July 2016

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STF - Agricultural Chemicals: Easy to blame, hard to live without

by Rick Perry Texas Agriculture Commissioner

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The average American family spends 10 percent of its disposable income on food, less than any other country in the world. For a family of four in the United States, grocery bills average about $79 a week. This plentiful, economical food supply has improved Americans’ health and helped to increase our lifespan by more than 20 years since the early 1900s. U.S. residents could only expect to live some 50 years at the turn of the century. Today we are living into our late seventies and longer.

This increased life expectancy can be attributed to good nutrition, as well as improved medical care. Agricultural chemicals have played an important role in helping improve the nutritional health of all Americans. The National Academy of Sciences credits public health improvements in part to pesticides, which provide more abundant harvests and make fruits and vegetables available at reasonable prices year-round.

So, why do ag chemicals and their applicators get blame heaped on them for endangering the health of millions of consumers - especially when government scientists, other researchers and many medical experts have concluded the risk of contracting cancer from pesticide residues on food appears negligible?

A 1994 Food Marketing Institute Survey consumer study found that 70 percent of shoppers felt confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. Seventy-two percent, however, believed pesticides were “a very serious health hazard.” Their feelings differed significantly from those of the American Medical Association, which reported “no scientific evidence linking safe pesticide use and adverse health in humans.”

This gap between the public’s perception and the scientific community’s findings can be traced to different ways of drawing conclusions. Scientists determine risk probabilities from quantitative research. Consumers, on the other hand, usually base their judgements on reports written by people who frequently have no scientific background. According to the International Food Information Council review on Pesticides and Food Safety, “…information received from the media about pesticides may be inaccurate, confusing or incomplete. Many journalists lack sufficient understanding of agriculture or scientific methods to critically analyze new reports.” What’s more, cancer risks “seldom put into perspective,” the review states. Evidence that pesticide use carries a major disease risk is related to animal studies in which laboratory animals - particularly mice and rats - are fed high doses of chemicals over a lifetime.

Food safety is an emotional issue that can be manipulated to frighten consumers into seeing danger in every bite, Everyone remembers the Alar scare, which convinced shoppers that the growth regulator used on apples presented a potent cancer risk. Apple sales dropped dramatically, and Alar was withdrawn voluntarily from the market. Yet when the EPA conducted further testing, it found that health risks reportedly linked to Alar had been blown way out of proportion.

Because people often fear what they don’t know, it is easy to understand how consumers can panic over reports of pesticides poisoning their dinner. In our urban society, a mere 2 percent of the population produces the country’s crops and livestock. Many of the remaining 98 percent “…are not familiar with farming and do not fully appreciate the multiple pest, weed and insect pressures that can devastate entire crops,” says the IFIC review.

They are also unaware the pesticides start breaking down soon after they are applied to crops. By the time crops leave the farm, most pesticides residues have already dropped below tolerance. They decrease again during processing. Any that remain on fresh produce drop further during washing and peeling in consumers’ kitchens.

Few Americans realize it takes years of testing, as many as 140 different studies and costs of up to $70 million shouldered by the manufacturer before the EPA registers a pesticide. Additional public health safeguards are built into registering a product. For example, the EPA scrutinizes each new chemical’s potential to cause cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects and other health disorders. The agency also estimates likely dietary exposure to certain chemicals on 22 population groups.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides further protection by checking for pesticide residues on food samples. Of 12,751 samples analyzed in 1993, the FDA found no residues on 64 percent of domestic samples and 69 percent of imports. Nearly all the rest had residues the fell within tolerance. Less then 1 percent of all residues detected exceeded tolerance. When you consider that pesticide residues in food and water are measured in parts per million, per billion and per trillion, the threat of ingesting a hazardous quantity grows even dimmer. One part per million is the equivalent of a single pancake in a four mile stack. One part per trillion in infinitely smaller - equal to one second in 32,000 years.

Natural toxins capable of causing cancer can be found almost everywhere. Bruce Ames, University of California molecular biology and biochemistry professor, calls them “nature’s pesticides,” present in such common foods as lettuce, peanut butter and spinach. According to the IFIC, U.S. consumers ingest 10,000 times more natural pesticides than chemical residues.

Putting pesticide use into perspective should be the goal of everyone in the ag chemical industry. Pesticides have given the United States the abundant harvests that make our country the envy of the world. Consumers need to understand that pesticides when applied safely present negligible food safety risks and offer major benefits to their health.

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