When the first chemical pesticides were developed in the course of the industrial revolution, they seemed to be the ultimate solution to guarantee our food supplies: they should prevent crop failures, maximise yields, extend storage life and substantially facilitate fieldwork at the same time. But what was back then and is still today often being dismissed are the hazardous impacts of most pesticides – not only on our environment and our agro- and biodiversity, but also on our health.
What are pesticides?
Pesticides is the overall term for chemical plant protection products used in agriculture. The word stems from Latin and already suggests the dangerous effects: “pestis” means plague and “caedere” means killing. Pesticides are hence chemical substances to kill or at least deter undesired plants, animals, or fungi that threaten our crops. They are divided into three main subgroups: herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.
How pesticides end up in our bodies
When pesticides are sprayed on the fields, they can contaminate the plants, the yields, the soil, and our ground water. Whilst spraying, the wind may even carry them to our homes and our gardens – and contaminate the fields and crops of organic farmers. Through evaporation and rain, pesticides can be carried even further away, which explains why they can meanwhile even be found in Antarctica where no farming takes place. Problematically, since most pesticides are not water-soluble but bind to fats and other organisms, they can also easily travel up the food chain and end up in our bodies if we eat meat or fish. Various studies have detected pesticides in human hair samples, breast milk, and urine. One of the biggest studies was carried out in Germany in 2015: it found that out of about 2000 urine samples, 99,6 percent contained glyphosate – a herbicide that is classified as potentially carcinogenic by the World Health Organization WHO.
Pesticides are chemical substances to kill or at least deter undesired plants, animals, or fungi that threaten our crops
Health effects: acute pesticide poisoning and chronic diseases
Ever since pesticides have been on the market, acute pesticide poisonings have taken many lives around the globe. A study from 2020 suggests that each year, 385 million cases of unintended acute pesticide poisonings occur worldwide, causing around 11,000 deaths. The symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning range from skin rashes, fatigue, headaches, joint and muscle aches to vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea. In severe cases, heart, lung, or kidney failure can occur. This explains why especially in poorer countries, about 300,000 people intentionally take pesticides with suicidal intent every year. Besides acute poisoning, pesticides can also cause chronic diseases. In France and Italy, Parkinson’s has already been recognised as an occupational disease among farmers. And various studies repeatedly suggest links between pesticides and asthma, allergies, malformations, growth disorders, obesity, diabetes, breast and liver cancer and leukaemia.
Pesticides: how contaminated is our food?
In 2019, 96.302 food samples of fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, wine, milk and swine fat were analysed regarding pesticide residues by the EUROPEAN FOOD SAFETY AUTHORITY (EFSA). On a positive note, more than half of the samples were free of quantifiable levels of residues and 45 percent contained one or more residues in concentrations below or equal to permitted levels. Only 2 percent contained residues exceeding the legal maximum. But these figures are deceitful, because many foods test positive for multiple pesticide residues.
The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe states on its website, that the combined effects of such pesticide-cocktails “may be additive or magnified compared to the effects observed following exposure to each pesticide alone. If pesticide cocktails are taken into account, the permitted limits will be proven not safe at all, which will reveal that the health risk for humans is not that ‘low’ as EFSA likes to claim. This will confirm that the present model of poison-based agriculture is, in fact, highly problematic.” The foods that have been found to be most contaminated with multiple pesticides are strawberries, grapes, apples, paprika, tomatoes and iceberg-salad.
How to get rid of pesticides in food
When it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables, washing them under running water and then rubbing them dry is the first step to get rid of pesticide residues on the product surface. This is not only advisable for fruits and vegetables that we eat with the peel, but also for those we peel before eating. Because when peeling or cutting them, pesticides from the surface can enter the pulp. Although peeling can reduce the pesticide content, it also removes the most valuable ingredients of our foods. (For example: 70 percent of an apple’s vitamins are found directly under the thin peel.) Still, washing, rubbing and peeling only removes part of the pesticides present in some fruit and vegetables. American researchers have found that the best way to remove pesticides is to bathe the product for 15 minutes in water which contains 1 percent baking soda, since the soda ensures that pesticide residues are broken down.
Say no to pesticides: choose organic!
The political hesitation of simply banning dangerous poisons bears witness to a strong agricultural lobby, for which a lot of money is at stake. The example of glyphosate has proved this repeatedly: although the WHO already classified the herbicide as potentially carcinogenic back in 2015, its approval has been renewed again and again – currently until the end of this year. Whilst politics are moving slowly, the best way for end consumers to support a more sustainable agriculture that harms neither ourselves nor our environment is buying organic products. Organic farmers keep pests and diseases under control through systematic crop rotation and combination and the use of natural products. Thereby, they do not only protect our environment, our water and the health of plants, animals, and humans, but also ensure the livelihoods for future generations.
Author: Ina Hiester, freelance journalist for the organic sector
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