Just how safe are the pesticides used on food?
We know some people eat organic to avoid pesticides. But in a Food Fight item weighing the pros and cons of organic food, one guest told us even organic food uses pesticides, and another guest told us even if pesticides are approved we can't trust them because findings of different scientist often conflict. That all left us a bit confused, so we went looking for answers.
We found some with Leonard Ritter. He's Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Guelph. He's worked in toxicology for 37 years, and is convinced Canadians don't need to worry about pesticides in, and on, our foods.
...the good that derives from eating the fruits and vegetables far outweighs any minimal risk, if any risk at all, that may come from the pesticides that have been used to produce these fruits and vegetables.Leonard Ritter
He says it's fair to be concerned-- after all, pesticides are designed to kill plants or animals-- but he says the rigorous testing processes around the world mean products that could do us harm don't make it to market. He says for 40 years, national and international regulatory agencies (like Health Canada and the World Health Organization) have been improving the system. While testing is actually done by the pesticide makers themselves, Ritter says the studies are reviewed all over the world, and must adhere to strict protocols.
Asked whether we can trust the approval processes of Health Canada, given claims of muzzled government scientists, Ritter says he does not know enough about those claims to comment. But he does say we should take comfort in the facts that these pesticides are looked at around the world- so if Canada misses something, an agency in another country will likely catch it.
Even if we had a concern here in Canada, remember that these chemicals, the data supporting the safety of these chemicals, are going to be reviewed both nationally, and internationally.Leonard Ritter
But for those concerned about pesticides, it's not just about the apple you ate today-- it's about lifetime exposure. Ritter says testing accounts for that. Not only does it aim to replicate the effects of daily exposure to pesticide residue on food, he says, studies also look at the effects of cumulative exposure from the environment.
Ritter says the average person just doesn't know enough about science to understand the issue of chemicals and food safety: "These are very, very complex studies, they are very difficult and complicated to understand how to do them, they're complicated to understand how to assess them in the context of what they say about potential threats to human health." Canadians shouldn't worry about understanding, he says. We can leave it up to the experts.
So should you eat organic? Ritter acknowledges that some people may want to because it's local, or more tasty, and that's fine. But if you're doing it for safety or nutrition, he says there's no science to back you up.