Impossible to grow pesticide-free food

16 September 1997

"Impossible" to grow pesticide-free food

By Boyd Champness

HISTORICAL use of pesticides has made it “impossible” to grow food – even organic food – without some minor trace of pesticide residues in it, a report revealed today.

The Working Party on Pesticide Residues (WPPR) handed down its annual report today, saying that, on the whole, UK farmers were using pesticides responsibly.

The WPPR surveyed almost 4000 samples of foodstuffs in 1996, with 66% showing no detectable residues. Thirty-four per cent had residues below the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) and, of that 34%, less than 1% were found to have levels above MRLs.

This compares unfavourably with past years, when residues were only found in 30% of foods surveyed in 1994, and 31% in 1995.

The WPPR chairman, Prof Ian Shaw, said this did not necessarily mean that the levels of pesticides found in foods were on the increase.

“As analytical techniques become more sensitive, we must expect to find more residues, albeit at very low levels. They have probably always been there, but it is only as techniques develop that they are being found,” he said.

But what might come as a surprise is that people eating organic food are still consuming harmless levels of pesticide residues – with organic bread being the worst performer.

The head of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods Organic Farming Unit, John Bryn, said minor pesticide residues could be found in “all organic food, if we look hard enough.”

However, he said, people should be clear that organic growers had undertaken not to use pesticides themselves. “It doesnt mean pesticides are not present,” he said.

“Even if you go to the North or South Pole, you will still find levels of pesticide residues. This indicates just how long weve been using these chemicals,” Prof Shaw added.

The WPPR also highlighted key areas where improvements still needed to be made.

The misuse of fungicides was still apparent in lettuce, with only a slight improvement recorded in 1996. Because of this, the Government had extended its residue enforcement programme to crack down on lettuce growers.

The residues found in lettuce didnt pose a risk to consumers – it was more of a legal problem, because the fungicide found (vinclozolin) is not approved for use on UK lettuce. The Government has successfully prosecuted three growers using vinclozolin, with a further seven receiving warning letters.

In 1995, the WPPR found unexpectedly high and variable residues of organic phosphates and carbamates in carrots. Because of this, restrictions on OP applications were introduced for carrots that year. The restrictions, coupled with the reduced incidence of pests, seemed to work, because residue levels in carrots dropped dramatically in 1996.

The other area of concern was lindane, levels of which rose unexpectedly in milk between February and April last year.

The WPPR now believes this was due to farmers using imported feed, with high levels of lindane, because of the unusually hot summer.

Lindane levels are now back to normal, and the WPPR has undetaken to study animal feeds following the incident.

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