Campaigners clash over pesticide residues report

Organic campaigners and agrochemical representatives have clashed over the contents of a government report about pesticide residues in school food.

The Pesticide Residues Committee analysed 50 samples of fruit and vegetables as part of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme testing programme. All the samples either had no detectable residues or contained residues below the maximum permitted level.

Committee chairman Dr Ian Brown said the findings indicated residues in school food were broadly comparable with those in the general supply chain: “None of the residues found was likely to result in any adverse health effects for schoolchildren.”

The Soil Association acknowledged that none of the samples contained residues above official maximum residue levels (MRLs). But it said the fact that any residues had been found in school food was unbelievable.

The report had shown that 74% of school fruit and vegetables contained pesticides, said policy director Peter Melchett. “Unbelievably we learn yet again that pesticides are turning up in fruit and vegetables supplied to schoolchildren.”

‘Cocktail effect’

He added: “We know that in combination, what is called the ‘cocktail effect’, apparently safe low-levels of pesticides can affect our bodies in ways that chemicals in isolation do not.”

Children’s exposure and susceptibility to pesticides was likely to be higher as, per body weight, they ingest more food and drink than adults and their bodies’ ability to excrete any such residues was different, claimed Lord Melchett.

But the Crop Protection Association, which represents agrochemical manufacturers, dismissed the Soil Association’s claims. Its policy director, Dr Anne Buckenham, said: “In fact it was a good result.”

Dr Buckenham said MRLs were ways of measuring whether pesticides were being used correctly. “MRLs are set such that safety limits won’t be exceeded. They are set so all consumers are protected, including children.”

The report came as a BBC Radio 4 programme The Investigation examined claims made in a recent report that organic farming is no better for the environment than conventional food production.

The Soil Association has dismissed the Manchester Business School report, claiming it used the “wrong model” of organic farming. Researchers should have concentrated on an integrated system where crops and livestock were managed in rotation, it said.

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