Between the dizzying heat and the ripe flesh on offer at every turn, summer makes us all feel a little naughty. So naughty that you might be tempted to take a hunk out of that luscious peach without bothering to wash the skin. Seems like a good idea until your lips start to tingle and your tongue detects a hint of something ever so slightly off. That's when you resolve that wiping fruit on your T-shirt is not an effective way to remove chemicals from produce.
But what if you can't feel or taste it? Aren't toxic pesticides lurking on every apple and carrot stick? Well, one agro-chem industry group, CropLife Canada, says that's not the case. Indeed, it seems women in particular are fretting far too much over the whole issue. (Wouldn't you know it? We also happen to make most supermarket choices, too.) The lobby group has recently been going all out to tackle this "misperception" by taking out ads in Chatelaine, Today's Parent, Canadian Family and other mom rags to explain why we've got things all wrong.
Their timing is impeccable, really. Consumer consciousness around pesticides keeps climbing, and organic products are securing bigger and bigger sections of the produce aisle. No doubt agro-chem makers are shaking in their farm boots. Hence, CropLife's Food For Thought campaign. The ad, an image of a slimy critter on a head of lettuce, captioned "Guess who's not coming to dinner?", warns us of the 10-legged horrors awaiting us should we stop using pesticides. And all that bountiful supermarket selection and cheap 29-cent bananas? They'd be gone, too.
Says Peter McLeod,executive director of crop protection chemistry at CropLife, "We're trying to indicate to [consumers] that the products farmers use are well regulated. And the residues, if they're there at all, are very, very low." So what are we worried about?
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which enforces pesticide residue limits, says almost 99.5 per cent of the 10,000 fresh domestic and imported fruits and vegetables they test for pesticide residues each year are perfectly within the law. Sounds reassuring. However, many health and enviro advocates say that's just an indication that there's something wrong with those limits.
"There's a real disconnect between Canadian Food Inspection Agency data that says everything's hunky-dory and bio-monitoring data that shows 90 to 100 per cent of people have multiple residues of pesticides in their bodies," says Kathy Cooper, senior researcher with CELA (the Canadian Environmental Law Association).
"They're finding very few exceedances of the MRL (maximum residue limits set by Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency, or PMRA). And that's interesting" - especially, says Cooper, considering that most of the MRLs are totally out of date. "Most pesticides were approved for use 10, 20, 40 years ago, which means they would not have been evaluated for things like exposure and effects on children's health."
The PMRA has recently updated some of those limits, but even it concedes that a lot of them are pretty old. In fact, says Henri Bietlot, acting section head of food residue exposure assessment, the default MRL (the maximum residue level assigned to the majority of pesticides, unless it has been explicitly set higher or lower) dates back to the mid-70s. "The technology then wasn't poweful enough to test [below that]."
The agency is talking about scrapping the default limit. This would be a good thing - if setting them individually meant raising the bar overall. But it seems most non-default MRLs are actually higher, not lower. It's a situation that isn't likely to improve now that we're harmonizing with the U.S. to weed out "trade irritants." According to Bietlot, Americans often tolerate more pesticides on their food because they need more chems to fend off Southern pests. Does that mean we'd accept higher traces, too? Bietlot says it's a possibility.
Scary, considering that activists south of the border say pesticide residue limits, or "tolerances," are set more to please farmers than to protect the health of a four-year-old banana lover. Says Monica Moore, program director of the California-based Pesticide Action Network, "There's a tremendous amount of money behind [pesticide makers] and the industrial agricultural community. And historically there's been a fair amount of pressure on [the Environmental Protection Agency] to set pesticide levels where they find them [on produce]."
Still, many Canadian activists say that at least the U.S. is taking the lead in terms of considering the real-life impact of eating more than one pesticide at a time, which, you know, can happen when you eat one piece of fruit, let alone a whole fruit salad. It's something Canadian MRLs don't yet take into account, making the limits here even less relevant.
But even in the U.S., where incorporating cumulatative impacts into tolerance levels has been mandated for nearly a decade, little has changed, since the science around measuring combined residue effects isn't really there yet. "There are all kinds of gaps in the methodology, and [the feds] fill them with guesswork," says Cooper.
So even with the PMRA vowing to follow in the U.S.'s footsteps, the move is unlikely to have much meaning.
Funny, this seems to be an ongoing theme at the agency. And while it might be trying to turn the bureaucratic boat around to catch up to consumer consciousness, it's either heading up the wrong river or just moving alarmingly slowly.
But both CropLife and the feds would speak up at this point to tell you that, regardless of the politics of reform, they can't even find residues on 75 to 80 per cent of imported and domestic produce. That means four out of five veggies and fruits are, for all intents and purposes, pesticide-free. Surprised? Well, don't get too excited.
The CFIA's labs test for about 280 chemicals, but that by no means covers all the pesticides on the market. Your strawberry might not test positive for the most common chems, but what about the rest? Can the feds really tell the public they're residue-free?
Says Julia Langer of World Wildlife Fund Canada, "There's a trade-off. The more precise the analytical method (for detecting residues), the more expensive it is. They're using pretty crude analytical techniques, so you're not seeing everything."
And Langer adds, just because they can't detect it doesn't mean it isn't hurting something. "Modern pesticides are designed to be super-toxic but not very persistent. When you design a chemical [that way] and throw it into the environment, it's affecting plants, birds, fish, the whole food chain."
But let's be honest. Most shoppers are fairly self-interested and care less about vanishing micro-algae and ailing birds than they do about their loved ones. For them, CropLife quotes the Canadian Cancer Society, which says on its website that "using pesticides to protect our food from damage... helps ensure that a variety of affordable fruits and vegetables are available to Canadians." Essentially, the message is "Better to get five to 10 a day than worry about residues."
But the Ontario College of Family Physicians, which issued a report on the dangers of pesticides last year, scoffs at the statement. Says Cathy Vakil, co-author of the report, "I don't think anybody can say [pesticide residues are] perfectly safe, because nobody can do the proper kinds of study that are required" - namely, exposing humans to pesticides.
Barbara McElgunn, a health policy adviser with the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, explains, "It's not really getting sick and having overt symptoms that you have to be worried about. It's what this does at the cellular, enzyme and hormonal level to development. What is coming up in research now is that in extremely, extremely low doses of some compounds, hormonal systems can be skewed permanently." An increase in learning disabilities among children is just one way that can manifest itself.
Still, CropLife will keep trying to convince worried moms, and anyone else who picks up Reader's Digest, otherwise right through the fall.
And as Vakil notes, they're right to be concerned about their livelihoods. "There's a lot of money on the line. But we have to have a low threshold for pesticides. We're talking about our health here, and the health of our kids. Why take a chance?"