A new report by the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) reveals that over the last decade fruit and vegetables given to four to six year old children under a government scheme aimed at promoting healthy eating habits, contained residues of 123 different pesticides.

These included suspected hormone disrupting chemicals, known cancer-causing chemicals and organophosphates, which can negatively affect children’s brain development.

The £40 million Department of Health’s School Fruit and Vegetables Scheme provides one piece of fresh produce per day to approximately 2.3 million children throughout the school year.

PAN UK’s research reveals that for an additional cost of only 1p per child per day, children could instead be given fruit and vegetables produced organically without the use of synthetic pesticides.

PAN UK tested fruit and vegetables between 2005 and 2016 and found that in two out of every three tests, residues of more than one pesticide were detected, with some samples containing up to thirteen different chemicals. One pesticide found in one out of every five samples was chlorpyrifos, a chemical that is currently at the centre of a major row in the US. Exposure to low levels of chlorpyrifos has been shown to have negative impacts on children’s brain development, and regulators in California are taking steps to restrict its use. Since young children go to school five times a week this means that on average every child could be consuming chlorpyrifos once a week.

Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) said, “We greatly appreciate PAN UK’s work in exposing this scandal. As an organic farmer, I know it is possible to produce food in a sustainable way without the use of pesticides because I’ve done so for 40 years. Producing food organically does usually cost more than producing it with chemicals, but I am convinced that, as a nation, we pay a very high price in terms of NHS spending for consuming so much cheap and chemical laden food.”

Previous studies have shown that some fruit and vegetables on sale in the UK contain residues of pesticides above safety limits, though in most cases residues are below these levels. However, there has been very little research into what is known as the ‘cocktail effect’ – exposure to residues of more than one pesticide at the same time.

Patrick Holden added, “PAN UK’s research should set alarm bells ringing, because there is ample evidence that young children are at a much higher risk from consuming pesticides than most adults. This is just one example of the short-sightedness of the Government’s healthy-eating policy which utterly fails to make the connection between the way food is produced and the impact on our health.

“We think that the widespread use of pesticides is contributing significantly to a wide range of previously uncommon diseases. The cost of requiring that produce served to schoolchildren is organic would be more than offset by the long-term savings for the health service.”

Read PAN UK’s press release here.

Photograph: Sean MacEntee

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