Frequently Asked Questions on Pesticides and Food Safety

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Farmers have a number of practices in their “toolbox” to grow all the nutritious fruits, vegetables and grains our diets rely upon. But the use of pesticides is not well understood. Pesticides are used by farmers to protect crops. Maybe you know a little about pesticides or maybe you know a lot. Either way, our frequently asked questions (FAQ) list below should shine some light on any lingering questions about farming and pesticide use:

Q: What are pesticides and how are they used?

A: Pesticides are chemicals that are tactically applied to organic and conventional crops in order to protect them from insects, rodents, weeds and types of fungal growths. The use of pesticides must be documented by farmers and is regulated by several government agencies worldwide.

Q: Are there other benefits to using pesticides to consider?

A: By keeping pests and weeds at bay, the use of pesticides helps farmers to produce high-quality fruits and vegetables quicker and with greater yields. Pesticides also increase the shelf life of several crops because they help to prevent the growth of mold and mildew that can increase spoilage. This reduces the cost of your favorite fruits and vegetables and can make them safer to eat.

Q: Are fruits and vegetables safe to eat if they have been treated with pesticides?

A: Yes. The chemicals used in pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These agencies monitor the types and amount of pesticides used on all crops. Based on scientific evidence, these agencies have deemed the use of pesticides to be safe and the residues that remain on food, if any, do not cause adverse health effects.

Q: Are there other general concerns about the use of pesticides to people or the environment?

A: Past reports indicate that pesticides can adversely impact the groundwater, soil, air, or the workers applying the pesticides. However, scientific research shows that adhering to federal regulations on pesticide use diminishes these risks. In addition, farmers use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques to safely treat crops and minimize environmental or human health impacts.

Q: Do pesticides build up on the fruits and vegetables we eat, and how long do the residues last?

A: Some fruits and vegetables do have minute amounts of pesticide residues present on them. Pesticides can remain on food for a short time. Over time, exposure to oxygen and sunlight will cause the residues to break down and dissipate. By the time the food gets to you, there is little-to-no residue left. Crops are constantly tested to make sure the residues are low and that the food that reaches us is safe.

Q: Is there anything being done to reduce the amount of pesticides used by farmers?

A: While farmers do not douse their crops with pesticides, over the years, farmers have developed a technique known as IPM which combines the use of physical, biological, and chemical pest controls. This allows farmers to use fewer pesticides and maintain reliable crop yields—this is profitable for the farmer but is also better for the environment.

Hopefully, this FAQ has clued you in on how farmers responsibly use regulated pesticides to protect organic and conventional crops from unwanted pests. While the use of these chemicals requires precaution, they can be used in a safe and effective manner. We hope this allays any “foodie fears” and you have an extra helping of veggies tonight!

This blog post was written by Tamika Sims, Ph.D. and University of Maryland dietetic intern Adam Sachs.