For a little over a decade, the subject of pesticides and the possible health risks has been in the news regularly. Last June, the media reported that Health Canada was planning to increase the maximum residue limit (MRL*) for pesticides that can be detected in certain food products. The government then explained that the idea behind this approach, among others, is linked to the fact that many foods are produced internationally, and that it is necessary to maintain the availability of quality products. Moreover, according to Health Canada, this would not mean that Canadians would automatically be exposed to more pesticides.
The process of increasing the MRL for pesticides was put on hold by the government in 2021, shortly before the elections. We learned at that time that the suggestion to increase this residue limit in food had been suggested by the multinational company Bayer, who is one of the major producers of pesticides.
The increase in pesticide MRLs would include fludioxonil, a fungicide used in sugar beet production. However, the revision of the MRLs should not concern glyphosate, a herbicide recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as being potentially carcinogenic to humans.
It is known that exposure to pesticides via the environment is a risk factor for certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and some forms of cancer. This especially affects farmers and people who have to handle pesticides on a regular basis. In March 2021, the Quebec government notably recognized that there is a link between pesticide use and Parkinson’s, and organizations such as “Victims of Pesticides from Québec” are fighting for compensation for farmers and others suffering the tragic consequences of exposure to these chemicals.
Another route of exposure to pesticides is through food. While in Quebec and Canada, it is still difficult to access data on pesticide residues in food, in the United States, a list is published each year by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), with the 12 foods containing the most pesticide residues. On this list are several fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, spinach, kale and apples. In Europe, a report on pesticide residues in food is published annually (The European Union report on pesticide residues in food), as part of a regulatory control undertaken by the European Union. This report provides information on pesticide residue test results of nearly 88,000 food samples.
Following the news about the increase in MRLs in Canada, we can question whether these changes will have an impact on our health, and if so, how so. Here is a very brief overview of what we know about pesticide residues in our food and how it relates to health.