Trace Pesticide Residues from Conventional Ag Found on Organic Produce

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 9, 2014. A recent CBC News analysis of Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) data finds that nearly half of the organic fresh fruits and vegetables tested across Canada between September 2011 and September 2013 contained trace pesticide residues. While the fact that any amount of pesticides, trace or not, is found in organic produce may be disconcerting, the data still show that pesticides residues at significantly higher levels are found on conventional  (chemical-intensive) counterparts. In addition to the serious health questions linked to residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, Beyond Pesticides, through its Eating with a Conscience database, shows that our food choices have a direct impact on the health of those who grow our food and the quality of our air, water, and land. The  analysis in Canada and similar findings in the U.S. raise serious ongoing questions about potential adverse effects from both chemical and genetic drift or trespass that have been ignored by regulators as inconsequential.

The analysis finds that of the 45.8 percent of organic samples that tested positive for some trace of pesticide, a smaller amount — 1.8 per cent — violate Canada’s maximum allowable limits for the presence of pesticides. Among non-organic samples, 78.4 percent contain pesticide residues, violating the allowable limits 4.7 percent of the time.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data from an earlier pilot study conducted between 2010 and 2011, which examined select samples of organic produce in various U.S. retail locations, yielded similar findings. Of the 571 samples taken between 2010 and 2011, 57 percent of the produce had no detected residues, but 43 percent contained some kind of pesticide residues, with four percent of these pesticide residues at levels above EPA pesticide tolerance cutoffs.

USDA released this pilot study in response to a 2010 audit of the National Organic Program by USDA’s Inspector General (IG) and later promulgated new residue testing standards for organic certifiers.

How Can Produce Be Organic and Still have Pesticides?

Many organic consumers may be scratching their heads as to how something that is labeled and approved as organic, be it in Canada or the U.S., could still be found to contain even trace amounts of pesticides. Quite literally, the answer for the majority of the pesticide residues is blowing in the wind.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes the maximum allowed levels of pesticides, or EPA tolerances, which may be present on foods. Although most EPA-registered pesticides are prohibited in organic production, there can be inadvertent or indirect contact from neighboring conventional farms or shared handling facilities. As long as the operator hasn’t directly applied prohibited pesticides and has documented efforts to minimize exposure to them, the USDA organic regulations allow residues of prohibited pesticides up to 5 percent of the EPA tolerance,” USDA explains in its Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce study.

Canadian organic regulations differ slightly, but the same explanations and problems apply. “Pesticides can get onto organic produce through contamination of water or soil through pesticide spray drift from neighboring farms, and through contact with non-organic produce after harvest,” notes Rick Holley, an expert in food safety at the University of Manitoba, to CBC News.

In other words, pesticides do not obey arbitrary property lines or organic labels. The more pesticides in use in the environment, the greater the likelihood of all food eventually being contaminated at some point in the production and delivery line.

Before organic consumers throw up their hands in defeat, however, it should be noted that the trace presence of pesticides on organic produce is, in fact, a central reason for supporting the growth of the organic sector. As Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canada Organic Trade Association explained to CBC News, “I think consumers are looking for not necessarily a zero level, but they’re looking to not contribute to the pesticide residues that are out there and they’re looking to reduce their exposure as much as possible. And I still think we’re seeing in this data that organic offers that.” At the same time, as organic grows and becomes an increasingly important expectation of consumers, pressure will increase to restrict chemical-intensive and genetically engineered production systems that impose hazards without the consent of those being exposed or penalties for those causing the unwanted pollution.

As Beyond Pesticides has emphasized through its support of the organic community and USDA organic certification process, consumer support for organic ensures that fewer pesticides are present in the environment. Buying organic supports an entire system that is conscious of the health of people, animals, and the environment. Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience database provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use. From reduced exposure to pesticides for farmworkers to bans on unnecessary and dangerous uses of antibiotics in livestock feed, choosing organic means supporting the overall well-being and health of not only yourself and family, but everyone around you. It also supports those farmers who battle both the figurative winds of conventional farming adversity and the literal winds that lead to contamination of their organic crops.

To learn more about why it is critical to continue to support organic food production and maintain the integrity of the USDA organic label, as well as organic programs in other countries, please visit our Keep Organic Strong webpage. For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page. To voice your support for organic integrity and comment on organic standards, practices, and allowable materials, see Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong webpage.

Sources: CBC News,

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.