Better regulation of chemicals in the food industry is a necessity

Fruits and vegetables with biohazard/radioactive stickers
Nishali Naik/Staff

Do you know what’s in your food? Not ingredients such as corn, chicken or lettuce, but chemicals such as malathion, chlorpyrifos and mercury.

Still think you know about everything that is in your food? I used to think I knew, too, but the sad reality is that no matter what we do, we cannot avoid harmful chemical exposures from our food products.

After doing some research on the chemical residues of some common items I keep in my kitchen, I found some disturbing results. In 2018, more than 98 percent of samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.

While some of these chemicals are benign, others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems — even organic produce is not completely safe. As a student in Berkeley, I often think buying organic will solve all these problems, but we must be cautious when buying organic products, as the organic label does not necessarily mean that a fully organic diet is 100 percent chemical free.

For example, a USDA study found that there were 40 different synthetic pesticide residues found on the organic crops it tested. Additionally, chemicals in food packaging can leach into the food and harm your body regardless of whether the produce was organic or not.

While produce items like strawberries and spinach can have a lot of chemicals in them, processed food can be even more dangerous. For instance, processed breads can contain excess yeast that can upset the bacteria balance in your stomach and cause intolerances or infections, and food packaged in metal containers often contains harmful chemicals that can interfere with nutrient absorption in your intestines and overburden your liver.

To further complicate the matter, chemical use in the food industry is a problem that spans beyond just the food we eat; when inhaled, pesticides can cause significant health problems. Certain groups of people such as farm workers, people of color and children are disproportionately affected. For instance, in the U.S., there are roughly 1,275 to 35,000 cases of pesticide poisoning reported for farm workers annually, making farm workers 39 times more likely than other laborers to face acute pesticide poisoning.

A study done in Salinas Valley by Rachel Raanan, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow, found that children living near farms that use sulfur as a pesticide had higher asthma medication use than did unexposed children. The issue of toxic chemicals in the food system is not only a health problem but also an environmental justice concern.

Unfortunately, there are not enough policies in place to regulate the use and impacts of pesticides in the U.S. The food system instead privatizes risk. This places an unwarranted and unfair burden on consumers, who may not even know about the risks at hand.

In response to this problem, the government needs to take more responsibility for ensuring the safety of its citizens. The Environmental Protection Agency must enact stricter rules regarding the use of chemicals in the food industry and abide by the precautionary principle, which states that policies or products should not be implemented if there are any potentially harmful or disputable effects associated with these policies or products. Along with this, the city of Berkeley should implement stricter rules in regard to pesticide management. Currently, the city only requires agencies receiving city funds to follow its lax pest-management policy.

Considering the current political climate, these changes seem unlikely to come from the government, which is why we each need to take collective action. As residents of California, we have many resources available to us to make change. For instance, California is the only state that publicly records what, where and when pesticides are being used.

In addition, as members of the Berkeley community, we have the privilege of living in a community that is more aware of these issues and ready to take action. We can organize new movements, petition community members, march in protest or join existing campaigns such as Organic for All. The city of Berkeley even passed a new ordinance last summer that allows small community gardens to be established without applying for a permit. Furthermore, students of UC Berkeley can participate in student organizations such as CalPIRG, which is currently working to ban Roundup, the most widespread herbicide in the U.S. that is linked to cancer and reproductive problems.

For those who cannot participate in these measures, there are small things that we can all do to protect ourselves and others. We can utilize resources published by UC Berkeley and other sources to educate ourselves so that we can make informed consumer decisions. Though not a perfect solution, trying in whatever way you can to eat organic foods will also help reduce the pesticides to which you are exposed.

The time is now! By taking action, we can prevent many health problems, promote the safety and fair treatment of farm workers and protect the environment.

Lauren Bartels is an undergraduate student in the department of environmental science, policy, and management at UC Berkeley.