Reports on pesticide residues may be misleading

Columns and editorials – originally printed in , July 29, 2010

We’re in the middle of prime fruit and vegetable season. The heat and sun of the summer bring with them roadside stands, farmers markets and local food stores brimming with fresh, Ontario-grown produce. I, for one, as someone who supports local food production and values Ontario’s farmers, am in my element as I’m revelling in the seasonal bounty of our fields.

But this season also annually gives new life to the ongoing debate about whether or not we should be using crop protection materials in our food production. Earlier this summer, a U.S. activist group released its yearly list of fruits and vegetables they say consumers should avoid because they contain the highest levels of pesticide residues.

The list, which included consumer favourites like peaches, strawberries, blueberries, apples and cherries, garnered considerable negative media attention and counselled consumers that the only safe alternative was to buy organic. The underlying message was that fruits and vegetables produced by conventional methods, which include the use of crop protection, are not safe — a message, in my opinion, that is pretty misleading and certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.

Now, I’m not anti-organic by any means. Part of the beauty of our country is that we have choice — choice as farmers to grow what we want and choice as consumers in what we’re able to buy. But I’m also pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the plethora of delicious, nutritious and, yes, affordable produce if farmers, both conventional and organic, weren’t able to use a variety of methods to protect their crops against pests and diseases.

What’s important is that we need to keep everything in perspective, including how we assess and portray risk. And that can be difficult in our current environment. The media love a sensational headline that can evoke a reaction from its audience — and our fast-paced 24-hour news cycle can make it impossible to take the time to properly investigate or analyze what research findings and scientific test results actually mean.

Residue testing is one such example. Twenty years ago, we tested things like water and food for trace residues of contaminants and measured those traces in parts per million. Today, our testing equipment has become so sophisticated that we’re measuring in parts per billion and even parts per trillion. This means we’re pretty much guaranteed to find something — but that’s when we need to step back and evaluate what that finding actually means.

A recently released review of the above-mentioned list by a U.S. panel of experts concluded that, yes, residue levels were found on those fruits and vegetables. But those residue levels were below the accepted, legal minimums set by government. The fact that we’re finding them at all is due to our ability to detect ever-smaller product traces and not because the levels are unacceptably high. The experts also concluded that there’s little evidence to suggest that there’s a significant difference in the nutritional quality of organic foods over those grown using conventional methods.

Here at home, farmers in Ontario alone have reduced their use of crop protection products by over 50 per cent in the last two decades. And consumers across the country are generally confident in our homegrown food supply and think farmers are doing a pretty good job at growing our food responsibly. In fact, a Canadian national study on consumer attitudes toward farming and food production conducted by Ipsos Reid last year showed that nine in 10 Canadians feel their food is safe.

When it comes to your Ontario fruits and vegetables, talk to the farmers and vendors at the market or at the roadside stand and ask them how they grow their produce. They’re your most direct connection to your food and can tell you firsthand what they do on their farms and why. To me, someone who works with crops every day and eats the foods that they grow has much more credibility than a one-sided list that doesn’t tell the whole story.