What is the deal with pesticides in produce? To organic or not to organic?

As I am suffering from a disease, I apologize for the time it took me to get this extremely critical article published. I really wanted to churn it out in my usual style. I tried starting this post with some funny lines. They all sucked. Then I moved on to analogies. They didn’t make sense. Then I tried a newsflash of sorts. That just sounded lame. So I’m just going to start with some basics and gradually move on to the crux of the issue. Sorry, but the disease is a downer! Writers block… you need to have had to relate!

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What are pesticides anyway?

Pesticides (including insecticides) are substances or mixtures of substances intended to protect against pests where the pesticide may be a chemical or a biological agent or device and the pest may be anything from insects to plant pathogens to worms to mammals that spread disease or cause any kind of nuisance.

Pesticide use, like most things we have today, was invented a long time back and, obviously, for a reason. This might be news to you but, for a while now, we humans have been using chemicals on our crops to save them from pests. What started off as dusting of elemental sulphur (in ancient Mesopotamia about 4500 years) got transformed into the use of…

  • toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead by the 15th century,
  • nicotine sulphate based insecticides in the 17th century, and
  • natural pesticides derived from chrysanthemum and roots of tropical vegetables in the 19th century.

It was in the 1950s that things started to get ugly when synthetic pesticides and insecticides (like DDT) were starting to become the preferred choice. Pesticide manufacturers started manufacturing too much synthetic pesticides and their use became widespread. Between 1950 and now, pesticide use has has increased 50-fold and per this article we are now looking at the following ungodly numbers…

World pesticide amount used exceeded 5.0 billion pounds in 2000 and 2001. Herbicides accounted for the largest portion of total use, followed by other pesticide use, and fungicide use. Total world pesticide amount used decreased in 2001 for all pesticide types.

There’s got to be something good about it!

If we have been using pesticides for thousands of years and if the government regulates it’s use, there should be some good to pesticide usage right? OK, the government regulation means nothing, but you know what I mean – pesticides didn’t come into existence for no reason. So what are the pros associated with pesticides?

  • Better yield: Pesticide use helps in controlling pests and plant diseases and hence results in improved yield.
  • Protection against infection: Using pesticide to ward off pests has saved many (human and animal) lives from insect born infectious diseases like malaria, typhoid, black plague etc.
  • More revenue: By improving yields, pesticide use helps agrobusinesses generate more revenue. As a matter of fact, for every $1 spent on pesticides, $4 worth of crops are saved.
  • Variety & availability: A variety of crops are made available year round removing ‘seasonal’ from the equation.

And of course there is the bad!

As expected though, as we started using pesticides and as demand and ‘food manufacturing’ increased, their usage has also increased drastically. And what is the easiest way to meet demand? Yep! Dump the natural and move completely to artificial. And since synthetic pesticides can be produced in large quantities with ease, that is exactly what we did.

So when we realized we are using too much chemical on our food, we started looking into the possible ill effects of pesticide use and came back with an impressive list.

Acute & chronic effects

Pesticide exposure can cause a variety of adverse health effects. These effects can range from simple irritation of the skin and eyes to more severe effects such as affecting the nervous system, mimicking hormones causing reproductive problems, and also causing cancer.

More here.

Acute poisoning from a single or short-term exposure can result in death. Chronic impacts of long-term exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues in food, could also result in death.

More here.

Birth defects

Fifteen studies from 9 countriesexamined associations between pesticides and birth defects. The studies consistently showed increased risk with pesticide exposure. Specific defects included limb reductions,urogenital anomalies,central nervous system defects,orofacial clefts,heart defects,and eye anomalies. The rate of any birth defect was also increased by parental exposure to pesticides.

Fetal deaths

Fetal death includes spontaneous abortion, fetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal death. Results were consistent across several study designs; 9 of 11 studiesfound positive associations with pesticide exposure.

Genotoxicity

Pesticide exposure doubled the frequency of chromosome aberrations. In clinical practice, these aberrations could present as spontaneous abortion, birth defects, sperm abnormalities, or cancer risk.

More here.

And here is some literature about pesticide exposure causing asthma, neurological defects and cancer.

But the government has it under control, right?

Yes, the government set limits!

But wait! No one cares about limits! Its all about making a buck isn’t it? This is a world where people will do anything to shine some greeen… and that includes killing you. I’m not kidding one bit here.

While developed countries have good control of food production (and manufacturing), developing and under-developed countries struggle with quality and control. As is the case with adulteration, control over agricultural produce – the seeds, the methods, the pesticides, the quantities – is very weak. And the reason for this?

  • Farmers are uneducated and don’t posses the capability to understand the risks involved with excessive pesticide use.
  • Greedy farmers and food manufacturers use WAY more pesticide than their supposed to in an effort to improve their yields.
  • And of course, corruption in its many forms.

So what happens when people don’t care about limits? Well, things get ugly… real ugly!

When bad becomes worse and worse becomes WTF!

OK, so pesticides are being used and the government can’t and won’t do crap about it. This isn’t any different from robbery or bribery or prostitution right? Wrong. The difference is that this particular issue could harm you in ways you wouldn’t imagine and that isn’t because pesticides are being used in produce but because…

  • Pesticides are being used in astronomical quantities in India (and other developing countries)
  • Pesticides that have been banned due to their extremely toxic nature are still being used in India (and other developing countries)

Here is some evidence explaining why the situation is worse than you think it is.

This 2005 article from India Together says…

Pesticide use in India has jumped hundred folds from 154 million tones in 1954 to 88,000 million tones in 2001 [Thats 571-fold in under 50 years!]. Punjab is one of the largest users of pesticides: 6,972 million tones a year.

This Nov 2010 article from India Today says…

The NGO picked up 193 samples of 35 different vegetables from markets in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. These were then tested for 106 pesticides and the results were alarming as four of the five banned chemicals were found in these samples.

Banned substances like chlordane, heptachlor, endrin and ethyl parathion were found in almost all samples of bitter gourd. Pesticide residue was also recovered from vegetables like cauliflower, tomato, ladyfinger, brinjal, cucumber, cabbage, potatoes and onions.

According to the findings, the pesticides used in India are 750 times higher than the European standards. These chemicals can cause brain cancer, blood cancer, kidney or lung damage and neurological problems. It can also disrupt liver and hormone functions and can cause several skin disorders.

The pesticide residue limit in India has not been reviewed for the past 30 years. Experts agree that strict monitoring from state agencies is an absolute imperative.

This post on Living Farms says…

The chemical came into spotlight in India when at Kasargad in Kerala it was sprayed aerially and the local population of many villages was exposed to it. What followed was very shocking. It led to physical and mental defects in poor farmers and their families. Studies have shown endosulfan to accumulate in a mother’s breast milk and it has been linked to appalling birth deformities, the like of which are still being observed at Kasargad, “Kerala’s Bhopal”.

Such events have occurred across the Globe and 62 countries all over the world have either banned it or restricted its use. Unfortunately India has done nothing to stem the use of this endocrine disruptor which can cause changes at the genetic level.

This very recent article on toxiclinks says…

However, studies over the years have shown that a little over 200 grams of vegetables that an average Indian statistically gets on a daily basis, is a recipe of a toxic blend of over 40 deadly chemical pesticides….

The year 2008 document of AVRDC  ‘The World Vegetable Center’, thus rightly suggests India’s pesticide use on vegetables as alarmingly high.

This, also very recent, article from The Times Of India says…

Rampant use of banned pesticides in fruits and vegetables continues to put at risk the life of the common man. Farmers apply pesticides such as chlordane, endrin and heptachor that can cause serious neurological problems, kidney damage and skin diseases. A study cond`ucted by Delhi-based NGO Consumer-Voice reveals that the amount of pesticides used in eatables in India is as much as 750 times the European standards. The survey collected sample data from various wholesale and retail shops in Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata.

“Out of five internationally-banned pesticides, four were found to be common in vegetables sold in the Indian markets. Banned pesticides were found in bitter gourd and spinach,” said Sisir Ghosh, head of Consumer-Voice. The banned chemicals included chlordane, a potent central nervous system toxin, endrin, which can cause headache nausea and dizziness, and heptachor that can damage the liver and decrease fertility.

And make no mistake, this absolutely is the case in pretty much all developing nations as explained here, here and here.

And guess what? Most of these risks seem to affect folks who make ‘healthy food choices’ more than their non-caring/unhealthy counterparts as these are the folks who tend to include more vegetables and fruit in their diet! And this, my friend, is how worse becomes WTF!

My thoughts?

Pardon my french but, from this and the other literature I have read on the subject, I have to say…

Les pesticides seront vas te faire encule jusqu’à

Alright Raj. Thats enough! Less scary, more healthy! Is there a solution?

If you do live in a developed country, this might not be that big a deal since controls are in place holding pesticide content within acceptable limits and worrying too much about this might be considered obsessive. But if you do live in a developing country, eating organic food ranks right up in the list of things you’d need to do to live a basic safe life. In other words, eating pesticide free food (in developing countries) is comparable to looking for vehicles on the road before crossing.

So, safely assuming all the vegetables and fruits you buy (in your developing nation) from your local grocer or grocery chain or street vendor is loaded with (accepted AND banned) pesticides (way beyond the upper limit), what do you do to keep your risk of pesticide poisoning low?

The best option to safety, taste and health – eat organic food!

Yes, finding organic food is hard and yes it is a bit more (10-20%) expensive. But wouldn’t you rather eat truly healthy produce and support organic farming than to eat chemical laden make-believe healthy produce and fall prey to greedy food manufacturers/distributors?

If organic food isn’t available for any reason,

  • Eat ONLY seasonal vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits that are in season need lesser pesticides than others.
  • Wash vegetables and fruits thoroughly using soap! Yep. You read that right. Use any detergent you use to wash your hands but be sure to wash off all the soap before eating/cooking.
  • Eat food that has worms in it. Pick fruits and vegetables that have worms in them. Clean them free of worms. Eat! If the reasoning isn’t obvious, if the worm wasn’t killed, you probably are safe too.
  • Any fruit, be it a banana or an apple or a fig, peel it before you deal it.
  • If you’re at a restaurant or someone’s house and are unsure about the produce you are being served, reduce your risk by eating less of what you’re skeptical about.

Think about it this way – You don’t eat food that has dirt/crap on it. Why would you eat food with (real) poison? You wouldn’t eat at a place that is known to cause food poisoning. Why would you eat pesticide laden food that you know could food poison and poison you and your family?

Eat organic food folks! A few bucks here and there isn’t worth the risk of chronic pesticide poisoning leading to possible neurodevelopmental disorders and cancers and acute poisoning resulting in anything from skin problems to possible death.

And remember – awareness precedes action! If you live in a developing country, consider this an eye-opener and make the necessary changes immediately. If you live in a developed country, please make an effort to forward this on to your friends and family who live in developing nations. Take a moment and make a difference. Please share this post on your wall or whatever else you share stuff on and spread the word.

In the next post, I will write in detail about some organic food stores in Chennai (India) that supply safe, delicious and pesticide free produce at reasonable prices. Stay tuned.

Peace out.

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16 responses to “What is the deal with pesticides in produce? To organic or not to organic?

  1. Divya October 19, 2011 at 3:14 am

    Wow! This is kinda scary. Mom stopped buying fruits (except bananas and the occasional papaya) for this very reason. She used to buy apples, which tasted of a wax-like substance, and then throw them away; and then she used to buy apples, wash them with soap, and proceed to wash them some more; and she eventually just stopped buying apples. Need to mention the more recent pomegranate, too. She said she read a whole bunch of articles that claimed farmers were adding some sort of artificial coloring agent to the pomegranates to give them their deep, jewel red color. This blows!

  2. varsha tiwary October 19, 2011 at 3:52 am

    Whew – Scary but needs to be said-again and again.
    The snooty trend of eating out of season /imported fruits and vegetables is asking for an extra large helping of toxins and deathly chemicals. Living organically means accepting Natures rhythms and seasons rather than supermarket’s logic.

  3. Sriram October 19, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Raj, great post, a must read for anybody who cares about health at least to some extent !!

  4. Koki October 19, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I was exactly thinking on the same lines today morning and here you have a post on pesticides ..BINGO…I was telling my mom to eat more veggies and ditch grains … later i was thinking what abt the pesticides that go along 😦 and your article makes me worry more…
    Here is another interesting article that i came across
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/#8
    Let me know your thoughts

    • Vizeet October 27, 2011 at 12:04 am

      The article makes an important point that organic insecticides can still be poisonous. I do not agree on many points. In my opinion:
      1. GMO is quite dangerous because we tweak genes to get more yield and we do not have complete knowledge of how these can effect health.
      2. Starvation is a problem more due to food distribution not food shortage. And problem is getting worse due to change in land usage. Malnutrition is because we moved out of certain crops like people eat less sweet potato, millet is replaced by wheat in most places and there is far less domestication of animals.
      3. Naturally grown food gets manure not fertilizers which will have more nutrients because you can’t have all nutrients in fertilizers. If you measure only few nutrients then results may be misleading. Organic meat is high in natural trans-fat which is good for health. High calcium carrot may be good for osteoporosis but may cause calcification because it is not balanced with magnesium.
      4. Fertilizer kills top soil which leads to desertification in long run.
      5. With cross breeding and GMO we are trying to produce crops that are high yielding and have higher reward. To get more yield we need to give more water etc which are resulting in depletion of these resources.
      6. Government gives incentives to farmers to use fertilizers, GMO and cross bred seeds to promote them which kills local varieties some them are high yielding.

      A good solution will be:
      1. Better option is to do companion farming (Using certain plants to keep away weeds, insects etc) and use high yielding traditional varieties.
      2. If we just follow traditional farming practices and improve distribution we will have more sustainable food production.
      3. We need to promote meat, egg and milk in diet and domestication of animals to reduce their cost and get more natural manure.

      • anand srivastava November 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm

        The article makes very good points about organic pesticides. Some comments on the other points.

        Organic pesticides are in many cases neurotoxins, used because they stop pests from breeding. Comparing the weight of pesticide use does not really make sense as they are very different, and we need to evaluate each pesticide, based on their working mechanism. Also half lives should be considered.

        For environment we need sustainable farming not organic factory farming. Sustainable farming requires that meat becomes an important part of the diet, which current obsession with vegetarianism is causing a lot of damage to. A farm without its symbiotic animals cannot be sustainable. I am a bit pessimistic about it, and the reason is population. Sustainable farming will probably not be able to support this huge population. But it should be done in areas where farming cannot be supported by the land.

        I don’t agree with the contention that the organic food will not be more nutritious. The natural fertilizers will provide better complement of nutrients and should result in better nutrient profile. But obviously comparing only the known nutrients contained in common fertilizers, will not give any good results.

        I am not really anti-GMO, but the GMO outlined in the article is the kind of GMO I do not want. They are introducing a gene which creates the Bt toxin. This is not the same as spraying with the toxin. I would think that spraying results in toxin which can at least be cleaned away. With GMO, the vegetable itself will have the toxin inside its cells. Yes it reduces the spraying, but at what cost. I would prefer if they used GMO for increasing yield, instead of making toxin producing variants.

  5. Vasishta October 20, 2011 at 10:09 am

    thanks for the facts.. also pls let us know what’s the best way to cook and store food (veggies, etc).. in ur next post!

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  13. Farheen February 26, 2012 at 2:24 am

    I am a student from Mumbai, India currently pursuing my Masters in Food Science and Nutrition from P.G.S.R Dept, S.N.D.T Women’s University. I intend to my Thesis in the area of Food Science, particularly to study about the organic foods as compared to conventionally grown ones .

    I am hoping that you shall put an end to my queries.

    One of the aspects of my thesis is to compare the relative pesticide contents of organic and conventional tomatoes. I wanted to ask you that what should be my criteria for choosing the pesticides to be tested? I have already got the 8 pesticides ( specific to tomatoes) mentioned in Food Safety and Standards Authority of India ( FSSAI 2012) tested, which were found to be absent in both the organic and conventional samples. My mentor wants me to get certain other pesticides tested. I have gone through several articles yet, unfortunately, I fail to understand the basis for choosing the few pesticides for the test over and above the several others.

    I would like to make a humble request if you could reply to me as soon as possible. I can personally come and meet you at your office if you please.
    Thank you very much,

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