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Pesticides on our plates

Dave Keating
April 13, 2017

A new report finds that about half the food consumed in Europe contains pesticide residues. The EU's food safety authority says there is no danger. Environmentalists aren't convinced.

Drohne sprüht Pestizide
Image: M. Frolow

Traces of pesticides are contained in almost half of the food Europeans eat, according to an annual report issued this week by the European Union's food safety watchdog. Researchers found pesticides in 46.7 percent of the samples. 

While this may sound like a lot, only 2.8 percent exceeded maximum residue levels permitted under EU law. The rest, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stressed, is completely safe. The figures, based on about 85,000 food samples, are for the year 2015.

"The EU has one of the most advanced systems of pesticide controls in the world," Dr. Hermine Reich, a scientific officer at EFSA's pesticides unit, told DW.

"The report confirms our previous findings - that EU member states have developed a huge capacity for controlling residues, both in terms of the number and scope of the pesticides being controlled."

She adds that even for the 2.8 percent that exceeded legal limits, it does not necessarily mean that this food was unsafe.

The use of pesticides has become an emotive issue on the campaign trail in France, where voters will be electing a new president on April 23. Several candidates, such as the Socialist Party's Benoit Hamon, have suggested that Europeans may be being harmed by the level of pesticides found in their food. He would institute a program to phase out the use of pesticides in France.

Pesticides are applied to food crops as they are grown to protect them from insects and other pests, but some traces of the pesticide can remain in the food when it ends up on consumers' plates. This is particularly true for fruits and vegetables.

Infografik Pestizide Lebensmittel ENG

The highest level of multiple pesticide residues were found in unprocessed foods such as grapefruits, strawberries, limes, grapes and rucola. For processed food, the highest occurrence was found in mushrooms, raisins, peppers, apricots and potato chips.

Toxic cocktails

Some environmental NGOs are challenging EFSA's assessment of the pesticide situation.

"They've chosen this upbeat message for the whole narrative," Paul Johnston, head of the science unit at Greenpeace, told DW. "But what this means is that effectively everybody is being exposed to pesticides through their foods."

Wettbewerb Regionale Lebensmittel Eating local challenge
Stawberries in Europe have among the highest concentrations of pesticide residuesImage: DW/K. Dörrer

"The fact is that there are unnatural substances in our food that don't actually need to be there."

Johnston says it's good that the EU is increasing its knowledge about how many pesticides are left in the food we eat - the bloc now has the most comprehensive measurements in the world.

But he says the annual monitoring reports are being used to give false reassurance to consumers, pretending that more is known about the potential effects than actually is. Though we may know how much pesticide residue there is, we don't know how the pesticides are affecting us - particularly if they interact with other pesticides.

"It's disingenuous, they're only representing the positive aspects of it, and they've done this in their narrative year after year," he said.

The annual report is still only analyzing the effects of single pesticides, but is not looking at the combined effects of multiple pesticides or other chemicals in the human body. Such 'cocktails' of multiple pesticide residues were found in 28 percent of the samples, across all the categories tested.

"We are all exposed to a cocktail of pesticides, rather than to single substances, and the toxicology of mixtures remains poorly understood," Johnston said.

Tools not ready yet

Reich says that EFSA very much wants the annual reports to start monitoring these 'cocktail effects', but that the tools aren't ready yet.

Thema Umwelt
Pesticides protect crops from being destroyed by pestsImage: Getty Images/P.Stollarz

"Cumulative risk assessment for multiple pesticides is something very close to our hearts and it's a high priority in our work program," she said. "We're developing the tools to perform the calculations, and later this year we will publish reports on the progress."

EFSA could be ready to start analyzing mixture effects within two years, she says.

"We want to do it when we're ready to make scientifically sound assessments, not just do something now to say we've done it.”

But Johnston says he doubts this assessment will be ready any time soon.

"I started out in toxicology 40 years ago, and the way to deal with chemical mixtures has always been something of a holy grail," he said. "We're a bit further on this but we're far from having reached the goal. And I don't think the methodology EFSA will be publishing will address the full dimensions of the problem."

"In the meantime, everybody's being exposed to pesticides in their daily diet," he added. "That's what we should work on, how to avoid pesticides - irrespective of whether we think current concentrations are safe."

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