By: Tom Rawstone FOR THE DAILY MAIL Published: 23:53 GMT, 10 December 2017
Research by The Soil Association reveals the possible impact of the ‘toxic chemical cocktail’ put on our food
Farming in Britain has become increasingly dependent on chemicals – a potato is doused in 30 different ones
These chemicals are used to keep our food fresh longer but at the risk of stroke, heart attack and even cancer
All the pesticides used in the UK have been approved for use after being scrutinised by scientific experts
Doing the family shop, you’ll probably feel virtuous as you fill up your trolley with healthy fruit and vegetables.
But worrying new research reveals that these wholesome foods have been treated with a complex mixture of pesticides to get them to your table in peak condition — and there may even be some residues of these chemicals left on the produce you buy.
On average, new research has found, a supermarket potato will have been doused with an astonishing 30 active ingredients (an active ingredient is the part of a substance or compound that produces its chemical or biological effect).
Compare that to 40 years ago — when a potato would have been treated with just 5.3 active ingredients — and you start to see how mind-bogglingly dependent farming in Britain today is on chemicals.
A supermarket potato is doused with an astonishing 30 active chemical ingredients, compared to 40 years ago when a potato would have been treated with just 5.3
The Soil Association research is based on four decades of Government data and has thrown up all sorts of worrying facts.
For example, it found a leek or an onion bought in 2014 was treated with 32.6 active ingredients on average, compared to 1.8 in 1974. Wheat — ground into flour and used in everything from bread to thickening ready-meal sauces — was treated with just 1.7 active ingredients in 1974, rising to 20.7 in 2014.
The findings, presented at a recent Royal Society of Medicine conference, questioned what impact this ‘toxic cocktail’ of chemicals might have on humans, warning of links to various diseases including strokes, heart attacks and even cancer.
Pesticides are tested for safety and approved individually.
But if multiple chemicals are applied to different crops, then a consumer could be ingesting a mixture — the effects of which are unknown. The danger, some research suggests, is that taking a cocktail of chemicals could increase their potency.
‘People eat food sprayed with increasingly complex mixtures of pesticides, and no safety testing is done on mixtures,’ said Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, a food and farming charity which certifies organic food.
The group warns that regulation governing pesticides does not set safety levels for the cocktails of chemicals people eat, nor does it consider the impact of eating a succession of different pesticides.
It is a point echoed by Josie Cohen, of the Pesticide Action Network UK: ‘Mainstream agriculture in the UK looks less like farming and more like chemistry. The British public simply isn’t aware of how many different chemicals are being used to grow our food.’
Unsurprisingly, the agricultural industry reacted swiftly to counter the new claims. After all, it has long made much of the fact that the overall amount of pesticides used on British produce has declined dramatically.
In 1990 the total weight of pesticides applied to crops was 34.5 million kg, in 2015 it was 17.8 million — a 50 per cent reduction.
This, it is claimed, is down to advances in products and the fact they are more precisely applied, meaning that less of the chemical is required.
At the same time, it is argued that whatever crops may be exposed to in the fields, by the time they reach supermarket shelves they are safe to eat.
An independent advisory body, the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF), oversees checks on food and drink for pesticide residues.
‘It’s correct to say the number of active ingredients available to farmers has increased over the past 40 years as a result of innovation, research and development,’ says Sarah Mukherjee, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticide industry.
‘But while the number of active ingredients has increased, the levels of residue found in the final produce remains low.
‘If you look at potatoes, the Soil Association claims an average of 30.8 active ingredients were applied to potatoes.
‘Yet the PRiF shows that in 2015, of 156 samples of potato, 73 samples contained no residues at all and only 31 contained residues of more than one pesticide.
‘That proves our point — even with a supposed average of 30.8 active ingredients applied, most potatoes sold in our supermarkets contain residue from one pesticide and the highest number of residues found was three.’
Those found to contain residues were all below the Maximum Residue Level set by law. But for most consumers, any residue is too high.
As for the ‘cocktail effect’, this, too, is dismissed by the industry body. Ms Mukherjee says: ‘Every day we are exposed to numerous natural and man-made chemicals. It is impossible to predict all the combinations in all possible concentrations that could arise — let alone assess them all.’
Such arguments are unlikely to convince some environmentalists who believe long-term exposure to pesticides could be linked to the development of cancers and other serious, chronic diseases.
Each year, a detailed record is kept of the amount of pesticides used nationally on individual crops. Would the National Farmers Union give us the details of one typical farm? Apparently not.
‘While all farmers will have their own spraying records, we don’t have access to them,’ said a spokesman. ‘Pesticides are a last resort for farmers when dealing with pests or disease.’
That may be the case. But some may wonder, if pesticides are being used so prudently on UK farms — and if each farm keeps a record — why is such information not more readily available?
But today, the Mail can reveal a comprehensive list of all the chemicals applied to a single crop of winter wheat during one growing season.
During that period, more than 20 chemicals were applied — a figure that closely matches the Soil Association’s findings.
The list was provided by a farmer in East Sussex to Professor Dave Goulson, a scientist and bee expert at the University of Sussex. The farm, which is not identified, is described as ‘not especially intensive, situated on the edge of the South Downs, an area of gentle hills, hedgerows and wooded valleys — beautiful, rural England.’
All the pesticides used in this country have been approved for use on crops having first been scrutinised by independent scientific experts. The product will have to have been shown to be effective and humane and to pose ‘no unacceptable risks’ to people, wildlife and the environment.
‘People eating small amounts of pesticide residues in their diet are not at risk, provided that intakes are below the safety limits that are set by expert committees when the pesticide is approved,’ advises the Food Standards Agency.
‘On the best science available, no harm will come to people who consume an amount of pesticide that is below the safety limits for that pesticide’.