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    Our Farmers Get An A+ For Low Pesticide Residues
    By Steve Savage | February 24th 2014 11:43 AM | 16 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Last week, the USDA released its annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP) report about pesticide residues on food.

    This release comes from extensive sampling of crops entering the market during 2012.

    Here is the official summary statement from the USDA:

    "The Pesticide Data Program provides reliable data through rigorous sampling that helps assure consumers that the produce they feed their families is safe."

    And the official statement from the EPA:

    "The newest data from the PDP program confirm that pesticide residues in food do not pose a safety concern for Americans."

    For the agricultural community, particularly those involved in the production of fruits and vegetables, this USDA program is sort of a report card - like a grade to you get for a "group project" of epic proportions.

    Imagine you are back in school. You are part of a huge group of fellow students only a few of whom you know, and many of whom are in different countries around the world. The grade that you will receive is based on the work of a random sub-set of these students.

    All that you can do is try your best and hope that everyone else does the same. Under those circumstances, it would be a great relief to find that your entire group did such a good job that their collective score was 99.5%! That is an A+ by any standard.

    That's what just happened again for the farmers who produce our food. This isn't the first time.There is a great website that allows you to visualize the data from all the years the PDP has been conducted.

    What The Data Says

    The pesticides used in modern agriculture are now dominated by products which are far less hazardous than what most people imagine.  The use of all pesticide products is highly regulated, and in order to use them, farmers have to qualify for a license and must take continuing coursework to maintain their right to use them.  They are required to adhere to the detailed label restrictions for every product in terms of how much can be used and how long before harvest.  Those label rules are based on an elaborate risk analysis that the EPA performs for each product.  That analysis reflects information about toxicology, metabolism and environmental fate which is generated for each product at a cost of many millions of dollars.  

    Based on all that information, the EPA sets a "tolerance" for each product specific to each crop on which it is allowed.  If the pesticide residue level on a crop is at or below the tolerance, it has something like a 100-fold safety margin for consumption by us, the consumers.

     So what matters with pesticide residues is not simply whether or not they can be detected with the enormously sensitive laboratory methods available today, but exactly which chemicals are involved and at what levels relative to the tolerances.

    So how did farmers do for the 2012 crop when it comes to residues relative to tolerances?

    They did great!  Of the 11,893 food samples tested, 99.47% had no chemical residues above tolerance.  47.4% had no detectable residues at all, but for the rest the levels were often far below the tolerances.

    Most crops tested in 2012 had NO samples with over-tolerance residues.

    Those included apple juice, avocado, baby food made from apple sauce, carrots, peaches or peas, bananas, butter, cantaloupe, cauliflower, mushrooms, onion, orange juice, papaya, plums, tangerines, and wheat grain.

    I hate to be like the parent who sees a report card with all As and one B+ and focuses on the B+, but it is interesting to see what was going on with the half of one percent, or 63 of nearly 12 thousand samples that had residues which were over tolerance.  There was only one sweet pepper sample imported from Spain that had such a residue. There were two samples of summer squash from the US with residues slightly above the tolerance. There were four samples of winter squash, two from the US and 2 from Mexico, which had higher than tolerance residues.

    The only crops with any significant number of above-tolerance detections were snap peas (32 from among 743 samples) and cherry tomatoes (24 from among 744 samples).  However, even these unusual incidences were not enough above tolerance to be of major concern. For the snap peas, 97% of the samples with those higher detections were imported either from Guatemala, Peru or Mexico.  For the cherry tomatoes, 83% of the above-tolerance samples came from Mexico.  

    If the "group project" was divided into a US farmers team and a importers team, their respective "scores" would be 99.88% and 98.76% - different, but both still A+ grades.

    For just over 4% of the 2012 samples, very low levels of pesticide residues were detected for materials that didn't have a specific tolerance for that crop.  This can happen because of spray drift or contact with equipment after harvest.  The levels were too minor to be of concern to the regulators.  Similar, low level residues are found on organic crops. 
    In a recent pesticide residue study in Canada, synthetic pesticide residues were detected on more than 40% of organic produce.  Similar results have been seen for organic in the US in the past. Again, these sorts of very low level detections for organic or non-organic crops reflect mainly the sensitivity of analytical lab methods - not any real risk to consumers.

    As in previous years, this survey documents the fact that our food supply is extremely safe, and that no one should hesitate to enjoy it based on worries about pesticide exposure.

    Rain On The Parade Is Predicted

    Unfortunately, we can expect that once again, the Environmental Working Group will take this transparent source of public information and intentionally misconstrue it to generate their "dirty dozen list."   They ignore the transparent public data about which chemicals are found, at what levels, and how that relates to the tolerance.   

    The EWG ignores those critical details, because to do so suits their agenda of scaring people into purchasing organic (They fail to mention the studies showing similar residues on organic).  If things go as usual, much of the press, blogosphere, and organic advocacy community will uncritically re-transmit the EWG's distortions.

    The effect can be that many innocent consumers will either avoid health-promoting food options, pay a price premium for organic, or feel guilty about not doing so.

    That would be sad.  In fact, this new USDA data shows that the diverse collection of farmers who produce our food deserve appreciation for their care in controlling pests in a way which is also safe for us as consumers.  The truth is that consumers deserve to enjoy what those farmers have produced without fear or guilt.

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  I tweet about new posts @grapedoc


    Josh Bloom
    Great piece.  
    I've always thought that this entire issue boils down to money and marketing. Mom and Pop Organic Community Farms vs. Big Evil Food Company. As if. Could this simply be two giant industries competing for the same food money?  I think so. Curious what you think.
    Josh Bloom
    You make it sound as though all is good when in fact:

    - We have contaminated drinking water due to use of pesticides. Which can be verified by simply testing your drinking water.

    - We know through studies that farm workers and their families, through direct contact with these chemicals or by living near farms that overspray these chemicals onto their homes, have higher incidences of numerous diseases and illnesses.

    - We know that as insects and weeds become resistant to synthetic chemicals it requires the farmers to use more of the chemicals or add new chemicals to combat the resistant insects and weeds. Again this can be verified.

    - We know that wildflowers next to fields are killed when non-selective herbicides are used and this impacts the availability of food for bees and the pesticide contamination can also lead to harming the bees immune systems making them more susceptible to collapsing their colonies.

    Are these acceptable trade-offs? I don't think so. I think if we follow people like farmer Joel Salatin we can increase yields, increase nutrient density, lower the chemical burden on the earth, and quite possibly save ourselves. There is no question pouring 5 billion pounds of pesticides year after year is unsustainable. As it is cord blood of a human fetus contains 200+ harmful compounds. Don't we owe the future generations an earth worth inhabiting?

    Josh Bloom
    You think it's strange that I like the fact that there is much less pesticide residue on crops than was previously thought?
     I just don't get it.
    Josh Bloom
    No it's these statements:

    "The effect can be that many innocent consumers will either avoid health-promoting food options, pay a price premium for organic, or feel guilty about not doing so."


    "The truth is that consumers deserve to enjoy what those farmers have produced without fear or guilt."

    I think less is better but again the issue is being less poisoned. We need to work toward long term sustainable farming practices that keep our earth from becoming more toxic.

    If the biology of Blue Whales is being impacted, and they live far at sea in the open ocean, isn't that a sign that there are too many toxic compounds?


    And no one knows what the impact of 200+ toxic compounds being found in the cord blood of unborn children means to their health, it can't be good. So my point is what is truly wrong is the system that allows us to applaud less poison, less is still over 5 billion pounds entering our earths eco-system each year.

    As a parent of three children I'm trying to work to be part of the solution and we need more people listening to Joel Salatin (google him and watch his videos) and less people being convinced by Monsanto and Syngenta that GMO's and their associated chemicals are a viable option, because the science is clear, they are not viable long term because insects and weeds adapt, it's basic evolutionary science.

    The premise economically is this:

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
    R. Buckminster Fuller

    We need to employ thinking in agriculture that creates economic viability for farmers that is sustainable. It's the only viable long term option.

    We need to employ thinking in agriculture that creates economic viability for farmers that is sustainable. It's the only viable long term option.
    Well, that's GMOs. Obviously old organic practices couldn't feed anybody, that is why only the people lucky enough to be born in agriculturally rich areas didn't have mass famine.

    Using mumbo-jumbo about sustainable - and then embracing what everyone knows is not sustainable - makes no sense. GMOs are the great equalizer, where people can grow food without the benefit of an accident of birth and geography. If you care about people the way you claim you do, you should be advocating science. 
    Hank we all know you're a shill for the big agro-companies. People will have to evaluate the facts and then make a decision for themselves. I spend a great deal of time around rivers, lakes, streams and the ocean as well as hunting around agricultural lands with my children, the use of pesticides and herbicides has dramatically harmed the water and the land. So you can keep spouting your smear campaign on sustainable practices, I get it, it's your job.

    The truth is GMO's can reduce pesticide use short term but then it usage spikes when insects and weeds become resistant, so then the farmer is required to buy GMO at a higher cost then conventional seed, more chemicals beyond the ones he was already required to buy in the first place since the initial ones are now ineffective and many times add costs for labor because farm workers are required to go weed the fields because the chemicals just don't work. That type of system only benefits the public companies that sell GMO's. Everyone else from the consumer, to the farmer, to the surrounding eco-system loses. How do I know this? I work with farmers.

    Have you read Joel Salatin's books or visited his farm? If not then go read his books and watch his videos:

    Then come back and make some intelligent comments. This is true science, where economic viability, along nutrient density and bio-diversity, converge to make your GMO's other antiquated farming practices obsolete. The only people how lose in this new world are the likes of Monsanto and Syngenta, everyone else benefits.

    Hank we all know you're a shill for the big agro-companies. 
    There is a 100 percent chance you know nothing about me, and are unqualified to make ridiculous assertions even if you did. Since you claim to know "science" and therefore the need for evidence, I would like you to document a single instance where any agro company, large, small or medium, has paid me. When you cannot do that - and you can't - you will be shown to be a liar and a fraud whose goal is promoting fear, doubt and a suspect world view and you attempt lame insults when you don't get your way.

    Well, you win, you can have some attention. Once you reply again and prove you are a liar and a fraud, I am going to spend the time to sift through the server logs to find you and I am going to ban you. Because being skeptical is one thing, asking questions or challenging data about science you clearly do not understand is also fine. But you need to go back to Crackpot Land when you start spreading lies as your only refutation.
    Hank I feel sorry for you. I own a company that makes organic clothing and I work with the farmers that grow our organic cotton, some also grow GMO and conventional cotton. I discuss the pros and cons about all of the different methods. The farmers grow what they can sell, every farmer I've worked with would rather grow organic, even though they say it is harder.

    Why? Because the average age of a farmer in the USA is 60 years old and most are second or third generation farmers, they've lived through the era of converting from all organic to chemical inputs and they know organic is the only way to maintain the future health of their farm lands, but consumer demand drives their decision making.

    So it's really up to consumers to make a difference, not the farmers. If we buy organic we are not only choosing a more nutrient dense option for us and our families we're also increasing the bio-diversity of the farm land and the entire eco-system surrounding the farm land.

    Have you even been to a farm and seen the process? Talked to workers that suffer diseases? Talked to their chidren that suffer from pesticide toxicity? Watched a crop duster spray carcinogenic pesticides on a windy day and watch them drift into towns and into the drinking water reservoirs? Well I've done all of those things Hank. And there is no science required to understand the negative effects that are happening.

    If you'd like I can fly to meet you and I can bring a video camera and we can debate the issue and stream it live on the web. Give me a time and place and we can have a scholarly debate, the only rules would be to respect one another and avoid name calling as you've done in the post above.

    Oh and by the way I do know about you. For instance just look at the reviews for your book, of the 65 reviews 21 are 1 star. As one reviewer stated:

    Disappointingly hyperbolic, badly researched, and poorly argued- I was pretty excited to receive this book, as I myself rail against the anti-scientific left and the politicization of science. Ironically, the book is more political than scientific.

    So I do my research Hank and I have no political agenda. I'm actually registered Republican so if you want to bring up politics I'm happy to discuss my beliefs.

    Have you even been to a farm and seen the process?
    If you knew me as well as you claim - sorry, anti-science people who don't like a book that calls out partisan interference in science and leave reviews about a book they haven't read don't count - you would know I grew up on a farm.

    It is true that I don't exploit "organic" claims for marketing benefit and to make money, like you do, I simply grew up that way. But, of course, you must know that. Unless it was not in a review on Amazon to help you out.
    Most people promoting organic crop production are very idealistic and completely ignorant about crop production. In many cases, organic farming is worse for the environment. Just a couple things to think about. Organic farmers cannot use herbicides for weed control so they rely on tillage. This causes more erosion which results in more sediment in our streams which can damage aquatic environments. Contrary to the claims, yields from organic productions are much lower than with conventional production. Therefore, more land has to be farmed and taken away from wildlife to produce the same amount of crops as with conventional production. Also, since organic production does not allow the uses of inorganic nitrogen, the land is often rotated into a legume crop just to build N. This is good, but removes more land from production and will again result in more environmentally sensitive land being farmed.

    The truth is: your organic farming (including for your clothing) does more harm to the environment than conventional agriculture.

    @pura, you stated the average farmer is 60 years old, that implies that when they came out of school @ twenty, so 40 years ago right?. So that was in the early 70's. I worked my way up to become a farmer starting in 1972 . Your stipulation that I "grew up" from an organic farmer converting to all chemical inputs is ridiculous if not hilarious., also the observation you make about sprays drifting into towns and water reservoirs just add to your scaremongering. Even 40 years ago in the farming industry from a few acre farmer to large farms HAD! read it HAD to be aware of the sprays we used and the assumption that you made about farms inundating towns and water reservoirs with sprays is nuts. Why? the liabilities! and BTW most farm lands are not even close to any larger towns. Oh BTW Pura remember as farmers we do have to feed our own families with the foods we grow.

    It's not science to say that the correct response to herbicide resistance is "more herbicide." If it doesn't kill the weed, the answer isn't simply "try using more."

    The whole superweed thing must seem like a real gotcha to unthinking activists. I don't get why. Their best argument is "now you have to had cultivate weeds".....which is exactly what organic has to do. So your big downside to superweeds is "now you have to use organic practices." I just don't get it.

    Mike,There are two common misunderstandings behind the "superweeds" concept.  Some people believe that the herbicide tolerance trait moved from the crop to the weed.  That possibility is one of the very first thing that the USDA role in regulation is designed to prevent - e.g. think through whether there are any weeds in the region that can actually cross with the crop.  If not, then ok.

    The second misconception is that resistance in pests is something new or unique to biotech crops.  It is not.  Even when tillage was the main means of weed control, it selected for "resistant" weeds like native bindweed or Canada thistle which do extremely well with being chopped into pieces and spread around the field.  Weeds have become resistant to other herbicides many times in the past prior to GMO crops.  The same is true for insecticides and fungicides.  Its just a selection pressure on a genetically diverse population.  The best strategy has not changed - have a diverse set of tools for which there is not cross-resistance.  
    Steve Savage
    Steve - This is the exact issue, tillage had downside effects that were localized to the farm, and and there were/are tools to combat the problems. However no of the solutions included pouring cancer causing compounds that then exist in the eco-system for generations wreaking havoc. The challenge is the current practice of dealing with superweeds is to dump more, or different, cancer causing compounds on the farmland, and the downside to years and years of those additional inputs is catastrophic to the local eco-system, drinking water being contaminated, polluting the creatures in the streams, lakes and rivers, and even interrupting the life cycle of blue whales that live in the open ocean. If a blue whale living in the open ocean is contaminated with pesticides, either the ocean is a lot smaller then we think or we use a heck of a lot more pesticides than we think.

    The answer to saving your lungs is not to go from 2 packs of cigarettes a day to 1 pack, or to switch to smoking cigars or weed. It's to STOP smoking. We need a new system. Many very smart people are making a difference working with nature versus trying to kill nature. I don't get it, we have the technology, the only people who lose in the new model are the big agro-chemical companies with patented seeds. They are the problem not the solution.

    Just take your children to a river, lake or stream and then look for pictures, or even better, water quality reports last year, last decade, and go back decade by decade. You will see the problem, now the earth is resilient and farmers have shown by working with nature AND using the latest technology we can accelerate the healing of the farm lands. We don't need more poisons, we need a transition to a new way of agriculture.

    The downsides of tillage are not at all limited to the farm.  It leads to soil erosion which pollutes streams through sediment and carried nutrients.  It leads to loss of sequestered carbon which has global effects.  The "tools" available to organic farmers are mostly to import carbon from some other field in the form of manures, composts etc.  That is not a sustainable solution for the greater area.
    As for "pouring cancer causing compounds" - that simply is not true and has not been for decades.  Also, progressive conventional farmers are not "trying to kill nature."  Non-tillage with cover crops and controlled wheel traffic is a much better simulation of natural soil-building than the importation of tons of stuff and tilling it in.  That was state of the art soil building 60 years ago.  Its not today.

    We are in a transition to a new way of agricuture - its just that only a tiny, tiny fraction of it is organic and that will not change

    Steve Savage
    Rain On The Parade Is Predicted

    Leading to runoff and, potentially, water contamination, followed by lots of waterwoo, which has nothing to do with the playing fields of Eton.

    That said, pyrethrins, although not harmful to humans when properly applied, can affect more than the target insects - bees for example.   UC Davis advises that fields should be sprayed at night to avoid killing bees.

    Don't blame the farmers, key word residential, from the EPA -
    residential uses of pyrethrins and pyrethroids may result in urban runoff, potentially exposing aquatic life to harmful levels in water and sediment.
    Finally, from the foot in both camps department -

    Give bees a chance
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