What are Pesticides?
Pesticides are chemicals used to prevent undesirable insects, plants, fungus, rodents, and microorganisms from damaging crops. They are used by farmers and gardeners to increase the amount of food produced and decrease the amount of labor needed to maintain the health of their plants. There are also less-known uses of pesticides in pet shampoos, building materials, and boat bottoms that may also regularly come in contact with humans. The use of pesticides is the subject of great debate and can cause levels of fear and apprehension when people are deciding what foods to eat. Mindful consumers must rely on trusted evidence-based sources when deciding what to buy, and be careful of misinformation from unreliable sources.
Regulation of Pesticides
Several regulatory bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set laws and guidelines that help keep our food safe for consumption. The limit for pesticides is measured as the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL), which is a comparative measure of weight. It is the maximum amount (measured in milligrams) of pesticide residue allowed per kilogram of body weight. One must keep in mind that the EPA and WHO face severe pressure from the agriculture industry to keep these levels as high as possible, as their gross profit is greatly increased with more pesticide use.
Effects of Pesticides in Humans
Even in very small amounts, most pesticides used today disrupt the functioning of our cells. In small amounts, the body can remediate these issues itself and purge the body of these toxins. However, in larger amounts, many pesticides can cause serious damage to the body in a whole host of ways. Studies have shown that pesticide consumption has been linked to:
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms
Neurological issues (especially in children)
According to the WHO: “Children are more vulnerable to the effects of pesticides because of their smaller size and hence greater exposure (on a milligram per kilogram bodyweight basis), different metabolism and still developing internal organs.”
There are many more effects of pesticides that have been studied and there are sure to be many more that are not yet understood.
Other Effects of Pesticides
Although many people think pesticides only apply to fruits and vegetables, we must be aware that many of the animals we eat (and whose byproducts we consume) are fed with plant material that may contain pesticides. Through a process called bioaccumulation, these pesticides can build up in animals and can prove harmful to humans when ingested.
Environmental Impacts of Pesticides
Pesticide use can also damage biological systems that humans rely heavily upon. One such system is comprised of tiny insects you’ve seen buzzing around flowers. That’s right: bees.
Bees are dying in great numbers around the world and it’s a huge problem. In the United States, we rely on bees to pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food. In the U.S. alone, honey bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of crops every year. Unfortunately, the previous administration approved the use of a pesticide known to have detrimental effects on bees. We hope that the new administration will take our food systems more seriously and prevent the use of these harmful chemicals to our pollinators.
What You Can Do About It
There is loads of information about what foods are safe and which farming methods use the least amount of pesticides. Although many organic foods are generally safer to eat, they are more expensive and are still allowed to have certain pesticides in low levels. Some foods can even absorb pesticides through their flesh or from the soil, so washing them will not remove everything. Luckily, the Environment Working Group (EWG) produces helpful reports that can help you choose which foods to buy organic and which are generally safe to eat.
The “Dirty Dozen” are twelve foods that should always be bought organic AND should be washed thoroughly before eating.
The “Clean Fifteen” are fifteen foods that are generally safe to buy non-organic, but should still be washed thoroughly.
So what do we mean by “wash thoroughly?” Many pesticides can stick to the surface of foods, especially those with lots of nooks and crannies, like strawberries. Soaking your produce in water with a splash of apple cider vinegar then thoroughly rinsing them is a great way to ensure you remove most of the pesticide residues from your food.
Pesticides are everywhere. There is no avoiding them completely so there is no use in fearing them. Remember, you the individual have the power of choice. You can make choices as to what you eat and how you prepare your food. Choosing organic foods with low pesticide levels is almost like a form of voting. When our money goes toward food systems that use organic, limited-pesticide-use methods, we empower those organizations and take away from systems that are poisoning us and our planet.