Are you concerned about pesticides in your food?
Why is there a seemingly endless supply of food and drink available in our grocery stores? Is it possible that the apple you have recently eaten is coated with a carcinogenic product? Why are pesticides worth talking about at any level let alone in relation to tea?
It is difficult to overlook the abundance of our historical epoch. There always seems to be more toy cars available on the shelves or gum to chew or food to purchase and eat. Part of the story of our abundance in the food and drink industry is due to contemporary pesticide use. While part of this discussion will outline what pesticides you may find in your everyday tea, it is best to perhaps start at the beginning and the importance we, as a part of humanity, have placed on food management.
History of Agriculture and Pesticides
What exactly is a pesticide? While the definitions have varied through parts of human history, “the essence of pesticide remains basically constant, i.e., it is a (mixed) substance that is poisonous and efficient to target organisms and is safe to non-target organisms and environments.” Part of this definition may be immediately problematic, but it helps us understand the pesticides that are deployed in our age.
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According to Professor Yuval Noah Harari “[t]he transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.” (pg 77 Sapiens) As Harari also notes, pre-agricultural peoples likely had it easier versus the world of soil-tilling and plant manage. Given crop susceptibility to not only floods and droughts, pests were undoubtedly an early part of crop management in these historically revolutionary societies. Sumerians are where our records of pesticide use start approx. 4500 years ago with the use of sulfur. However, there are other peoples including the Chinese and Indians who were also documenting pesticide usage and/or crop management.
By the time we reach the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder provides readers in the how-tos of arsenic as an insecticide and other remedies for herbicides. Caterpillars in your garden? Pliny the Elder recommended placing a crayfish in the middle of it. As you may have guessed, Greco-Roman literature is in fact-full of various examples to handling horticultural woes. By and large the historical records outline pesticides manufactured from naturally available resources.
Fast forward 900 years, the Geoponika from Byzantium provides details on how to deal with all sorts of pests including locusts and weasels and mice. Have a problem with locusts? Burn them and the smell will either ward off or perhaps kill others. Mice, on the other hand, run away from copper sulphate. Bats, it also notes, are killed by smoked ivy.
The period of modernity is where we begin seeing a serious transition in the world of pesticides. Some scholars have noted the 1870s-1945 as the “second phase” in pesticides where the world saw the use of inorganic synthetic pesticides. While post-1945 or the “third phase” ushered in organic synthetic pesticides. Most pesticides have since been synthesized and has contributed immensely to the abundance of food and drink in our current food supplies. This becomes immediately understood when reviewing crop loss figures: “Insect pests cause an estimated 14% of loss, plant pathogens cause a 13% loss, and weeds a 13% loss. Pesticide is so indispensable in agricultural production. About one-third of the agricultural products are produced by using pesticides. Without pesticide application the loss of fruits, vegetables and cereals from pest injury would reach 78%, 54% and 32% respectively. Crop loss from pests declines to 35% to 42% when pesticides are used.”
In fact, the popularity of insecticides has exploded worldwide with thousands of insecticides, herbicides and general pesticides having been developed. In 2012 the world spent $56 billion on pesticides. Herbicides have become incredibly popular in recent decades and account for the largest % of purchased pesticides worldwide.
Are pesticides used in tea?
The short answer is “very likely.” In 2014 the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) conducted a study on 10 popular brands of tea including Twinnings and Lipton to test pesticide residue in the dry tea leaves: “Half of the teas tested contained pesticide residues above the allowable limits in Canada. And eight of the 10 brands tested contained multiple chemicals, with one brand containing residues of 22 different pesticides.”
But the question remains, are any of the study’s noted pesticides harmful? Simplest answer is yes. Endosulfan is considered a “persistent organic pollutant. This means that is persists in the environment, can bio-magnify, and bio-accumulate, can transport over long distances, and has a “significant negative” effect on human health and the environment. Chlorpyrifos on the other has is not considered a persistent organic pollutant however, the European Union has banned both pesticides and has raised concerns about chlorpyrifos and its relation to genotoxicity and developmental neurotoxicity.
But what about organic tea?
What we are talking about here is understanding tea relative to established government standards. Let us take a few minutes to understand this a bit further in practical terms. Many who are looking to avoid much of the world of pesticides often look for the word “organic” on given labels. Any organic products sold in Japan, for example, must obtain an organic certification, JAS or Japanese Agricultural Standard.
In America, organic products must obtain USDA organic under the USDA National Organic Program and across the European Union there is the established Organic Farming Europe certification. All three certificates follow several core components according to Ecocert:
- Climate and environmental protection
- Conservation of soil fertility
- Preservation of biodiversity
- Respect of natural cycles and animal welfare
- Absence of use of chemical and synthetic products
- Absence of GMO
- Transparent labelling for customers
The USDA National Organic Program has four categories of organic content: 100% organic, 95% organic, 70%-90% organic and less than 70% organic. In the European Union, there are two categories for organic products: 95% organic ingredients and 70%-95% organic ingredients.
Given the necessity of transparent labelling, you will find a given organic logo on the product. These logos certify that a certification body such as Ecocert has approved the product as compliant with governmental standards.
Not every organization in the supply chain receives an organic certification. In Japan, the certification applies to farmers, producers, processors, and re-packagers. In America and the European Union this extends to importers, distributors, exporters and restaurant owners and other stakeholders in the industry.
How does the certification process work?
An example via the USDA organic label process will help highlight elements critical in determining whether a product may be labelled “organic”. Producers or handlers of the product beging the process by specifying how its operations will comply with regulations. This may include tilling, harvesting, storing and transporting product. The USDA also recommends having this plan first implemented then reviewed by a certification agent. Organization that have been accredited by the USDA can oversee the plans and implementation. The next step includes receiving inspection. For the world of tea this would likely include inspection of fields, soil, crop health and management of weeds and pests. It also includes inspection of a given processing facility and storage areas. The next step has a certifying agent review the inspection report. And lastly, given operations receive a decision from the certifier.