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Keeping our food safe

eating apples

It’s an unavoidable problem if you’re an Iowa homeowner, gardener or farmer: Pests and weeds will attack your favorite plants or invade your house and yard.

Farmers need pesticides to grow safe, healthy food. Without pesticides, farmers would lose a significant portion of their food crops, which leads to food waste and rising costs at the grocery store.

“Pesticides are essential for successful food production,” says Dr. Ruth MacDonald, a food scientist and interim senior associate dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Pests damage plants, causing them to be stunted and susceptible to diseases, and can reduce the quality and quantity of the food being grown,” she explains.

All pesticides must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are rigorously tested to prove their safety to human health and the environment.

“There has been significant research done to identify pesticides that target insects without harming people or the environment,” MacDonald says.

In addition, farmers follow strict rules about how much and which pesticides they can use on selected crops, she adds.

Withdrawal restrictions also ensure pesticides aren’t applied immediately before harvest, which minimizes the risk of carryover to the food supply.

It is a violation of federal law to use a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its label directions, MacDonald notes.

Even organic foods aren’t pesticide-free. MacDonald says organic farm­ers don’t use synthetic pesticides, but they can use a variety of natural pesticides, as allowed under the federal organic standards program.

“Conventional farmers utilize a wide range of techniques ..., including genetically modified seeds, no-till and integrated pest management, that reduce the amount of pesticides needed,” MacDonald says.

Here in Iowa, farmers and their employees must be certified pest applicators to use pesticides. Education and testing on the safe use of pesticides is administered to all licensed pesticide applicators by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) in conjunction with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The IDAL’s Pesticide Bureau is also responsible for responding to complaints and investigating potential misuse of pesticides. 

As an extra precaution, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tests our food to ensure that pesticide residues don’t exceed a safe level.

Each year, the USDA randomly tests hundreds of produce samples from retail stores, using sophisticated testing that can detect pesticides at parts per billion, to ensure the safety of our food supply.

In its most recent 2016 survey, the USDA found that 99.5 percent of the samples tested had pesticide residue levels well below benchmarks est­ablished by the EPA.

Plus, experts agree that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the small risk from pesticide residues.

Only one in 10 Americans actually eats the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

MacDonald says conventionally produced foods are very safe and it isn’t necessary to purchase organic foods to avoid pesticides or chemical residues.

“Having choice is a great, but there is no evidence that organically produced foods are more nutritious or safer than conventionally pro­duced foods,” MacDonald says.

Just remember, it’s important to wash all fruits and vegetables — whether they are grown conventionally or organically before eating to protect against any potential bacteria that could cause food-borne illness.

When it comes to our health, more fruits and veggies is better­ —  whatever your budget or personal preference.

For more information about pest­icides and food safety, visit the Best Food Facts website at https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/pesticides-a-look-at-the-how-and-why/.