One of the advantages moving to a small village in Corsica was to be able to eat fresh pesticide-free local produces, rich in vitamins and minerals – so we thought!
The first person we met was our neighbour, Jean Martin, who has been cultivating vegetable gardens for years. He loves sharing the fruit of his labor and often knocks at your door with fresh vegetables. On such occasion, we started discussing “organic” food.
To our surprise, Jean-Martin believes that it’s impossible not to treat crops nowadays due to a significant increase of insects, pests and parasites attacking crops. His belief is based on his own small scale experience but also talking to local farmers. He didn’t have a specific theory explaining such increase but experienced it as a reality having been gardening for more than 20 years. In the past decade, he had to start using small amount of “natural” chemical treatment for his own production.
If a small local production in Corsica, an island with traditional farming culture and stable climate conditions, requires the use of chemical, what does that mean for large agriculture production? Furthermore, aren’t “Bio/Organic” produce supposed to be chemical free?
Jean Martin is extremely sceptical about “Bio” products, calling it « customer mis-leading information ». For him there is not much difference between “normal” and “bio” in supermarket. However, he didn’t have much rationale for such statement – more of an intuition seeing the consumer craze and high price.
Plant Protection Products (“PPPs”), including herbicides, fungicides and insecticides are regulated. PPPs can be synthetic or natural. Synthetic PPPs originate from a man-made chemical process, while natural PPPs have a biological origin (animals, plants, bacteria, minerals). The overall amount of PPPs used has doubled since 1980 driven by natural PPPs, while the use of synthetic PPPs has decreased because of new legislations following evidence of their harmful effect. In organic farming, the use of synthetic fertilizers and PPPs is prohibited by EU regulation and there are strict limits on the use of livestock antibiotics, food additives and processing aids. The use of GMO, hormones and hormone derivative is also banned. However, the use of natural PPPs is allowed ans has been growing drastically. A big question is whether these natural PPPs are less toxic especially given that larger quantities are usually required compared to synthetic PPPs. It’s also worth remembering that “natural” does not necessarily means harmless – think arsenic 🙂
In EU, the risk assessment of PPPs is generally based on laboratory experiments in which “non-target organism’ – such as algae, fleas, insects, fish, bees, birds and rats are exposed. These studies are used to assess the chronic toxicity of PPPs for those species, but not for humans – the theory being that humans are less sensitive than these species. In contrast to pharma & medication, requiring human trials, studies on humans only become available for PPPs after having being in circulation for a while. Given the speed of development of new natural PPPs, we know very little of the long-term toxic effect of these chemicals on humans. It’s also not clear what the impact of an increasing amount of natural PPPs, both quantity and variety, would do – how they could interact and how much remains in the crop itself.
So Jean Martin’s intuition may not be wrong after all but then what’s best for us? Although it’s no panacea, “Bio/Organic” labels do protect us from already identified harmful substances not yet fully caught by regulation such as glyphosate. In France, the current government has banned dozens of glyphosate products from December 2019. It also withdrew the licences for another 36 productions from 2021, due to potential health hazards and lack of scientific studies.
Copper sulphate, extensively used in farming, is on the list of organic approved chemicals, because it’s not synthetic. However, its safety has been recently questioned by various health protection agencies. There is some evidence that it may cause liver disease in human. Chronic exposure to copper may also result in various conditions due to its accumulative toxic effect.
In summary, we don’t know yet the effect of the natural PPPs so cleaning fruits and veggies is an important practical steps we should all take. For example, soaking in baking soda solution for 3 minutes, cleaning using filtered water with a splash of vinegar/lemon and salt, and then soaking for few minutes has been shown to be efficient to remove PPPs. However, peeling the skin off remains the safest approach, despite the fact that the skin is often where there is the biggest concentration of antioxidants and vitamins.