Pesticides are chemicals we use in agriculture to make it easier to grow crops. These chemicals kill pests, weeds, and fungus and are used by the billions of pounds each year.
"Pesticide" is an umbrella term that includes a variety of chemicals, including:
Insecticides, which kill insects
Rodenticides, which kill rodents
Herbicides, which kill weeds
Fungicides, which kill fungus
Algicides, which kill algae
Bactericides, which kill bacteria
It’s not just farm workers who are exposed to these chemicals, nearly everyone is now exposed to pesticides on a daily basis. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that about 50 million Americans drink groundwater that is contaminated by pesticides. In addition to contaminated drinking water, pesticides are in our food.
How Pesticides End Up in Our Food
In the United States, the process for marketing and selling a pesticide generally looks like this:
1. First, before it is put on the market, the pesticide must be proven that it will not harm the health or the environment. The chemical is supposed to be tested in short-term animal studies.
2. Then, if the chemical passes the testing, it’s labeled, “not likely to be a carcinogenic in humans.” At this point is can be used across all crops.
The problem is the studies are only looking at whether or not these chemicals cause cancer. They overlook other life-altering conditions caused by these chemicals. What about endocrine disruption, neurological functions, autoimmune disease and more? Cancer is not the only thing we should be looking for.
3. Furthermore, scientists are finding these studies are too nearsighted. Research is pointing out that the effects of pesticides are often not seen until years after exposure or after years of accumulation.
How Labeling Protects Pesticide Use
Another concerning aspect of pesticides, is that the FDA currently classifies pesticide use as a process. You might not think anything of that at first, but isn’t using pesticides actually a process? But it’s important because this label means pesticides in our food is considered a byproduct of a process – a necessary evil if you will.
An alternative to this label would be if pesticides were considered a contaminant or an additive. Calling pesticides what they are, which is a contaminant would be overtly acknowledging we are adding poisons to our food. Or if pesticides were considered an additive, foods that required pesticides would be subject to monitoring and testing – but this is also not likely.
Does Your Wine Taste Like Pesticides?
In a 2007 study, researchers set out to see if professional sommeliers and chefs could taste pesticides in wine. High-end organic and non-organic bottles of wine were chosen from different regions of France. Organic wines tended to have less pesticides, while the non-organic wines had over 4600 parts per billion pesticides detected in some cases.
The professionals were then given pesticides diluted in water, in levels comparable to how they were found in the wine. Then in blind taste testing, the professionals were able to taste pesticides most of the time.
What is startling is not only the prevalence of pesticides in these high-end wines, but the ability to taste them. But without knowing what these chemicals taste like on their own, how is it that you would know if what we are tasting are pesticides?
Avoiding The Dirty Dozen
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit dedicated to environmental research and education, who has especially gained attention for their reports on pesticides in our food.
In their 2017 report, EWG ran an analysis on samplings provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the 48 types of crops tested that were conventionally-grown, 70% of all samples had pesticide contamination. A total of 178 different types of pesticides were found on these crops.
Other startling findings included:
Over 98% of the samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, cherries, apples, and nectarines had at least one pesticide.
One sample of strawberries had 20 different types of pesticides.
Spinach typically had twice as much pesticides as any other crop.
The EWG has compiled a list of the 12 most contaminated food items, which they call The Dirty Dozen. These are the top 12 foods that test positive for pesticides when purchasing their non-organic form:
Sweet bell peppers
They also included some of the cleanest vegetables, which are relatively safe to buy in their non-organic form. They call these the Clean Fifteen and include:
Sweet peas (frozen)
How to Avoid Pesticides
To avoid pesticides, the best thing you can do is drink filtered water from a glass or stainless steel container and consume organic, pasture-raised food as much as possible. It’s up to us to avoid pesticides in our food and water, we can no longer count on the government to keep us safe from things like glyphosate/Roundup. Sad but true.