Contamination of fresh fruit by the most dangerous pesticides in Europe has increased dramatically over the past decade, according to a nine-year study of government data.
A third of the apples examined and half of all blackberries contained residues from the most toxic categories of pesticides, some of which have been linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease and birth defects.
Residues on kiwifruit rose from 4% in 2011 to 32% in 2019, and contamination on cherries has also more than doubled from 22% to 50% over the same period.
Overall, analysis of nearly 100,000 samples of popular native fruits in Europe revealed a 53% increase in contamination from the most dangerous pesticides over a nine-year period. The study was conducted by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe.
The substances in question are currently permitted in EU agriculture, but are legally referred to as “candidates for substitution” – meaning they are to be phased out or replaced by products that pose a lower risk to humans and the environment.
The survey did not include British products, but the UK imports over 3.2 million tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables from the EU each year, covering around 40% of domestic demand, according to the CBI.
Prof. Nicole Van Dam from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) described the report as “shocking”.
“What’s the point of eating healthy if the healthy fruits and vegetables are sprayed with toxins?” she asked.
PAN Europe spokeswoman Salomé Roynel said: “Consumers are now in a terrible position as they are being told to eat fresh fruit, many of which are contaminated with the most toxic pesticide residues linked to serious health effects . We understand that governments have no intention of banning these pesticides whatever the law dictates. They are too scared of the farming lobby that relies on powerful chemicals and a broken farming model.”
Roynel said the chemicals used in the most toxic pesticides had no safe limits and urged consumers to buy organic fruit this summer “especially if they are pregnant or caring for young children”.
The investigation found that 87% of pears in Belgium and 85% of pears in Portugal were contaminated with at least one toxic pesticide.
In 2019, the most recent year for which researchers had data, nearly a third of all fruit examined was contaminated with hazardous substances.
The most contaminated fruits were blackberries (51%), peaches (45%), strawberries (38%), cherries (35%) and apricots (35%).
Among vegetables, the most contaminated products were celery (50%), celeriac (45%) and kale (31%).
The six “substitution candidate” pesticides most commonly found in the products sampled from 2011 to 2019 were listed in the survey in order of frequency as follows: Fluxioxonil, Cyprodinil, Tebuconazole, Difenoconazole, Lambda-Cyhalothrin and Etofenprox.
Anika Gatt Seretny, a spokeswoman for the trade association CropLife Europe, said: “The presence of traces of the substance does not mean that the food is unsafe. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has carried out extensive research on this topic and has shown that the consumer risk from cumulative dietary exposure is below the threshold and is therefore not a risk factor.”
Stefan Van De Keersmaecker, a spokesman for the European Commission, added: “The Efsa [the European Food Safety Authority] publishes a report on pesticide residues in food every year, which is widely considered to be the most comprehensive report on the subject. For many years, the report has shown that 98% of the samples collected comply with EU legislation.”
The Commission claims that the use of hazardous pesticides fell by 12% in 2019 compared to 2015-17 and proposes a further 50% reduction by 2030.
In contrast, the new study found that contamination numbers in fruits like apples (by 117%) and cherries (by 152%) have fallen since 2011, the year EU governments were due to start banning the related pesticides, “ have increased dramatically. Overall, they found that the proportion of contaminated fruit and vegetables increased by 8.8% in 2019 compared to the 2015-17 baseline.
dr Guy Pe’er, ecologist at iDiv, said that the amounts of pesticides used are less important than their impact because “today you can kill a lot more with a lot less material”.
He said the new study is extremely worrying as it “probably just reveals the tip of an agrochemicals iceberg” as its focus on chemicals has already proven dangerous.
“Our concerns about the overuse of chemicals should go well beyond our concerns about the fruits and vegetables being monitored – we’re talking about a system that is literally killing itself,” he said.
A reform of EU pesticides law that could include new reduction targets is expected on June 22, after being postponed in March due to food security concerns related to the Ukraine crisis.
Environmentalists have sounded the alarm over “systematic attacks” on the forthcoming proposal from farm lobbyists.
In March, the European Commission announced an “extraordinary” suspension of green farming rules to allow crops to be sown on 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of ecological focus areas.
Olivier de Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said European policymakers should stick firmly to green rules.
“Unfortunately, now with the food crisis that has unfolded, we have very strong pressure, particularly from farmers’ unions, who say we need to increase production to offset the disruption in supplies of wheat, vegetable oil and corn from Ukraine and Russia” , he said.
“This discourse is very dangerous … but it is a discourse that is very tempting for governments to follow.”
Farmers’ union Copa-Cogeca and German pesticide maker Bayer have been asked for comment.