The problem with pesticides

As a mum and a dietitian I’m big on trying to get my kids to eat their veggies. I’ve been buying mostly organic fruit and vegetables for around 5 years now, but I still occasionally buy conventional produce when necessary for convenience or if I can’t get what I need from my organic grocer. On average I’d say I buy organic about 75% of the time and non-organic 25% of the time. But lately I’ve been wondering if feeding my family non-organic produce (i.e. food that has been grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers), could actually be doing them more harm than good?

Now I know some people may think I’m being alarmist and over-reacting. Surely if the chemicals sprayed on our food were doing us harm, farmers wouldn’t be allowed to use them – right? And after all, government testing of pesticide residues in our food shows them to be well within acceptable limits. But despite all of this this, I’m still feeling concerned and here’s why:

1. Several pesticides registered for use in Australia have been banned overseas

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), which regulates the use of pesticides in Australia, has been criticized by a group of doctors, scientists and environmentalists for failing to take a thorough enough approach when it comes to evaluating the safety of pesticides registered for use. The group has also questioned the efficiency of the process used to review potentially dangerous pesticides, with some reviews reportedly taking up to 10 years to complete.

Around 80 pesticides registered for use in Australia have been banned overseas by the EU and the USA. This begs the question why, if these pesticides have been banned overseas, are they still being used here in Australia?

2. Adverse health effects

According to a 2011 report by the National Toxics Network and the World Wide Fund for Nature1, 17 pesticides registered for use in Australia are known, likely or probable carcinogens and 48 pesticides have been identified as potential endocrine (hormone) disruptors. This means they may play a role in certain cancers, neurological disorders, diabetes and behavioural problems in children (such as autism and ADHD).

Children are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of these pesticides due to their immature immune systems.

3. What are acceptable levels of pesticides in children?

A study2 by researchers in America found that when children who usually ate conventional fruit and veg switched to an organic diet the levels of organophosphate (OP) pesticides in their urine became undetectable. When the children switched back to their usual conventional diet, pesticide residues were again detected.

While this study doesn’t set out to prove a causal link between exposure to pesticides and adverse health effects, the authors conclude that children whose diets consist of organic food have a lower risk of neurologic health problems and that organic diets provide a protective mechanism against OP pesticide exposure in young children.  If by feeding my kids organic food I can pretty much eliminate pesticide residues from their little bodies then that is what I would choose to do.

What can you do?

I’m going to be buying as much organic produce as I can from now on but I know that this might not work for everyone due to the higher cost and inconvenience. Joining a co-op or shopping at farmer’s markets are great ways to reduce the cost.

If you’re worried about pesticides in your food but can’t switch completely to organics, you could just buy the organic versions of those fruit and vegetables known to have the highest levels of pesticide residues (for example apples and berries). The Environmental Working Group in America produces the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which identifies fruits and vegetables that have the highest and lowest pesticide residues. You can check it out here: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/. It may not be 100% relevant to Australia but it probably provides a good indication of which fruit and vegetables are likely to have the highest pesticide residues.

Unfortunately chemicals are everywhere these days – in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, cleaning products, cosmetics, utensils and the list goes on. You can’t avoid them completely but buying organic food is one way we can limit our own and our family’s exposure.



  1. http://www.ntn.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/FINAL-A-list-of-Australias-most-dangerous-pesticides-v2.pdf
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1367841/





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