What you Need to Know about Pesticides

woman washing vegetables in the sink You have probably heard about pesticides, but may have questions about their safety in our food supply. Read on to learn about pesticides, why they are used and their safety.

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are substances that are used on foods to protect them from diseases and pests.  There are different kinds of pesticides that are used for different reasons. For example:

  • herbicides help to control the spread of weeds and
  • insecticides help to control insects

Some pesticides are synthetic (made by humans) and some come from natural sources like bacteria and plants.

Why are pesticides used?

Pesticides are used to keep food crops free from disease, bacteria and insects. Without the help of pesticides, food crops could not grow as easily making some fresh fruits and vegetables less available. Pesticides help to grow more food with less waste. This means food costs are lower because more food is available.

What foods are pesticides used on?

Vegetables, fruits and grains

Pesticides are used directly on foods like fruits, vegetables and grains.  Processed foods like cereals and crackers may have traces of pesticides if they are made with grains that were sprayed with pesticides.

Meat, fish, dairy and eggs

Animal products like meat, dairy and eggs may have traces of pesticides.  Pesticides are not directly used on these foods, but the grains that the animals eat are often sprayed with pesticides.

Fish and seafood may also contain traces of pesticides if they are farmed or grown in areas where the water is contaminated by pesticides.

Small amounts of pesticides may stay in or on foods, however, pesticides break down over time.  This means very little traces are left on food by the time we eat it. 

Are pesticides safe?

Yes.  Research has been done to make sure that pesticides are safe to use on food crops. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitors the amount of pesticides on foods that are produced in Canada and those that are imported.  This is done regularly to make sure that only foods with safe levels of pesticides are available.

The maximum amount of pesticides that are allowed to remain on food is set by Health Canada to make sure the foods are safe.  This is known as Maximum Residue Limit or MRL.  These limits are set for fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, grains and some processed foods. Pesticide traces on fish in Canada is also regulated for farmed fish and to some extent, the habitats of where wild fish grow.

While we may not know for sure which foods have been sprayed with pesticides and how much residue is left on what we eat, we do know that regulatory agencies in Canada aim to provide safe food for Canadians and encourage the protection of our environment.

Should I avoid foods grown with pesticides?

Choosing to avoid foods with pesticides is a personal choice. If you want to limit foods grown with synthetic (human made) pesticides, choose organic:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Pastas
  • Crackers
  • Cereals
  • Flour
  • Meat
  • Milk
  • Eggs

Natural or plant-based pesticides are still used in organic food production.  It is not yet known if organic foods are safer than conventional foods that use synthetic pesticides.  Organic foods like vegetables and fruit should be washed the same way you would for conventional foods to make sure they are clean and safe to eat.

Organic or not, all vegetables and fruits are part of a healthy, balanced diet. Vegetables and fruits are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre and many are rich in antioxidants.

How do I limit pesticides on fruits and vegetables?

Try some of these helpful tips:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables very well for at least 30 seconds before you eat them.  This helps lower the amount of pesticides on the outer layers of the produce. 
  • You can also use a clean brush to scrub produce when you eat the outer skin like apples and potatoes.  There is no need to add mild detergents or special cleaners to foods. 
  • Trim away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables like romaine or kale.  These usually have higher levels of pesticides.
  • You can peel fruit like apples, however, washing fruits will help lower the amount of pesticides. Remember, the peel on fruits has fibre and other nutrients.
  • Choose foods grown in Canada since Canadian produce tends to have lower amounts of pesticides imported produce.
  • Choose organic versions of fruits and vegetables when you can.

Bottom Line

Foods that have been treated with pesticides are safe to eat.  It is most important to make sure you are getting a variety of foods following Canada’s Food Guide.

You may also be interested in

Organic Foods and Growing Methods FAQ

Vegetables and fruit food safety facts

Food Handlers Storage Guide

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide

Last Update – October 31, 2018

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