The Dirty Truth About Pesticides in Asia

The Dirty Truth About Pesticides in Asia

The ‘Dirty Dozen’ isn’t a uniform worldwide list.  Find out where you might be getting exposed and the best sources for pesticide-free produce and products.  By Laura Paul

Wide use of pesticides began in the United States in the early 1950s and has since spread worldwide in the production of food.  The term ‘pesticides’ includes insecticides and herbicides that inhibit weeds and prevent insects from destroying plants. Today, approximately 5.6 billion pounds of pesticide are used per year worldwide.  This in-depth look will explore ways in which these chemicals find their way  into our bodies systems through our food supply.

In Hong Kong, we get our food from all over the world.  The standards and regulations surrounding the use of pesticides vary per country, though The World Health Organisation’s Core Assessment Group reviews pesticide toxicological data and estimates the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for individual pesticides.  ADI is often used as the global standard in research on the effects of pesticides in your daily food.

Most likely you have heard of the ‘Dirty Dozen,’ but did you know that the dirty dozen is not a uniform list around the world?  In the United States, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has an extensive report detailing the highest concentrations of pesticides in the most widely known ‘Dirty Dozen’ list. In the United Kingdom, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) increases consumer awareness on pesticide levels of European produce.  Their Pesticides on a Plate guide lays out an array of test results, and their website  provides extensive information.  Australia-based Friends of the Earth published The Dose Makes the Poison highlighting fruit and vegetables containing pesticide residues. Finally, The Centre for Food Safety in Hong Kong published a report in June 2012 called The First Hong Kong Total Diet Study: Pesticide Residues Report No.4, which categorized 150 foods and their pesticide residues.

The most disturbing food from the EWG report in the United States is the grape.  According to EWG findings, “A single grape sample contained 15 pesticides.  Single samples of celery, tomatoes, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides.”  And whilst no short-term toxicity is shown in humans or animals, research “studies involving life-long exposure in rodents have demonstrated liver and kidney dysfunction and a significant increased risk of cancer, with shortened lifespans.”

You can find solace in sourcing some produce from Europe where there is a higher degree of regulation, especially with baby food.  But, even Europe has seen a decrease in the number of pesticide-free or pesticide-reduced options.  Soft orchard fruits like nectarines and peaches had a 100% incidence of pesticide residues with over 96% of samples containing more than one pesticide. Surprisingly, in the UK and Australia, one of  the greatest offenders is flour. In response to this finding, PAN UK published Pesticides in Your Daily Bread outlining the multiple chemicals and residues found everyday in your tasty sandwiches and baguettes.


What about food in Hong Kong?  The Centre for Food Safety’s report called The First Hong Kong Total Diet Study: Pesticide Residues Report No.4 (TDS) is a comprehensive report with over 90 pages of detailed information from foods tested to the exact pesticide residue found on the food.  It is impressive in its depth and breadth and the spokesman at the CFS was very responsive in answering questions.  The spokesperson did clarify that even though some residues are higher in certain foods, the TDS “ considered the exposure to chemicals from the whole diet and not just individual foods.”   Samples were examined based on the four main pesticide categories  of organophosophates, carbamates, pyrethrins  and

dithiocarbamates. CFS tested vegetables, fruits, some processed foods and meats. Food samples were obtained through different outlets such as wet markets, supermarkets and restaurants.

With these daunting facts in hand, consumers are still left in a quandry on what to purchase at markets and what is safe to order at restaurants.  Furthermore, research is falling behind, as the combined toxicity effects of multiple pesticide residues present in fruit or vegetables has not been studied according to the spokesman for the Centre for Food Safety.    Pesticides have only been studied on an individual basis, despite the widely accepted practice of using multiple pesticide formulations.  Additionally, when estimating ADI, researchers assume an average body weight.  Consideration should be given to groups such as children, the elderly and populations below the average body weight.  These individuals consume a higher percentage of pesticides per kilogram of body weight.  Moreover, children now consume pesticides in larger quantities than past generations, and no targeted research has been conducted on the effects of long-term pesticide consumption on child development.

When discussing pesticides, it’s important to mention the concentration of pesticides in processed food.  Author Michael Pollan, who highlights the plight of the potato in his book Omnivores Dilemma, talks about potatoes produced for fast food being sprayed with such toxic pesticides that there is a period of five days where no person can go into the field, even if important equipment breaks down.  He goes on to write on his website that potatoes are now being modified to produce their own insecticide, bacillus thuringiensis, that causes potato beetles to die from the bacterial toxin upon eating the leaves.  Furthermore, pesticides become more concentrated in some foods like jams and jellies when they are cooked.

The easiest solution for avoiding pesticides is to buy organic items.  However, the price point for organic is not realistic for all consumers. Helen Scott of Mango Menus, an online guide to food shopping in Hong Kong, understands this challenge.  One of her aims is to source deals for organic produce and meat every week through her website  She says, “I often have exclusive deals with online vegetable and produce companies or with other online companies that sell organic produce.”  Her Hong Kong-focused food guide and meal planning service gathers local deals every month.  Subscribers can usually enjoy a discount of 10-20% by signing up for her monthly e-mail which adds up to large potential savings.

Sonalie Figuieras and Tracy Turo of Ekowarehouse, an online business-to-business platform for certified green products, have spent a great deal of time researching the breadth of organic labels from across the world.  There are dozens of organic governmental and independent non-profit organization certification schemes.  They explain that organic produce cannot be grown with synthetic pesticides.  Organic processed products can have a varying percentage of organic ingredients but may still have the ‘organic’ label. The only way to verify a product is completely organic is to either read the ingredients label carefully or look for packaging with the ‘100% organic’ label.

To make matters more complicated, the technicalities of organic language does not necessarily mean foods are pesticide-free. Pesticides derived from natural sources can be used, according to organic guidelines. One such natural pesticide is called spinosad.  Spinosad is similar to carbamates and is particularly toxic to bees before the product has dried on the plant.

If you cannot purchase organic, the next best solution is  to wash your produce thoroughly.  Soft-skinned and waxy produce generally have more pesticide residues after washing, so it is recommended to lightly rub the produce with a cloth or vegetable scrubber.  Although water can be effective, the best option is a diluted vinegar rinse.  A study conducted by the Stateof Connecticut’s Department of Analytical Chemistry compared four different washes, a 1% dish soap solution, and rinsing with water alone.  This study confirmed that rinsing with water was equally effective as any special solution or spray.  Hong Kong’s Total Diet Study recommends soaking vegetables for at least an hour and gently rubbing produce where applicable.

Whether imported or local, most conventional produce will contain at least one pesticide and most will have several.  By alternating the foods you eat, you vary the types of pesticides ingested plus your body will be thankful for the different sources of nutrition.




About The Author

Related posts