Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Friday, 6 July, 2001, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Pesticides: Do you know what is in your food?

The Co-op, one of the UK's biggest retailers, is to ban more than 20 common pesticides used in food production and restricting the use of more than 30 others.

The company said it had bowed to consumer pressure after a survey it commissioned found that more than 70% of 1,000 people interviewed were worried about the use of pesticides.

The chemicals include "hormone disrupters" and organophosphates from the nerve gas family.

How safe is the food you eat? Has the Co-op done the right thing?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

I hope the other supermarkets quickly follow its lead

Michael Entill, UK
Good for the Co-op! I hope the other supermarkets quickly follow its lead. The Co-op will have my custom until they do.
Michael Entill, UK

I have talked to quite a few farmers on this subject and they say in the majority that pesticides are needed otherwise we would not have enough crops to feed the world population. There should be a law passed that makes it the responsibility of the supplier to make sure the produce is cleaned to an acceptable level before it hits the shelves.
Emma, USA

Millions of people die of liver cancer resulting from a naturally occurring fungus which grows on fruit and veg. By contrast, all the evidence in the UK is that eating lots of fruit and veg (that's the stuff with pesticides and fungicides in) is good for you. This is a measure which will increase the cost of fruit and veg, and decrease public health.
Ralph Ryder, Uk

Disfigured, partly damaged produce is equally nutritious

Paul, UK
Paul the agronomist outlined the key issue: there is a misconception amongst the public, partly instilled by mass-marketing campaigns displaying the perfectly symmetrical, shiny and happy fruit/vegetable. Disfigured, partly damaged produce, the reason for which pesticides are commonly used, is equally nutritious and without a regular chemical soaking, is cheaper and healthier (unless clinical trials have shown pesticides to be beneficial in some way).
Paul, UK

With the increased number of people suffering from allergy related illnesses, it is surprising that governments have not been more meticulous/careful/mindful with/to the demands of the agro-petro/chemical businesses. These concerns are there to make profits which come before the well-being of the people of this planet. I believe that the GM controversy will have in a few years time, the same repercussions. Already we see one butterfly population is being affected in the States with the development of the GM crops. What next? Are we killing all living beings on this planet for our own greedy consumption? We live sedentary lives and we do not need to ingest the amount of calories we do daily. The hormone disrupters, organophosphates and other chemicals used in our food chain are not necessary if only we, consumers stop to think the damage we are doing to this small planet.
Danielle Domingue Banyai, UK

Pesticides are used to help farmers produce sufficient food to feed the country. Without their use where would we be? Still having to grow our own food in gardens and having to shop every day? Finding it difficult to combat diseases in crops, animals and even mankind? Pesticides have made our lives what they are today. OK pesticides may not be all good, and their bad points not totally clear, but the restraints that are already placed on farmers are vast, and why would farmers spend money to buy chemicals and then spend the time and the money to spray their crops if they did not feel it was needed. How many other people would work from early morning to late at night for such a little return?

Many people may feel that the Co-op have made the right move but what about all the other chemicals that are used in the production of other products, are they going to ban or restrict them to?
Abi, Scotland

A blanket ban on pesticides will only hurt those least able to secure alternative foods

Euan Gray, UK
I inherited two apple trees last time I moved. I didn't spray them, and got a disappointing yield and plenty of insect damage. This year, I sprayed with pyrethrum, and there are no insects on the apples and it looks like a much greater harvest. They will still be a lot healthier (as well as tasting better) than the stuff in the local supermarket. Used responsibly, pesticides are pretty much essential to modern agriculture, but striking a balance between moderate chemical use and the encouragement of natural predators is required. Remember, though, that not everyone can afford to pay the higher prices for so-called organic foods - a blanket ban on pesticides will only hurt those least able to secure alternative foods - i.e. the poor.
Euan Gray, UK

This is a purely marketing ploy. Chemicals that are approved in this country have been through stringent testing and are safe to use. What expertise does the Co-op have to do this type of testing? All they want to do to scare people when there is no reason. They were a founder member of the approved produce scheme which was set up to ensure all fresh produce supplied to supermarkets was grown according to the best Integrated Crop Management systems available. Already the Government tests foods for chemical residues and publishes the results so why do the Co-op want to repeat this?
Denis Walsh, England

I am saddened by some of the naive comments about "long term effects" of pesticides, and supposed "increased susceptibility" to various minor ailments. Presumably they prefer the alternatives of infant mortality, or becoming ill after some dodgy organism has had a go at their food? Perhaps they would prefer to have the threat of famine hanging over them? The sanitised view of the past that some of these people hold is ridiculous - 100 years ago they would have been lucky to make it to 18. If they did, they would have probably lost most of their teeth by then, and their general state of health would be poor, due to their body being full of various parasites. Get a grip, people!
Chris Brown, UK

Only 100% "safe" products from Co-op, then ? Sounds like they won't have much on their shelves to sell soon.
Bill, UK

When I was in the USA, they washed the fruit to ensure no residue was left on the outside, they then waxed it to protect the outer skin. Labelling this so you just rubbed it off. Also they listed herbicides and pesticides used and labelled the box the fruit came in clearly, showing tested clear for residue and content of harmful toxins. If this procedure is followed by all countries - ours does not by the way - regular testing by environment agencies would cancel the need for what the Co-op has had to do. Without herbicides and pesticides, famine would be rife, so as long as the above is carried out there should be no problems.
Graham, England

This is more populist nonsense, I'm afraid. There's so much needless concern about what are very small quantities of chemicals which are known to be safe (because they've been tested and approved by the regulatory authorities). It's time that so-called environmentalists actually started considering scientific evidence when making their claims: there are far more pressing concerns, such as global warming, for which the evidence is much stronger.
Jim, UK

There are two issues the fruit and vegetable buyer should address before worrying about pesticides. Is a fair price being paid for imported food, and is the food being imported because it is out of season here. Exploitation of growers in developing countries is a form of slavery. If you can't be sure a fair price is being charged, don't buy. It is obscene to fly carrots thousands of miles because they are out of season here. Learn to eat what is in season. You will have a richer and more varied diet, support local producers, and reduce global pollution.
Andrew, UK

We should not forget that there are good reasons for chemical use in agriculture

Angela, New Zealand
Most of the posts here seem to be naively supportive of the Co-Op ban. But people forget that before the introduction of pesticides, herbicides and preservatives in the early 20th century agriculture was at the mercy of the environment. Blight, fungus and pests have been responsible for famine and economic destruction throughout history. The use of chemicals led to stable food production and the development for the first time of an economy not based on agriculture in the Western world. If pesticides were to be banned overnight, yield would decrease, quality would decrease and you could forget about getting affordable fruit in winter. While I agree that it is time for alternatives to be better investigated such as biological control for pests and GM food. A ban on pesticides and other agri-chemicals at this time is a foolish publicity stunt.

Also lets not forget that even "organic" growers routinely use up to 50% of pesticides and herbicides used by conventional growers. We need to look for environmentally solutions to food production but we should not forget that there are good reasons for chemical use in agriculture. We have a huge and growing population. There is no quick fix to food supply.
Angela, New Zealand

This is a valuable, wise and scientifically sound move. Many functional health problems can be positively impacted by avoiding pesticide residues. We live, as has been said, in a soup of chemicals, many carcinogenic, and whatever the current authorities say, there is an epidemic of certain cancers. Ignoring this obvious link is no longer defensible.
Dr John Stanley, Ireland

Once again the paranoia merchants are at it. Careful washing and preparation of food gives everybody a balanced diet. The nanny state will always find some damn thing that's bad for us. There are far too many dome headed, sandal-wearing dipsticks around these days who have little experience of the real world but think it is their God given right to tell us all what we should be eating. If it's all so bad for us, then why are people living longer?
Keith Simpson, UK

Bowing to hysterical reactions of people who imagine that the risks of crop protection products are greater than they really are could reverse progress in agricultural methods. Do these people not recognise the benefit of using pesticides, namely that more food can be produced on less land? Or realise that the world population is growing and that world food production needs to keep up with this? Paranoia from affluent societies could jeopardise progress.
Toby Bruce, UK

Hey there Co-op, I'm coming your way. Well done. I've been spending quite a lot of precious time recently growing my own vegetables due to the extortionate price of "pure organic" food. Although there are some issues with yields, this price premium is due largely to there being much more demand in the UK than supply. The problem for farmers is the cost of conversion, during which they get all the problems of abandoning these toxic chemicals, but none of the benefits. So let's see some real government funding alongside the supermarkets to help farmers give up the wonder drugs and look after both our health and the health of our countryside.
Simon Redding, UK

I am amazed that a supermarket can now dictate how food can be produced without producing anything itself. You should immediately remove all shampoo, makeup, from the stores as they are full of chemicals. Also no garden centre should sell any plant food as that has chemicals too. Do not even think about fly sprays they contain op's from the nerve agents. The point is you can go over the top, that is why there are governments that monitor and test. Leave this to the FSA, not a Co-Op that is trying a cheap publicity stunt.
Andrew Cooke, UK

Fair play to the Co-Op. Many people are uneasy about the levels of pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables (pesticides are, after all, specifically designed to be inimical to life). Perhaps if someone was able to prove that these residues are safe, rather than relying on the fact that no solid proof exists yet that pesticide residues have caused excess cancers or other diseases, the Co-Op would not have had to stick their neck out like this.
Guy Chapman, UK

There are two options: 1) No pesticides and millions dying from diseases carried by insects or 2) Use of pesticides and maybe feel a little nauseous, but then again it could just be the food preparation and not the pesticides causing you to feel nauseous As for me, I'll take the pesticides and genetically altered foods. Technology is how our species has survived for centuries. Do we want to become extinct because it would be good for the planet? Not me.
JW Garner, USA

As a doctor who is also an apple grower, I hope my thoughts deserve to be heard. I planted a small orchard in 1993, full of "organic" idealism. Three years later, my partner and I had to face the fact that pests and diseases were not affecting our "profits", they were destroying everything we'd worked for. The trees were dying from the combined attacks of fungi, bacteria and insects and we had to choose-spray a minimal amount of chemicals or walk away from our orchard.

Of course sprays should be minimised, and people should be prepared to accept both blemished fruit and higher prices, but the idea that the present world population can be fed without some use of chemicals is as unfounded as the belief that pesticide residues have been shown to cause ill health.
Stephen, England

Wonderful news Co-op I hope more people follow your example. Like many other people I know I do not want to eat food smothered in pesticides, fungicides and waxes. Ideally too I would like it to be produced locally. I have Parkinson's Disease, now a pretty common disease in UK but when Parkinson first described it and gave it his name it was a very, very, very rare disease. Now it is very common in rural, agricultural areas - what is commonly unavoidable by people like me who live in rural areas - exactly, pesticide! Not proven of course, after all which chemical company would fund that research - they are too busy funding research into GM crops! In my state of health you become very cynical I'm afraid.
Merry, UK

Whilst I would not necessarily advocate that all food be organic, I do believe that the balance needs to be redressed towards good husbandry and more traditional good practice. I believe that as with many things the power of the marketing people is becoming too great and we are falling for the myth that things have to be perfect. Give me a slightly blemished apple that has not been doused in chemicals, travelled half way round the world and been stored for months anytime!
Jan, England

It makes me wonder exactly what supposedly natural and healthy products contain these days

Richard, UK
Occasionally, I've eaten a piece of fruit from a supermarket and felt a bit nauseous. It makes me wonder exactly what supposedly natural and healthy products contain these days. Yuk! I try not to even think about the potential long-term consequences!
Richard, UK

Surely the government should be tackling this sort of thing, rather than letting it be dealt with by non-elected organisations such as Co-op. I think that it is a good thing, I just think it is a shame that the government is shirking its responsibilities.
Duncan Drury, London, UK

Hooray for the Co-op

Kate Smith, UK
Hooray for the Co-op. So what if it's a marketing ploy - for once it's a bit of marketing that's not selling us a logo or a "look" but is instead doing us some practical good. And if other supermarkets join in, that'll be great. Message for the Co-op: I'm abandoning Sainsbury's and coming to shop with you.
Kate Smith, UK

Three questions:
1/ How will they know what pesticides have been used in the production of the Chinese Apples, or the Kenyan Beans, or the south African Oranges that they sell? Simply telling their suppliers not to use certain chemicals without any form of policing sounds a bit optimistic to me.
2/ Will they pay their UK suppliers a healthy supplement, to make up for lower yields. Answers on a postcard....
3/ How will they persuade the public to buy food, especially fruit, that costs more, and bears the marks of being grown "naturally" - the average shopper wants to buy produce of uniform size, shape and colour. You don't get that level of conformity without the use of chemicals.
John, UK

I'm all for it, whether or not it's a publicity stunt! I don't want my food contaminated with pesticides (or specific weedkillers, for that matter) and value the health of my children and future generations far above saving a few pence on the price of a kilo of spuds! Not to mention the long-term damage caused to the environment generally by a build-up of chemical residues.
Ros, UK

I personally welcome the Co-op's decision and I hope that more leading supermarkets will follow

Nicola, UK
In the last 2 years I have developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome - at least that's what I've been diagnosed with. In the last year both of my brothers have developed exactly the same symptoms. More recently my boyfriend has started to suffer the same symptoms. I have no medical expertise and I do not have a great understanding of farming practises however I am becoming increasingly concerned about the chemicals that are being used and just what is going into our food. I personally welcome the Co-op's decision and I hope that more leading supermarkets will follow.
Nicola, UK

When I buy an apple, I just want a fresh, simple apple. The fact that the supermarkets might have stored it for 3 weeks before they put it on the shelve, and realising the amount of pesticides they smear on it, makes me think that I might be better off not to eat it all! Worst still, we have to pay a penalty fare to buy the real thing (organic), what right do the consumers have? Also, I really think 50% of the profit of selling an apple should go back to the good old farmers instead of the supermarket's boss pocket.
Catherine, London U.K.

Good on the Co-op. Its about time the big suppliers took a stance, and listened to the wishes of an informed customer base and demand more natural foods from the farmers. You only have to look at the demand for Organic produce (my local Tesco sells out of fresh organic produce within a couple of hours of it going on display!) and the public resistance to GM foods to see the direction that the food debate is going in. Lets hope more of the retailers follow the Co-op and force the hand of the suppliers....
Dave, Wales

Yet more paranoia being spread by the "it's man-made, it must be harmful" types. Quite a lot of foods (parsnips, for example, and rhubarb) "naturally" contain potentially-harmful-in-massive-doses substances and would be subject to major restrictions if they were a manufactured foodstuff! Personally, I don't worry about pesticide residues in foods, the levels are so low that 20 years ago they couldn't have been measured reliably anyway. Parsnips, anyone?
Pete Morgan-Lucas, Wiltshire, UK

Why would anyone want to eat food unnecessarily sprayed with chemicals that haven't been fully tested? I don't want to be a part of a mass clinical trial - this is consumerism gone mad!
TM, England

I feel it is necessary for me to use pesticides and fungicides

Ralph, USA
I raise pecans in the United States. In order for me to produce a marketable crop I feel it is necessary for me to use pesticides and fungicides. If I didn't, the quality would be poor and mostly damaged or lost by insect or disease. I personally don't want to consume food that has already been partially eaten by insects or contains their larvae. I too am concerned with pesticide use. I believe that if a little diligence and common sense are used in the application and consumers rinse their produce, our food supply is the safest in history.
Ralph, USA

Individual chemicals may seem safe when they are tested one by one over a short time scale under laboratory conditions. But no-one can say for sure what their long-term effect will be, especially when combined with the many other chemicals present in our food and environment. I think the Co-op is doing the right thing - but expect to pay more for it!
Paul, London

I think this is a fantastic step towards supplying the public with a healthier option without the price of organic foods. Let's hope the other supermarket chains don't take too long to follow suit!
EJ Green, UK

I am convinced that all the messing around with our food supply has made many people in this country susceptible to many new ailments

Mandi, UK
My partner suffers from hives. This is due to a low tolerance to additives/ colours/ pesticides in food. He has had several checks and nobody can identify what it is that makes his body react. I am convinced that all the messing around with our food supply has made many people in this country susceptible to many new ailments and aggravated the illness people already suffer from.
Mandi, UK

I applaud Co-op; we have yet to master the bigger things around us namely insects and plants that can all benefit our methods of production. Why are others so ignorant that they assume that if we don't understand it we should 'spray it away'? Not being uniform is a celebration in nature and humanity, why are we striving for identically produce?
Fergus Ross, Britain

As an agronomist, controlling and monitoring what is applied to products grown in the UK, I have to wonder if the British public is actually aware of how tightly controlled pesticide and other applications are. A farmer will not spend money on very expensive applications unless he has no option other than to loose his crop. If the consumer wishes to see shelves stocked high in the local supermarket with stunted and pest damaged products, petition your supermarket managers as it is the multinational companies' demands for 99% perfect products at cheap prices which drive the whole issue.
Paul, UK

I'm afraid this is just another attempt to increase market share

Keith Moffitt, Switzerland
I'm afraid this is just another attempt to increase market share in the increasingly competitive supermarket area. What the supermarkets have realised is that Joe Public knows a little about the downsides but nothing about the upsides. Couple this with increasing food concern (BSE, E-Coli in meat, Salmonella in eggs, GM crops etc) and what you have is a marketing opportunity based on fear. I think the Co-op should know better but in the end it won't win them any friends. It will simply cause more supermarkets to jump on the bandwagon.
Keith Moffitt, Switzerland

I think they're right in principle, but I also hope that they don't forget the reason for using pesticides to start with - namely to stop pests eating the food before we do. We need to find alternative means of keeping them out of our food - just banning the pesticides with no alternative strategy is going to give the pests a free lunch. The ban is a step in the right direction but we need to go much further.

And not before time. These chemicals build up in the environment with unknown effects on humans, wildlife and the food chain. They're safe say the producers, but how many times do we have to have one withdrawn after a few years due to "unforeseen problems" before we learn. And these same companies want to sell us GM crops that are resistant to pesticides so that even more chemicals can be dumped on the land. We're supposed to be this planet's most intelligent and developed life form and it would be a pleasant change if we acted like it for once.
Stephen Cooke, UK

Well done Co-op, it's about time somebody put people above profit. I don't want a "perfect" onion if it's going to give me cancer in 30 years! Maybe the supermarkets ought to rethink their supply strategies and supply each store from local producers instead of central warehouses. It might reduce the need for preservative chemicals and also take a few trucks off the road to boot. So what if it's a logistical headache, it's got to be better than slowly killing your customers.
Al, UK

Anything that slows the use of chemicals and GM techniques is welcome

Karina, France
Anything that slows the use of chemicals and GM techniques is welcome. Until we can firmly declare that these products are safe to humans and the environment, both in terms of food and of the ensuing chain (water cycle, etc), these products should not be in common use. It is about time we woke up and used proper contained trials of all pesticides, fertilisers and modern genetic techniques.
Karina, France

I back the Co-op. It's not just what pesticides we eat do to our health, it's the impact they have on our countryside. The numbers of birds and animals seen in the countryside has dropped dramatically as farming has intensified. I want to see more small farms producing high quality food without recourse to vast quantities of chemicals. It will provide us with better food, help revive poor rural areas, and preserve a beautiful landscape.
Martyn Williams, UK

Presumably if the Co-op is so worried about our health they will ban cigarettes and alcohol as well! Smells like a PR stunt to me!
Bob, England

At the same time, with no sense of irony, the biotech company Aventis is saying it will use legal action against the Government to prevent it revealing information about the pesticides it is using on its GM crop trials. It seems obvious that the big lie about GM (that it needs less pesticide) is about to be burst and the companies who stand to get rich from GM will do anything to suppress the facts. The Co-op has made a brave move here and I hope the other stores will follow suit.
Mercury Kev, UK

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

20 Sep 00 | Health
Tests spark pesticide concerns
01 Sep 00 | Health
Organic food 'no healthier'
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Talking Point stories