Pesticides in fruit and vegetables

Are they harmless — or is the truth that we don’t really know?
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  • Updated:10 Mar 2006


washing tomatoes

In brief

  • There’s no convincing evidence that pesticide residues are bad for your health at the very low levels permitted in fruit, vegetables and other foods. But the research isn’t conclusive — pesticides that were once thought safe have been subsequently banned, or their use restricted.
  • You can minimise your exposure to pesticide residues by buying organic produce, peeling conventionally grown fruit before you eat it, and discarding the outer leaves of produce like lettuce.

Google ‘pesticides’ and you’ll score more than 20 million hits; do it for ‘pesticides’ and ‘cancer’ and you’ll still get about three million. Scare stories abound and when the pollsters ask consumers about food safety, pesticides often come up as a major concern.

But our food regulators assure us the levels of pesticide residues in our food are well within international safety standards, and that there are no significant risks from eating them.

At the same time, opponents of the use of pesticides are claiming they put us at risk of:

  • cancer and possibly other health problems such as
  • Parkinson’s disease and
  • impaired cognitive development in children.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2006 but is still a useful guide today.

The background

About 300 different pesticides are registered in Australia for use on fruit and vegetable crops.

  • Some are applied to crops while they’re growing
  • Others are used to protect produce after it’s harvested

Without pesticides it’s claimed crop yields would decline, costs would increase, and fruit and vegetables would end up with more grubs and mould — and it’s true that organic food (produced without the use of synthetic pesticides) is usually more expensive and crop yields are lower.

On the other hand, the overall benefits of pesticides may not be as great as their supporters would have us believe. For example, Cornell University’s Professor David Pimentel has estimated that, despite the huge amounts applied worldwide, pesticide use probably saves only around 10% of the world food supply. His calculations also suggest that the cost of the environmental and public health damage caused by pesticides exceeds their benefits.

CHOICE can’t resolve this argument, but given there’s so little certainty we did take a look at what our food regulators are doing about potential risks from pesticides.



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