TWIN FALLS, Idaho — The dangers of pesticides are exaggerated by the media and special-interest groups, an expert says, but the truth is they are an essential tool in production agriculture, are heavily regulated and pose an insignificant risk to food safety.
One of the claims against pesticides is that they “kill things.” That’s true, they kill pests — such as insects, weeds and fungi — that harm crops, said Sherman Takatori, program manager for pesticide applicator licensing and training with Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
When synthetic pesticides first came on the scene in the 1940s and ’50s, the ag industry would have been a lot better off to call them “plant medicines,” he said during an educational workshop at Agri-Action in Twin Falls on Thursday.
Despite all the hype about agricultural pesticides, use in commercial agriculture is only about 12 percent of total U.S. pesticide use. The largest use by far — at over 50 percent — is for water treatment, followed by wood preservatives at about 20 percent, he said.
Yet agricultural pesticides, particularly pesticide residues in food, garner a huge amount of unwarranted, negative attention, he said.
A 1996 Environmental Protection Agency review of pesticide residues on produce in California found 63 percent had no residue, 36 percent were within tolerance levels and only 1 percent was at violative levels — 60 percent of which involved pesticides not registered for use on the crop, he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ranking of food dangers puts food-borne diseases, nutrition imbalances and malnutrition at No. 1. Environmental hazards, such as lead, mercury and arsenic, come in second but at 1,000 times less than the danger of food-borne illness. Pesticide residue and additives come in third but at 100,000 times less than food-borne diseases, Takatori said.
“In reality, it (pesticide residue) is not really a concern,” he said.
In addition, toxins occur naturally in foods. It’s the plant’s natural defense to protect itself. For example, potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes all contain glycoalalkaloids to protect against insects and fungi. Plant stress from infection, insects and bruising increases glycoalalkaloid levels. Pesticides to protect the plant decreases stress and those levels of naturally occurring toxins, he said.
Pesticide residue standards are set much lower than toxic levels that cause disease and in most cases, residues in food are insignificant compared with naturally occurring toxins in food, he said.
“The dose makes the poison. Pesticide residues cannot even be construed as a significant safety issue,” he said.
Negative hype about pesticides has fueled the organic food market, but no commercial food is 100 percent pesticide-free. Consumers might be able to find a limited amount of pesticide-free produce locally, but if an organic grower is going to ship produce to commercial outlets, he’s going to wash it with something that takes off pathogens and inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungus, he said.
Groups and individuals discouraging consumption of commercial produce are doing a disservice to consumers who will lose out on the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables, he said.
Pesticides are an essential tool in high-yield, high-production agriculture, and an abundant supply of safe, wholesome food would not be possible without it, he added.