Pesticides and Agriculture

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In 1989, environmental activists claimed that a chemical called Alar that was used to assist in the production of lush red apples had created what amounted to “poisoned apples.” They used this claim as part of a campaign to have the substance banned. Yet it turned out that these “poisoned” apples were as much of a fairy tale as the apple in Snow White. The Alar hysteria was completely debunked. Nevertheless, Alar has never been used again on apples in the United States. Moreover, the crusade against pesticide use on produce continues. Consumers Union, the group that produces Consumer Reports, produces a report on the content of pesticides in children’s food3 and another report on the pesticide residues in various foods. These reports conclude that certain foods have unacceptably high pesticide residues and may well cause cancer. The facts point in a very different direction. 

Pesticide levels rarely, if ever, approach unsafe levels. Even when activists cry wolf because residues exceed federal limits that does not mean the products are not safe. In fact, residues can be hundreds of times above regulatory limits and still be safe:

• According to one National Research Council (NRC) report, “the great majority of individual naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals in the diet appears to be present at levels below which any significant adverse biological effect is likely, and so low that they are unlikely to pose any appreciable cancer risk.” 

• The American Academy of Pediatrics notes, • “The risks of pesticides in the diet are remote, long-term, and theoretical, and there is no cause for immediate concern by parents. The risks to children over their lifetime of experiencing the major chronic diseases associated with the typical American diet far exceed the theoretical risks associated with pesticide residues.” 

• Various government agencies test produce for residues to ensure that they meet safety standards. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the state of California conduct the most comprehensive and regular testing. Both find not only that residue levels are far lower than any standard of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but also that they are most often undetectable (see details in the next section). Residue levels decline even further when we • wash produce. One study shows that washing fruits and vegetables can reduce exposure by 97 percent for some pesticides.