Policymakers have been urged to do more to help “demystify” the use of pesticides in agriculture.
According to a 2019 Eurobarometer survey on food safety in the EU, pesticide residues in food is one of the highest perceived risks listed by European consumers (39%) when it comes to the food they eat.
The European Commission has fixed Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for pesticide in food. Such MRLs set the highest level of a pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in food when pesticides are applied in the correct manner. Importantly, the amounts of residues found in food must be safe for consumers.
The need to dispel some of the “myths” surrounding pesticides in farming was one of the key messages to emerge from a high-level debate on food safety held online on Wednesday 19 May, hosted by The Brussels Times, with the support of Bayer, the pharma and science company.
While the EU has approved the use of glyphosate - one of the most widely used herbicides in European agriculture - it has also said that it wants to cut dependency on and reduce use of pesticides generally.
One of the speakers at the panel, Paul Temple, a farmer and chair of the U.K. AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Board, called on EU policymakers to help better inform the public about pesticides, saying “it amuses me that people will readily put chemicals in their mouths to kill things but pesticides are demonised. We all, then, have to better explain the need for pesticides and also why pesticides are used.”
Dr. Elizabeth Bates, head of Dietary Safety Assessment at Bayer Crop Science, said, “This illustrates a clear misconception and underlines the need to address the topic of pesticide residues in food.”
The debate was timely as it comes at a time of increasing demand for organic foods, partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious, as well as the EU’s pesticides reduction targets under the Farm to Fork Strategy.
Dr. Bates said there was a need for consumers to understand that the food they eat is safe. “On testing, we go to extremely low levels of detection, equivalent to finding 4 lumps of sugar in an Olympic size swimming pool. Pesticides in food are strictly regulated and EFSA, the EU food agency, sets daily exposure limits which are legal thresholds designed to protect consumers.”
“Glyphosate, when used correctly and when they don’t exceed MRLs, are safe and there is no need for concern about their use. However, we have seen a lot of misleading information about glyphosate, including in wines and beer and breakfast cereal,” she added.
Dr. Bates pointed to a 2019 EFSA study which tested 96,000 food samples, including rice and pasta, where only 1 pc of items were deemed to be non-compliant with the regulations.
She said, “Even so, we have still got to do more to allay fears. At the root of consumer concern is that this is an issue which is difficult for people to understand because these residues are invisible. But our food has never been safer than it is today. We don’t expect to get sick from our food in Europe but this is not always the case in other countries or was the case 50 years ago. So, we have got to communicate this with people.”
What is Glyphosate?
Glyphosate is an herbicide and is applied to the leaves of plants to kill both broadleaf plants and grasses. It is one of the most commonly used herbicide chemicals in the world and may be sprayed anywhere there are unwanted plants — from commercial farms to private backyards. Glyphosate has been used more than any other agriculture chemical to help grow everything from peppers to oranges. People also use glyphosate at home to tame weeds, and some cities spray the chemical in their parks and other green spaces to control invasive plants that can take over and push out native plants.
Like other herbicides, glyphosate is subjected to rigorous and exhaustive testing by regulatory agencies worldwide, and glyphosate-based herbicides are registered and marketed in approximately 150 countries.
Bates said, “It’s a difficult message to get across but pesticides used today are not the same as those used in 1950s. Other initiatives are also being taken today, for example, farmers being asked to spray less or use only part of their field for pesticide use. As with the EU, we support cutting the use of pesticides and working with farmers on these reduction goals.”
Temple sought to explain how and why pesticides are used. He said, “They are safe but there is concern. This is not justified because people tend to take things at face value so we must break down myths and barriers about pesticides. It would be good to put people in a field and see what we do.”
The EU, he said, had been “as guilty as anyone in misleading the public.”
“We need to shine some light on the reality. The coronavirus is a good example: everyone looked for biotech solutions and as soon as these came along they were accepted immediately and the NGOs who often spread such misinformation remained in the background.”
“In the UK, for farm assurance we need yearly training, and testing is done regularly to ensure safety. In the UK this is all taken very seriously but I have frustrations with the EU. Policymakers have a role and could do more to boost trust,” Temple said.
Economic and social impact
It is estimated that banning glyphosate would cut UK production of winter wheat and winter barley by 12% and oil seed rape by 10%, costing the farming industry £940m a year. Its use also lessens the need for mechanical ploughing, reducing pollution and soil erosion. No biological alternatives are expected to be commercially available in the near future.
For some farmers, glyphosate already plays an important role in their efforts to achieve sustainable agriculture. Industry argues that glyphosate is a unique and effective tool for weed control used to manage weed growth across a variety of applications in and beyond agriculture.
A third speaker, Dr. Slavica Pavlovic-Djuranovic, faculty member in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at Washington University, School of Medicine in St. Louis in the U.S. said, “I have 2 kids and think about what they eat and the safety of it every day. For me chemicals are not necessarily our enemies and I tell them that.”
“Public worry persists but the science is clear: there is no cause for concern. The biggest concern is how the science is perceived so we have to talk to people about this issue. Pesticides are not a poison but if the media attention is constantly presented in a bad way, then people do tend to believe that. This is a conversation I have over and over again.”
“We live in a bubble in the West but there are parts of the world that don’t have food security. But I live on a farm and I know the reality. Testing process is extensive and using pesticides helps us to feed everyone,” Pavlovic-Djuranovic concluded.
The Brussels Times