How To Decrease The Pesticide Footprint In The Foods You Eat, & Fibres You Wear

Pesticide usage has ties to sustainability, and can also have an environmental, wildlife and human impact.

Some food and fibre crops use more pesticides than others.

In this guide, we outline how you might decrease the pesticide footprint in the foods you eat, and fibres you wear, by outlining the the crops that might use more pesticide to produce than others.

*Note that this is a general information guide only. It is not professional advice. See a qualified health professional before making changes to your health or diet.

 

Summary – How You Might Decrease The Pesticide Footprint In The Foods You Eat, & Fibres You Wear

You might be able to reduce your pesticide footprint by being mindful of the following foods and fibres:

Corn, soybeans, potatoes and wheat all feature heavily in total pounds of active pesticide ingredient used (a significant portion of these crops are used for animal/livestock feed)

In the US, livestock is responsible for close to 40% of all applied pesticides

The foods with the most pesticide residue found on them are strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers 

The foods with the least pesticide residue on them are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and broccoli

Kale is one food that has been tested in some places to have at least 18 different pesticides found on it, and kale and spinach can sometimes have more pesticide found on them than other crops

Higher quality diets and in particular fruits and vegetables are responsible for pesticide waste (pesticide chemicals used at the agricultural stage) when food is wasted at the consumer level

Conventional cotton (not to be confused with organic cotton) by far is the fibre crop that uses the most pesticides

 

This is an extremely simplistic way of looking at pesticide footprints though, and is a starting guide only.

There are obviously many variables to pesticide usage and application rates, and each type of food and fibre on each farm, should really be assessed individually on it’s own merits and farming/production and delivery process. There’s also a difference in the different types of pesticide chemicals (synthetic vs naturally derived) and pest control methods. There’s also herbicides to consider separate to pesticides.

We make note of some of the pesticide variables in the notes section below.

(Note – you can also read a guide here about decreasing the fertilizer footprint in the foods you eat and fibres you wear)

 

Which Foods Use The Most & Least Pesticides

Corn, soybeans, and wheat all feature heavily as animal feed crops (animal meat and dairy and other animal food products are eventually produced). Potatoes also use a good amount of overall pesticide product.

 

In 2008, 21 selected crops accounted for roughly 72 percent of total conventional pesticide (excluding sulfur, petroleum distillate, sulfuric acid, and hydrated lime) use in U.S. agriculture

The following was the pesticide use by food crop, as a percent of total pounds of active ingredient applied:

  • Corn – 39.5%
  • Soybeans – 21.7%
  • Potatoes – 10.2%
  • Wheat – 4.5%
  • Sorghum – 2.7%
  • Oranges – 2.5%
  • Other – 2.5% (lettuce, pears, sweet corn, barley, peaches, grapefruit, pecans, and lemons.)
  • Peanuts – 2.0%
  • Tomatoes – 1.9%
  • Grapes – 1.5%
  • Rice – 1.5%
  • Apples – 1.4%
  • Sugar Cane – 0.8%

(Cotton as a fibre came in at 7.3%)

– ers.usda.gov

 

  • … in the United States, livestock production is responsible for 37 percent of all applied pesticides

– smithsonianmag.com

 

Which Foods Have The Most And Least Pesticide Residue On Them

What is interesting is that many foods that carry the most pesticide residue are plant based foods. What should be considered is that crops that use pesticides that are fed to livestock are eventually converted to animal meat and animal products.

 

According to EWG’s latest guide, the foods with the most and least pesticide residue on them are:

Most Pesticide Residue

  • (from most to least) strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers

Least Pesticide Residue

  • avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and broccoli

– ewg.org

  • Multiple samples of kale showed 18 different pesticides.
  • Kale and spinach samples had, on average, 1.1 to 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.

You can read more about how safe pesticide residue is and the potential effects on humans at ewg.org

 

Which Fibres Use The Most & Least Pesticides

Worldwide, it’s fairly widely accepted that conventional cotton uses a huge amount of pesticides.

 

In 2008, 21 selected crops accounted for roughly 72 percent of total conventional pesticide (excluding sulfur, petroleum distillate, sulfuric acid, and hydrated lime) use in U.S. agriculture

As a percent of total pounds of active ingredient applied – Cotton made up 7.3% of that.

– ers.usda.gov

 

Foods That Waste The Most Pesticides During Production

Healthier plant based diets are more responsible for wasted pesticides.

Some number on wasted pesticides are:

  • Nearly 780 million pounds (759–797 million pounds) of pesticides were applied to wasted cropland, mostly to cropland used to produce fruit (337 million pounds), feed grains and oilseeds (158 million pounds), and vegetables (133 million pounds).
  • Production of fruits and vegetables wasted in high proportions [and they are compared to other food types] carries environmental burdens … particularly due to relatively high rates of pesticide use and irrigation. Higher quality diets contained greater amounts of fruits and vegetables … [and they] have higher agricultural input needs (per unit of land area) than most other crops

– journals.plos.org

 

Notes On Pesticides

It’s very hard to have commercial agriculture without any use of synthetic pesticides

Even natural/organic/botanical pesticides used in organic farming can have side effects, and have some level of toxicity

There is of course synthetic pesticide used in conventional agriculture

GMO crops can mean a decrease in requirement for pesticides as GMO seeds can be engineered to be more pest resistant

The amount of pesticide used during production may not correlate to the amount of pesticide residue on the final product

The total amount of pesticide is different to the pesticide application rate. A crop can have a high application rate without having a significant share of the overall pesticide quantity used (in the case of crops that aren’t produced as commonly)

Different farms and agricultural producers will have different usage rates and farming procedures, and as a result, each farm and producer needs to be assessed separately

The use of pesticides in one country can be very different to another country, and also to the worldwide average numbers and data. Even state to state numbers within a country can be different

Agricultural technology is always improving – which might mean a decrease in toxic pesticide usage in the future in conventional farming, or even a greater implementation or organic practices for example

 

Potential Impacts Of Pesticide Use

  • Pesticides have been linked to public health effects, development of pesticide resistance in pests, crop losses, bird mortality, groundwater contamination, and more.

– journals.plos.org

 

Pesticides can also present health risks to farm workers in lesser developed countries where protection against pesticides may not be as prevalent.

 

With pesticides, there’s the impact from:

  • Manufacturing of pesticides
  • Use of pesticides on farms, which can leach into the environment
  • And, pesticide residue found on food

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/foods-crops-that-use-the-most-pesticides-fertilisers-to-produce/

2. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/foods-that-waste-the-most-resources-during-production-cropland-irrigated-water-pesticides-fertilizer/ 

3. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405 

4. https://fashionhedge.com/2015/03/12/the-truth-about-organic-cotton/ 

5. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php

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