Safe food starts at the farm!
Here are some questions and answers* about food safety and about how farmers can produce safe and healthy fruits and vegetables:
- Why would food not be safe?
- What are pesticides?
- Why do farmers use pesticides?
- Why is it a problem if farmers use pesticides?
- Why are pesticides dangerous to humans?
- Who is at risk?
- Are children more sensitive for pesticides?
- How can farmers produce fruits and vegetables that are safe to eat?
- How can farmers protect their crop from pests?
- Can farmers produce crops without using pesticides?
- What is MRL?
- How do I know if food is safe?
- What is the meaning of this logo?
- When will all food be safe?
Why would food NOT be SAFE?
Fruits and vegetables often contain residues of toxic chemicals, called pesticides, which were used by farmers to control pests and diseases.
Fruit and vegetable growers use toxic chemicals to control pests and diseases.
What are pesticides?
Pesticides are toxic (poisonous) chemicals that are designed to kill pests. There are different types of pesticides. Some are specially designed to kill insects, others kill fungi or bacteria, some are used to kill rodents, and a growing amount are used to kill weeds. However, most of these chemicals are also toxic not only to pests but to many species of plants and animals, including humans. Small quantities of these chemicals could kill a person, make them very ill or cause other long term health problems.
Why do farmers use pesticides?
Farmers use pesticides to kill insects, diseases or weeds that could damage their crops. Many farmers think that without pesticides they would make less profit, either because they would have lower yields or because their products would have poor quality. For example fruits with a nice looking smooth skin can be sold for a higher price than fruits with ugly looking and rough skin.
Pesticides are used to kill insects that damage the crop.
Why is it a problem if farmers use pesticides?
Understandably, many farmers are concerned for their crops. They want to protect their crops and often spray too much pesticide, spray too frequently, apply the most toxic pesticides and keep doing this right until harvesting time. This leaves undesirable and dangerous pesticide residues on the harvested product.
Ugly looking fruits can not be sold or fetch a low price.
Why are pesticides dangerous to humans?
All pesticides that are used by farmers are toxic, but some are more toxic than others. When pesticides enter the body they can cause poisoning effects. Pesticides can enter the body in different ways: through the mouth, via the skin, or by inhalation. Depending on the type of chemical and the amount and type of exposure, many kinds of adverse effects can result, ranging from slight symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision and tremors, to severe symptoms like coma, convulsions and death. But apart from these acute toxic effects there are also other risks of exposure to pesticides, even when exposed to very small doses. Some chemicals are known to be carcinogenic (exposure can cause cancer). Others are known as reproductive or developmental toxins (they cause birth defects or interfere with normal development) or as endocrine disrupting chemical (they interfere with the proper functioning of estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormones in humans and animals).
Some pesticides can cause long term health problems.
Who is at risk?
Everybody who gets exposed to pesticides is at risk. Of course a higher exposure means a higher risk, so the farmers who are handling the chemicals are running the highest risks. They often come in direct contact with the chemicals via the skin, eyes or inhalation. For most consumers the risk is much lower because they don’t handle the pesticides. But they do get some exposure to pesticides because of residues that are left behind on agricultural products. Although these amounts are usually small, it is known that some effects of chemicals can occur at very low dosages and can accumulate in the body.
Besides people, the environment is also at risk. They affect the air, land and water environments where birds, fish, butterflies and many other animals live. Intensive use of pesticides reduces bio-diversity, often in ways we don’t observe or understand until much later.
Are children more sensitive for pesticides?
Yes, infants and children may be especially sensitive to health risks posed by pesticides for several reasons:
- Their internal organ, hormone and immune systems are still developing and maturing.
- In relation to their body weight, infants and children eat and drink more than adults, which increases their exposure to pesticides in food and water.
Pesticides can harm the environment.
Farmers are regularly exposed to very toxic chemicals.
“Children are more sensitive to health risks posed by pesticides”
How can farmers produce fruits and vegetables that are safe to eat?
If farmers provide the correct pesticides dosage, stop spraying well in time before harvesting (waiting period) and use the least dangerous pesticides this would provide a greater guarantee that their products will be safe to eat. This can be done by means of “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM), which is a sustainable approach to managing pests and crops, in which many different tools are combined to avoid pests or to keep pest populations at acceptable levels. IPM is based on thorough understanding of crop ecology by farmers which enables them to make informed decisions on the best strategy to grow a healthy crop and to produce food that is safe and healthy.
How can farmers protect their crop from pests?
1) Resistant varieties
IPM farmers will always first try to avoid pest problems. One way to do this is to use crop varieties that are resistant to pest attack. In this way he can grow a healthy crop and can avoid the use of pesticides.
2) Biological control
In a healthy crop there will be some pests, but there will also be natural enemies of these pests. For example ladybird beetles are well known predators that feed on aphids and other small insect. Spiders and many tiny wasps will also help to keep pest populations at low levels. Unfortunately, pesticides not only kill pests, but they also kill the spiders and the beneficial insects. An IPM farmer understands this and will avoid pesticides in order to not disrupt this biological control. In some cases it is even possible to artificially rear these beneficial insects and release them in the field to help controlling pests in a natural way. For example predatory earwigs can be easily mass-produced by farmers to enhance biological control in their crop.
By using pest resistant crop varieties farmers can avoid pesticide use.
Predatory beetles and lacewings are examples of natural enemies of pests.
3) Non-chemical control methods
For an IPM farmers there are many options to reduce pest populations that don’t require pesticides. For example traps made with yellow sticky substances can be used to attract and catch certain small flying insects. Another example is the use of plants that are known to repel pests because of their smell.
Sticky traps catch small insects.
The smell of some plants will repel pests.
4) Pesticide use as a last resort
If all other methods have failed to keep pests at acceptable low level then pesticides can be used as a last resort. But even in this case, an IPM farmer will not start spraying without careful consideration. He will first consider the least toxic pesticides, such as extracts made of plant products, such as the Neem tree. He will use the least amount necessary and will only treat the parts of the field where the problem exists. And of course he will be very strict in maintaining a waiting period before harvest to make sure that residues are below maximum residue level (MRL).
“Natural enemies of pests are the friends of the farmer”
Can farmers produce crops without using pesticides?
Yes this is possible. While Integrated Pest Management is a method of farming that tries to avoid or minimize the risks of pesticide use, there are also farmers that still go a step further. In “organic farming” the farmers grow their crop entirely without synthetic pesticides and even without synthetic fertilizers. In this way they are sure to guarantee a safe product, for which they are willing to sacrifice some loss in yield or cosmetic quality. Organic products are often a bit more expensive and sometimes less beautiful looking, but the consumer can be sure that the products are safe to eat and that they were produced in a sustainable and environmental friendly way.
A logo that is used to identify produce of organic farmers.
What is MRL?
Some pesticides are more toxic than others. For most pesticides the World Health Organization has established a Maximum Residue Level (MRL). With the current knowledge about the chemicals it is expected that food with residues below this MRL can be safely eaten. “Safe” fruits and vegetables are produce where residues do not exceed these MRL levels.
For your health: “Buy pesticide-safe fruits and vegetables”
Or even better: “Buy Organic food”
How do I know if food is safe?
In theory, all food should be safe and residue levels of all products should be well below the MRL. Unfortunately in Thailand this is currently not he case. Many farmers still produce fruits and vegetables with residue levels exceeding the MRL. But there are also farmers who are producing safe products. Some of these safe products will be labeled, either by the farmers themselves or by organization such as DOA or DOAE or Royal Project to certify that residue levels are expected to be below MRL. These products are routinely tested to make sure that the safe claims are justified and to correct farm procedures if necessary. Many of the bigger supermarkets and department stores are taking food safety very serious and will only buy products from farmers they can trust to produce healthy food. In some areas, farmers directly develop relationships with consumers built on trust and knowledge of their farming practices.
What is the meaning of this logo?
An example of a logo that is found on fruits and vegetables is that of the “Hygienic fresh fruit and vegetable production pilot project”, an initiative of the Department of Agriculture (DOA). Hundreds of farmers have been certified and are allowed to use this logo on their products. Government officers regularly inspect these farms and take random samples of their farm produce. These samples are then tested for pesticide residues in order to guarantee the quality of farm products that carry the logo.
Similar systems of certifying farms and testing the safety of food are carried out by other institutions and organizations such as the DOAE, Min. of Public Health, Royal Project Foundation, etc. While most of these logos claim that the food is “safe”, this does not always mean that they are completely free of pesticides, but it means that residues are controlled and kept below levels that are expected to be safe.
If you want to be reasonably sure that food does not contain any pesticides at all, the best option is to buy organic fruits or vegetables.
Examples of some well-known logos that indicate that fruits or vegetables are “safe”.
Examples of food that is carrying “safe” labels.
When will all food be safe?
The Thai government is very much concerned about food safety and is taking many steps to improve the current situation. This includes an active policy on pesticide registration, which has resulted in banning of the most toxic pesticides in the past few years. Unfortunately there are also still some very toxic and controversial products being used and further action is required, especially for pesticides that are on the ”watch list”.
The government is also very active in efforts to educate farmers in integrated pest management, good agricultural practices, organic farming, and sustainable agriculture. Laboratories are in place to test agricultural products for residues and farmers who are producing quality products are certified.
Not only the government but also several NGOs and private companies are actively promoting better agricultural practices. Many department stores and supermarkets have now become outlets of safe-labeled fruits and vegetables.
Despite all these efforts, the pesticide issue is not a problem that will be solved overnight. To speed up the process, consumers can play an active role by making a positive choice for food that is certified to be safe or food that is grown by organic farmers.
Intensive training programs for farmers to introduce integrated pest management and sustainable agriculture.
Residue testing laboratories to guarantee the safety of our food.
* Note: These Q&A were written in Thailand in 2005. Some of the logos mentioned in the text may be out of date.