Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
Wander around any green grocer’s, fruit and vegetable market or supermarket, and it’s likely you’ll be accosted by a wave of colour.
From the rows of green and red apples to the fluffy white cauliflowers, the autumnal plums and the leafy greens, everything looks the very image of health.
However, chances are that many of these wholesome looking foods aren’t quite so healthy as they seem. You see, unbeknown to us, many of the fresh produce we fill our homes and our fridges with have been treated with pesticides and toxic chemicals to ensure they reach us in tip-top condition.
So long as our five-a-day reaches us safely, this might sound fine. Yet every day, we’re greeted by more and more horror stories about pesticides and the harmful effects they’re having on us. Only earlier this month, we were told that California’s booming strawberry industry had a dangerous pesticide addiction1, and then we welcomed the news that EU bosses2 plan to ban 40 harmful chemicals by 2020 in a bid to reduce environmental damage.
But what are pesticides, and why do we use them? And are they really as damaging as those health gurus lead us to believe? If you’ve ever wondered what the fuss is all about, then you’ve come to the right place. Read on to discover the Lucy Bee lowdown to pesticides, helping you to learn all that you could ever need to know.
Quite simply, pesticides are chemicals or substances which farmers use to kill off pests. They’re often used to protect plants or crops from damage, including weeds, diseases and insects but they have a whole host of other uses. For example, they can be used to kill mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases, or to kill weeds that cause environmental damage.
However, although pesticides quite obviously have their own benefits (they help farmers to harvest larger crops, keeping food prices down), they’ve also been found to be toxic to humans and wildlife.
Unless you go organic, some of your favourite foods will have been treated by chemicals to reach you at the dinner table. Strawberries and tomatoes are the two crops with the most intensive use of soil fumigants, while much of the kale we love to eat or throw into smoothies has been treated with herbicides. In fact, much of the UK’s kale crop (57%) is treated to control weeds and a massive 95% of beetroot is treated with herbicides for similar reasons3.
Doesn’t sound so healthy now, does it? Especially when you take this quote from Dr and author Michelle Schoffro Cook into consideration4:
“An apple a day might have kept the doctor away prior to the industrialisation of food growing and preparation. But, according to research compiled by the United States Drug Administration (USDA), today’s apple contains residue of eleven different neurotoxins—azinphos, methyl chloripyrifos, diazinon, dimethoate, ethion, omthoate, parathion, parathion methyl, phosalone, and phosmet. That doesn’t sound too appetising does it? The average apple is sprayed with pesticides seventeen times before it is harvested.”
Yet however little you may or may not know about them, pesticides are used on a huge, global scale – in 2007 alone, 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides were used worldwide, with the US accountable for almost a quarter of this usage5. Staggeringly, in 2007, the UK used 3lbs of pesticides for every hectare of farmland – America uses just 2.2lbs for every hectare.
Of course, use of these chemicals has plummeted in recent years, thanks largely to the ever-growing health warnings. Since 2005, the UK has seen pesticide usage drop3 by almost one quarter.
Finally, most pesticides can fall into two groups – there are your biodegradable pesticides, which will be broken down by living creatures into harmless compounds, or persistent pesticides, which can take years to break down.
Quite simply, pesticides can be found anywhere and everywhere!
Not only can they be used on crops and plants you’ll go on to eat from your plate but they’re also used to kill bug-bearing mosquitoes, to kill invasive weeds which can damage wildlife, to control algae in ponds and to manage rats and insects in homes or public environments. Avid gardeners will most likely even be using them in their own back yard.
More and more, the health effects of pesticides and their usage are becoming widely-known and now get debated in the media on a pretty much daily basis.
In fact, the side effects of pesticides are so concerning that the EU is considering a ban on certain pesticides2 by 2020 in a bid to combat environmental damage and to prevent dangers to our own health.
Welcoming the news, Friends of the Earth campaigner Paul de Sylva told the BBC2"Intensive use of chemicals is harming bees and other wildlife and the quality of our water and soils. That is the real threat to food security." There’s even growing concern that our use of pesticides could be leading to the death of our fuzzy, six-legged friends, the humble bee6. I'm sure you've read of the knock-on effect that this could have for foods in general. All creatures have their place and purpose in the food-chain cycle, with Mother Nature playing an important role and does the use of pesticides interfere with this?
Of course, much of the concern about pesticides is due to the effects on our own health, although these vary according to which pesticides we consume. Some, such as organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system, while others may irritate the skin. There are even some, such as Organochlorine Insecticides, which were widely used in the past but have been withdrawn after serious health risks.
Meanwhile, some pesticides have been linked to causing hormone problems. In fact, The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants7 found that 9 out of 12 of the most dangerous chemicals are used as pesticides.
Workers who often come into contact with pesticides are sometimes known to suffer from poisoning, with common complaints including abdominal pain, dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting. They’ve also been linked9 to skin irritation, reproductive problems and birth defects.
Yet despite this, many of our foods are still treated with pesticides and chemicals, many of which we know nothing of. It’s concerns like these that have led to the organic food movement – for many, knowing exactly how their food has been treated is worth the extra cost.
It goes without saying that pesticides are linked to some fairly terrifying health problems. But are they really all that bad? Surely they must have some use to us?
Well, yes. Quite simply, pesticides help farmers and shoppers without us even realising it. When the EU announced plans2 to ban the use of pesticides, the UK government quite openly opposed the rules, saying they could hit yields and increase food prices.
You see, there’s growing concern that if we ban the use of these chemicals then more and more crops will be destroyed. This could lead to a lack of food which, in turn, will drive the prices of your humble cauliflowers, apples and tomatoes right up. The cost of eating healthily cut be sent soaring sky-high.
In fact, studies have found that not using pesticides can send crop yields plummeting by about 10%. while others have found that a ban on pesticides in the United States may result in a rise of food prices, loss of jobs, and an increase in world hunger11.
If plans to ban these chemicals go ahead then farming bodies believe that it will affect potato and wheat yields by 12% and onions by a massive 50%. We may even have to accept that shiny, blemish-free apples will be a thing of the past.
It’s food for thought, isn’t it? Where do you stand on pesticides, and what do you do? Do you prefer to have affordable foods, or would you rather know exactly what’s touched the food on your plate?
If, like us, you’re concerned about the harmful effects that pesticides can have on you, then it always pays to go organic. Lucy Bee (as organic produce ourselves) are massive fans of buying organic meats, fruit and veg wherever possible – and always supporting local farmers, if you can.
While it may be more expensive to buy or shop organic, sometimes the cost of our health is far greater still. As environmentalist David R Brower said12: “The more we pour the big machines, the fuel, the pesticides, the herbicides, the fertiliser and chemicals into farming, the more we knock out the mechanism that made it all work in the first place.”
About Lucy Bee Limited
Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.