25 April 2017

To eat more fruits and vegetables is fine. But which ones?

Did you ever take a walk one day in a vast apple orchard with trees in espalier, during springtime, when they are in full blossom? The nets against birds have been lifted and you can see the white and pink flowers and their the orange yellow stamens. And can you smell the fragrance? Yes, you can smell a scent in the air, a touch of fungicide that remains, or is it insecticide or herbicide? - although it would not be such a good idea at time of pollination.

And if you visit this same orchard, a little later, when apples are growing, the chemical smell will be even stronger and more persistent, as apple is the most treated fruit. In France, for example, according to statistics produced by Agreste (Ministry of agriculture, agroindustry and forests), apples are, on average, treated more than 35 times every year. (see Table 1)

Table 1 : Number of treatments in 2015 by fruit crop, in France

Note: other treatments: additive, chemical mediator, molluscicides, nematicides, regulators, repellents, rodenticides, talpicides and others. Source: Agreste, survey on farming practices in arboriculture.

(Extracted from Pesticides : évolution des ventes, des usages et de la présence dans les cours d’eau depuis 2009, Data Lab, Commissariat général au développement durable, 2017)

In 2007, the French government invited consumers to eat “five fruit and vegetables every day”.

The question is “which ones?”.

Indeed, if our fruits are treated dozens of times while they are on the tree, is there no risk for us to absorb part of the toxic chemicals that are sprayed on what we will eat?

In France, small scale studies have suggested that pesticides have an impact not only on farmers who use them (various types of cancer, Parkinson type of neurodegenerative diseases) - let’s recall here that the use of pesticides is the cause of 200,000 deaths in the world every year - but also on neighbouring population groups and particularly on children (leukemia) who are more sensitive to the toxicity of chemicals. A new study with national coverage is being implemented that should produce its conclusions in about three years.

It seems therefore safer for consumers to eat products coming from organic agriculture that are not treated with synthetic chemicals (note however that organic fruits can be treated by natural pesticides many of which may also have some level of toxicity). This is the behaviour adopted by a growing number of people, so many that consumption of organic food increases at a rhythm of about 20% per annum in France, so fast that local production cannot cope. This explains why a large proportion of organic food consumed in France is imported, mainly from Spain and Italy.

France uses around 67,000 tons of various types of pesticides (see Table 2). Part of these chemicals end on our plates, part degrades, another share remains in the soil and the rest can be found in the water of our rivers… and consequently, probably, also in our drinkable water. This latter amount can be measured through a complex index that takes into account the level of ecotoxicity of each substance (see Graph 1). This index has been decreasing slowly for all types of products but neonicotinoids that are a class of pesticides that act on the nervous system of insects and that are blamed by beekeepers for being one of the main causes of the disappearance of bees. [read]

Graph 1 : Index of presence of pesticides in streams, global and by category, and rain compared to normal from 2009 to 2014

  1. Reading note: in 2014, the presence of pesticide decreased by 5% compared to 2013 and 10% compared to 2009; rains in 2014 were 13% above normal computed over the 1981-2010 period.

  2. Sources : agences de l’eau ; MAAF ; ANSES ; Ineris ; Sandre ; Météo-France. Traitements : SOeS, 2017

It is expected that this slow decrease will continue, all the more as the note published by Data Lab, from the Commissariat général au développement durable with title « Pesticides: évolution des ventes, des usages et de la présence dans les cours d’eau depuis 2009 » (Pesticides: evolution of sales, uses and presence in streams since 2009) observes a decrease of pesticide sales in France during 2015, mainly for fungicides and bactericides (see Graph 2).

Graphe 2 : Evolution of pesticide sales in France between 2009 and 2015

  1. Note: quantities of active substances sold for seed treatment, integrated into the BNV-d after 2012 represent 1.6% of active substances sold for agricultural use (1,081 tons in 2013)

  2. Source : Banque nationale de données des ventes des distributeurs de produits phytosanitaires (BNV-d), 2015. Traitements : SOeS, 2017

However, France remains one of the countries in the world using most pesticides and is second in Europe, behind Spain (see Table 2)

Table 2: Pesticide use in selected countries in 2015

     Source : Eurostat

       *  Data for 2009, Source : USDA

        ** Source : FAO, use of pesticides

Let’s also remind here that in 2011, world agriculture used 2.7 million tons of highly toxic chemical pesticides. This amount increased more than threefold since 1990.

It is also good to remember that pesticides are strongly dominated by a small number of multinationals among which Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow and Monsanto alone represent more than 70% of the sector’s turnover. [read]

For all these reasons, we are all encouraged to consume organic products and our governments should implement policies to encourage the development of organic agriculture.


To know more :

  1. -Pesticides, The Guardian, Environment, 2017

  2. -DUBOIS A. et S. PARISSE, Pesticides : évolution des ventes, des usages et de la présence dans les cours d’eau depuis 2009, Data Lab, SOeS, Commissariat général au développement durable, Ministère de l’Environnement, de l’Énergie et de la Mer, 2017 (in French only)

  3. -Garric, A. et P. Le Hir, Les ventes de pesticides ont baissé pour la première fois en France depuis 2009, Le Monde Planète, 2017 (in French only)

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -Production and use of pesticides: an infringement on the rights to food and health, 2017

  2. -The European Union and glyphosate: an illustration of one of the principles that govern our society, 2016

  3. -Nano-pesticides: opportunity or new risk?, 2015

  4. -In the US, the industrial food and agriculture sector spent hundreds of millions on communication to influence the media, consumers and policy. What about in Europe?, 2015

  5. -A new generation of GMOs based on the RNA interference technology evades regulation and is likely to flood the US market. What about the rest of the world?, 2015

  6. -Food, Environment and Health, 2014

  7. -The large multinational corporations in charge of our agri-food system...: upstream corporations, 2014

  8. -The decrease in population of bees is a threat for our food, 2013

and other articles under our category “Sustainable agriculture


Last update:    April 2017

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