Pesticides in Perspective

This event provides a good opportunity to review the contribution to health that pesticide make, as well as the safety concerns that consumers in Asia have about pest control chemicals

Pesticides and Health in Perspective: An International Conference Examines the Evidence

For more information contact Georgina Cairns at +662 318 1578 or [email protected]

FAO: All health and food writers/editors

Source: Asian Food Information Centre (AFIC)

Email: [email protected]

"Pesticides in Perspective" is the theme for the International Conference on Pesticides 2005 to be held on 6th to 8th July in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This event provides a good opportunity to review the contribution to health that pesticide make, as well as the safety concerns that consumers in Asia have about pest control chemicals

Food safety is a priority amongst most, if not all, consumers when it comes to choosing their food. AFIC consumer surveys conducted in 2002 and 2003, which included questions on consumer perceptions of food safety, found pesticides to be one of the most common food safety concerns.

Health experts worldwide agree that at least 400g per day consumption of fruits and vegetables should be made a high priority health target, but fears about pesticide residues may be driving consumers away from meeting this health target. AFIC is therefore recommending that both agricultural and health professionals join forces to make consumer better aware of the health benefits of plant foods, and the rigorous regulatory measures in place to ensure the safety of plant foods grown with the help of pesticides.

Essential Health Benefits of Fruits, Vegetables and Cereal Grains

Health experts agree that 400 grams (equal to 5 portions) of fruit and vegetables per day per person and a high fibre diet of approximately 25-30 grams per day are high priority health targets.

"Eat your fruits and vegetables" is one of the tried and true recommendations for a healthy diet. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help ward off heart disease and stroke, control blood pressure and cholesterol, and prevent some types of cancer. Furthermore, increased fruit and vegetable consumption can replace foods high in saturated fats, and sugar making it easier to limit energy intake and prevent obesity and overweight.

Worldwide, the WHO estimates that low intake of fruits and vegetables is estimated to cause about 19% of gastrointestinal cancer, about 31% of heart disease and 11% of stroke. Of the global burden attributable to low fruit and vegetable consumption, about 85% was from cardiovascular disease and 15% from cancers. Dietary fibre also plays a role in reduction of risk for a number of disease, especially bowel cancer.

An expert report published by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in 1997 estimates that 30 - 40% of cancer cases throughout the world are preventable through everyday dietary modification. In particular, the WCRF report states that the evidence of dietary protection against cancer is strongest and most consistent for diets high in vegetables and fruits. The panel of experts concluded that the consumption of 400 grams/day or more of a variety of vegetables and fruits probably decreases overall cancer incidence by at least 20%.

Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits helps to ensure an adequate intake of most micronutrients, dietary fibres and a host of other beneficial substances, such as antioxidants.

Although all fruits and vegetables contribute health benefits, green leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage, and citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and limes (and their juices) make the most important contributions. Starchy, tuber plants, for example potatoes and cassava, are not counted in the fruits or vegetables target but can make a useful contribution to meeting dietary fibre consumption goals.

The recommended daily intake of dietary fibre of 25-30g per day can be only be achieved by incorporating high fibre plant foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds into eating patterns every day and/or using a bran supplement.

Pesticide Use in Asia

For most Asian consumers, the fruits and vegetables they buy are likely to have been grown with the help of pesticides to protect against insects, moulds, viruses and other pests that reduce yield and quality.

Agricultural chemicals including pesticides have made significant contributions to the efficiency and productivity of Asian agriculture, making sure that the rise in Asia's food production has kept well ahead of its growing population and demands for more varied better quality produce. With responsible pesticide use, important benefits to agriculture and in turn society are delivered, such as year round availability of agricultural produce; improved quality and variety; reduced production costs which in turn results in lower prices for consumers. Correct and responsible use of some pesticides actually enhances the safety of some produce by protecting these crops against harmful organisms that could otherwise (potentially) cause illnesses or discomfort in humans.

So here are some facts to counter-balance some of the common myths that underlie consumer concerns:

Myth 1 - Farmers spray crops with such a lot of chemicals they are dangerous to eat

Fact - Although there are occasional examples of misuse and overuse of pesticide chemicals, regulatory monitoring, finds the majority of farmers use pesticides responsibly and according to strict safety guidelines which ensure any residues are low enough for the health to be unaffected. Pesticides cost money, and farmers have a strong incentive to use sparingly to keep down their costs.

Myth 2 - Pesticides cause cancer-

Fact - It is important to note that, to date, the studies that have examined possible links between approved levels of pesticide residues in food and ill health have been unable to establish any definite link. Further studies are obviously important but meanwhile, the scientific evidence on the link between development of chronic degenerative diseases such as heart diseases and cancer, to a limited consumption of fruits and vegetables is undisputed.

The American Institute for Cancer Research notes that "there is no convincing evidence that eating foods containing trace amounts of chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and drugs used on farm animals changes cancer risk. Exposure to all manufactured chemicals in air, water soil and food is believed to cause less than 1% of all cancers". Similarly, the 1996 Harvard Report on Cancer Prevention (Volume I: Human Causes of Cancer) concluded that 65 percent of cancer deaths in the United States can be linked to tobacco use, diet, obesity, and a lack of exercise. Just one percent could be attributed to food additives and contaminants.

Myth 3 - We don't know what chemicals are being used

Fact - Before allowing any pesticide to be used on a food commodity, limits are set on how much of a particular pesticide may be used on a crop during its cultivation, and the safe amount of individual pesticide compound residues that may be present on food at point of sale.

Each country in Asia determines its own safety levels for acceptable residues of individual pesticide products, based on multiple scientific evaluations. As well as their own safety levels, these levels in most instances also conform with by international standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body set up jointly by WHO and its sister organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Myth 4 - We don't know what pesticides in the diet are doing to our health

Fact - One of the most important tools in the safety evaluation of pesticide use on food crops is the calculation of what is an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). The ADI for any given pesticide is a measure of the quantity of a particular chemical in food that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without any known risk to health. It is expressed in relation to bodyweight, and is based on safety trials and large safety margins.

To further assess potential health problems from contaminants in the food supply, Total Diet Studies (TDS) are conducted to determine the extent of pesticide exposure based on typical daily diets. The actual exposure level can then be compared to the ADI levels, and the dietary exposure of a population to the pesticide can be assessed with reference to the ADI.

Myth 5 - Pesticides are poisons so even very tiny amounts must be toxic to the body

Fact - Most pesticides are designed to breakdown soon after application so many crops treated with pesticide before harvest will have no residues at point of sale. Also, some pesticides are only poisonous to the pest they have been developed to resist, and have little impact on the human body.

Its also reassuring to know that the human body has learnt to cope with small amounts of many toxic chemicals which are naturally present in many of the foods we eat. For example broccoli, kale and potatoes all contain trace amounts of substances that if eaten in large amounts could cause illness, but in the tiny amounts present in a normal diet, there is no adverse effect and the benefits of these healthful foods far outweighs the risks of the tiny amounts of naturally occurring toxins.

For more information on pesticide regulation and calculation of pesticide exposure in our daily diets please refer to AFIC- Short Briefing on Pesticides Residues

Responding to Consumer Concerns and Building Consumer Confidence

- AFIC Recommendations

Consumers need reassurance that it is safe for them to incorporate produce that has been grown with the responsible and appropriate use of pesticides. All those involved in the regulation and application of pesticides; evaluation of their safety; and monitoring to ensure these chemicals are used correctly, need to better understand and respond consumer information needs. Clear information on the mechanisms in place to ensure safety, and efforts ongoing to raise safety standards even further, must also be backed by hard evidence and a transparent system of reporting. Consumers have a right to see and judge for themselves the extensive efforts employed to ensure both adequate availability and safety of agricultural produce such as fruit, vegetables and cereal grains.

The health professional communities of Asia must also do more to communicate the benefits of consuming fruit, vegetables and cereal grains, and address consumer confusions created by the mix of facts and myths surrounding the topic. Many cconsumers in Asia are not currently achieving their dietary health goals; its important to ensure that unfounded fears about the use of pesticides to make produce affordable, safe and available are not one of the barriers to consumers making healthful dietary choices.


Almost everyone can benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables, and variety is as important as quantity. The benefits of eating a wide range of produce far outweigh the potential concerns that consumers may have over pesticides residues consumption, and this is strongly supported by extensive evidence that the onset of chronic degenerative diseases amongst ordinary consumers is closely associated with unbalanced diets, not exposure to pesticide residues in their food.

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For more information visit the Asian Food Information Centre website

The Asian Food Information Centre is a Singapore-registered not-for profit society whose mission is to provide science-based information on nutrition, health and food safety to consumers in Asia

For more information contact Georgina Cairns at +662 318 1578 or [email protected]

From 06 Jul 2005
Until 08 Jul 2005
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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