With “chemical free” signs proudly popping up at market stalls, it’s hardly surprising that pesticides get a bad rap. I mean, really: does anyone actually like the idea of ingesting poison, even if it wasn’t intended for them?

It’s no wonder many of us have concerns about the safety and control of pesticides, but what’s the deal in Australia? Do we need to care? Are pesticides as evil as we make them out to be? I delved into the Internet-scape looking for the lows and pros of pesticides in Australia, and here’s what jumped out at me as a regular citizen. 

What are pesticides?

First things first: what are pesticides exactly? According to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), ‘Pesticides are chemicals intended for preventing, destroying or controlling any pest—including unwanted species of plants, insects or animals’. Products covered by this definition include:

  • Herbicides (e.g. weed sprays)
  • Insecticides and larvicides (e.g. insect sprays, deterrents or baits)
  • Vertebrate pest products (e.g. baits, toxins or poisons)
  • Biocides (e.g. pool chemicals)

In other words, anything from the spray you use to knock out that evasive cockroach crawling around your kitchen to chemicals used by farmers on all of their crops are considered pesticides, and they are all regulated by the APVMA.

Do I ever come in direct contact with pesticides in Australia?

You most likely do.

The (sort of) reassuring news: Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has set maximum residue limits (MRLs) for pesticides found in food. MRLs are so minimal that they have to be measured in parts per million and include a safety buffer zone, so we can assume that the volume of pesticides found in our food is very minimal… but we still ingest pesticides nonetheless and government is vouching for it.

Before pesticides ever even make it to your mid-morning snack, CropLife also reminds us that “pesticide companies seeking to register a farm chemical must provide extensive research…demonstrating that the product does not present any unacceptable risks to people, the environment or export markets when used according to the instructions on the label”.

Should I be worried?

Ready for the more unsettling news? Since we consume a blend of pesticides on a daily basis, despite the very low concentration of pesticides found in food and all the precautions we can take to ingest less, these chemicals might still have an adverse impact on our health. According to consumer advocacy group Choice, ‘evidence is growing that pesticides could be increasing our risk of some cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and impaired cognitive development in children’. Of course, it’s difficult to remember which specific pesticides in Australia will actually harm us, or keep up to date on changes (this list from a few years ago from the WWF made our eyes pop out of our heads a little with over 11 pages of dangerous pesticides in Australia). That probably explains the blanket “chemical free” signage you might spot if you’ve ever shopped at a farmers market for example.

YFM Strawberries

Lets get specific.

The trouble with blanket statements is that it makes eating pretty damn difficult. So let’s hone in on the “worst of the worst,” so to speak – the one food you might wanna reconsider quaffing too much of (unless you’re prepared to ask a few questions). Choice took a close look at one of the most infamous members of the fruit & veg family in the kingdom of pesticides: the inconspicuous, juicy, refreshing, innocent strawberry. If you want a quick fix of pesticides, turns out strawbs are your drug of choice.

Choice analysed punnets of strawberries from Coles, Woolworths and several independent fruit shops, organic food specialists and organic food markets in Sydney. What did they find? A cocktail of 150 different pesticides across all samples (more details here). It was particularly shocking that some samples included four pesticides while others contained pesticide residues that exceeded the prescribed MRLs.

As mentioned, MRLs are extremely conservative, so it’s highly unlikely anyone would have died or even have been immediately ill from the pesticide residues found in these strawberries, even if they exceeded the regulated levels. However, as pesticides are a relatively recent product, we know very little about the long-term health effects, especially when we mix them all up.

Your health isn’t the only thing that could be copping the blow.

If personal health wasn’t murky enough, the CSIRO stresses that pesticides can also have an adverse impact on our land, air, food crops, native and domestic animals. Oh, and “surface and groundwaters through spray drifts, runoff, soil erosion and leaching with unintended impacts on non-target organisms.”

Over the past few decades, our use of pesticides has persistently increased. Just like how humans are beginning to grow resistant to certain antibiotics, rendering them ineffective, the same is happening with pesticides. According to CSIRO, “the overuse and reliance on pesticides has resulted in weeds and insects developing resistance to insecticides and herbicides.” And how does the agricultural industry try to get on top of this problem? They continue on increasing the use of pesticides. Unfortunately we’ve gotten to a stage where “the use of “broad-spectrum” insecticides also wipes out all the good insects — the ones that eat the pests munching away at crops.”

It’s not all bad though.

Ok, so this all probably sounds like a perfect dooms-day apocalyptic scenario where we’ll all end up dying either (a) from decaying organs, shrivelling away because of the astronomical amount of chemicals we’ve eaten throughout our lives or (b) eaten by pissed off mutant insects that have battled through the variety of pesticides we’ve thrown at them.

It sounds pretty scary, but it’s not all bad.

We got where we are because many Australians want “perfect” yet cheap produce and farmers still need to make a living off what they sell (fortunately this is changing as more people embrace wonky produce, but I digress). Pesticides have helped achieve this compromise by reducing food loss. That’s the defence from CropLife anyway, who is Australia’s “peak industry organisation representing the agricultural chemical and biotechnology (plant science) sector.” While it is their role to defend pesticides, they do make a few good points that we should bear in mind.

On a more global scale, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) states that the loss of crops due to pests significantly contributes to malnutrition in farming communities. Indeed, with over 7 billion people on Earth, we need to become increasingly resourceful in order to adequately feed all mouths and solve world hunger.

Going back to personal health, the reason why pesticides were invented in the first place wasn’t just to make that cucumber last longer; it was also because we wanted to get rid of that bug on your cucumber that could make you sick with, say, Malaria, Lyme disease or West Nile virus. Thanks to pesticides, you can at least tick these off your list of worries (even if you add different worries to the list).

While this is all fine and dandy, if you’re feeling precautionary, we totally get that you want to limit your pesticides intake though.

So what can you do to minimise your pesticide intake?

There seems to be a bit of contradictory advice out there, but here were some of the easiest to start with short of growing your own:

1. Prioritise. Since organic food can sometimes be out of budget, it makes sense to prioritise. The American NGO Environmental Working Group (EWG) produces a list each year of the produce to prioritise buying organic if you want to at least minimise your pesticide intake. Now you may think that this list wouldn’t by applicable to Australia, but seeing as commercial agriculture and pesticide use are similar in both countries, it is still useful according to Sustainable Gardening Australia.

EWG_Clean15 2016

2. Diversify. If you’re struggling to even keep up with these lists, the easiest rule of thumb is to simply eat a variety of foods.

So where does that leave things?

Pesticides are ever-present and hard to get around, even if you’re the most conscientious eater. While there are safeguards, it’s hard to tell if the cocktail of pesticides we end up eating does us long term damage. Even if the words “long term health” don’t turn you on, pesticides still suck for the environment (which ends up sucking for all of us, essentially). Overall, minimising pesticides is still a wise move, whether that means supporting policy for better alternatives, or switching up what’s your fruit and vege drawer.

Wondering how else you can vote with your fork in Australia? Subscribe to join the movement!

Image credits: Nikki To, Julia Gove, EWG

Alexandra Jobin