The word "pesticide" conjures up negative, scary images. These images come from old organophosphate insecticides of the 1960s that killed fish and birds and caused farm worker illness. These are sorely outdated images. What most people don't know is how much safer the new generations of pesticides are. In fact, scores of old materials have been withdrawn from the market or banned long ago. The new products are mostly compounds with extremely low mammalian toxicity and benign environmental profiles. Today's pesticides are not your grandfather's or even your father's pesticides. Fortunately, you don't have to take my word for this. There are some excellent sources of public data on this topic. These products emerged from an on-going chemical discovery effort involving billions of dollars of investment over decades.
Pesticides From A Consumer Perspective
One source of information about pesticides is a huge, annual sampling and testing exercise that the USDA carries out to look at what pesticide residues can be found in the food supply. I have previously posted an analysis of that that data set from 2010 (latest available). It shows that the residues that can be detected on US foods are at such low levels relative to conservative tolerances, there is no reason for US consumers to worry about them.
What Sort of Pesticides Are Farmers Using Today?
When a recent, Stanford, meta-study cast doubt on the nutritional advantage of organic foods, some consumers stated that it is still worth it to buy organic because it doesn't have pesticides. Many, perhaps most, consumers believe that organic means "no pesticides." This is simply not true - though it is a convenient fiction for some marketers and advocates. There are many pesticides that are allowed to be used on organic crops.
One of the best ways to look at what is being used in both conventional and organic farming is to look at the extensive and transparent, California Pesticide Information Portal (CalPip). California has a tremendous diversity of crops and also a very large share of the organic market. It is a source for data which comes from mandatory reporting of all commercial pesticide use in the state. CalPip posted two lists of the top 100 pesticides used - one based on total pounds applied and one based on the total number of acres treated. I created a list that combined the two without the surfactants or other spray additives. That left 104 materials. I then looked up the publicly available, MSDS documents (Material Safety Data Sheets) to get the acute toxicity (oral ALD50) for each of the products (see graph below).