern right?
While we love the use of ‘new fangled,’ we’re happy to say there’s no cause for concern here either. 2,4-D is an herbicide that’s been in use in the US since the 1940s to control weeds. Dr.Henry Chin, our toxicology and food safety expert, highlighted that many institutions have validated its safety. He noted that “the U.S. EPA evaluated 2,4-D for carcinogenic effects in 1988, 1992, and again in 2004. 2,4-D was categorized as ‘Group D – not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity’ in 2004. In animal studies, animals were fed directly with 2,4-D for up to two years and no evidence for carcinogenicity was found. Another group at the WHO, the FAO/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues, has also supported the safety and continued use of 2,4-D.” Additionally, Dr. Chin let us know that “there is no indication that 2,4-D should be of concern in terms of dietary exposures. Residues of 2,4-D are rarely found in foods, and when found are very low.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as well as the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Cancer Society, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Institute of Food Technologists, the American Institute of Nutrition, and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition encourage parents to feed their children more, not less, of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Bring more produce into your family, and you’ll be better off.