Most vegetables arrive on the supermarket shelf after being sprayed with a cocktail of pesticides or other chemicals, potentially posing a risk to human health. But what is the alternative and how can shoppers avoid the most problematic items?
To answer some of these key questions and put the situation in perspective, Forked! spoke to Nick Mole (NM) from Pesticide Action Network UK, the leading body working to reduce pesticide use both in the UK and beyond.
Forked!: Consumers hear relatively little about the pesticides that may be used to grow their veg. What’s the extent of the problem and how worried should they really be?
NM: In the UK, only around 5 per cent of land is under organic production, which means in effect grown without pesticides, so 95 per cent is grown using pesticides. The vast majority of the food we import is also grown using pesticides. For the average consumer who does not buy mainly organic, it is safe to say that the food they eat will have been grown with pesticides and may well still contain residues. […] As these are invisible and odourless, it is impossible to determine which produce has residues and which doesn’t! And contrary to received wisdom, washing and peeling is unlikely to remove residues as they are often contained within the whole fruit or vegetable.
Forked!: Most of the technical-sounding names of chemicals used in vegetable cultivation won’t mean much to people. What are some of the key ‘nasties’ shoppers should be wary of?
NM: That is a difficult question to give a specific answer to. Different chemicals have different potential effects and can of course affect people in different ways. […] However, it is clear that certain food items are more likely to contain one or more pesticide residues and some are more prone to this than others. If you are worried about consuming residues, PAN UK would recommend you buy organic versions of the worst offenders, such as oranges, grapes, apples, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce.
Forked!: Just how much of a health risk does pesticide usage in conventional vegetable growing really pose?
NM: It is difficult to say and hard not to sound alarmist. […] That said, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that prolonged exposure [to pesticides and residues] can have harmful effects on health, particularly for vulnerable groups such as babies, children, pregnant women and the elderly. As an example, a 2012 study by the US environmental news service EcoWatch showed that women exposed to certain agricultural pesticides gave birth to children with lower birth weights.
Forked!: Shoppers can buy organic if they can afford it, but shouldn’t the food producers, retailers – and indeed the authorities – be doing more to reduce pesticide use?
NM: PAN UK believes much more should and could be done […]. Some retailers are taking the issue seriously and working to reduce the use of some pesticides and residues in the products they sell. However, […] there needs to be a radical move away from the current thinking of pesticides first to a ‘pesticides last and only if all other non-chemical techniques have failed’ approach. This needs to be adopted by growers and farmers with support from government and retailers to help them adopt new chemical-free approaches to crop production.
This is an edited extract from the Ecologist Guide to Food, by Andrew Wasley, published by Leaping Hare on February 28th.
Want more info? www.pan-uk.org