Pesticides are substances that are used to kill or control pests. They are mainly used in farming to protect food crops.
What do pesticides do?Different pesticides are used for different reasons. For example, pesticides can:
- prevent disease in crops
- kill pests such as rats, mice and insects
- control weeds
- prevent mould from growing on crops while they are stored
Are there any pesticides left in food when I eat it?Sometimes traces of pesticides can be left in food, or on the outside of food. These are called pesticide residues. There are strict limits on the levels of pesticide residues that are allowed to be in food.
Washing or peeling fruit and veg can remove some pesticide residues.
Are pesticide residues monitored?Yes, there is a national monitoring programme overseen by the Pesticide Residues Committee (PRC), which is an independent committee of experts.
This programme measures the levels of pesticide residues in many types of food, including fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy products, baby food and processed foods, to check that residues are within legal and safe limits. These limits apply to food produced in the UK and imported food.
The PRC publishes quarterly reports giving the results of the programme.
Who controls how pesticides are used?There are a number of different organisations involved in regulating what pesticides can be used and how. These are:
- Pesticides Safety Directorate – the UK regulator responsible for agricultural and garden pesticides
- Advisory Committee on Pesticides – advises on the control of pests and approval of pesticides
- Chemical Regulation Directorate – advises on the official monitoring programme for pesticide residues in food and drink
- Food Standards Agency – an independent Government department set up to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food
- Health and Safety Executive – the UK regulator responsible for non-agricultural pesticides, including fly and wasp killers (insecticides) and rat and mouse killers (rodenticides)
Are there pesticides in baby foods?Baby foods very rarely contain any pesticide residues. Under European law, there are strict limits on the levels of pesticides allowed in infant formula and manufactured baby foods, and manufacturers take stringent precautions to make sure that pesticide residues in baby foods are kept to a minimum. Infant formula and manufactured baby foods are monitored as part of the official pesticide residues monitoring programme overseen by the Pesticide Residues Committee.
Pesticide residues have occasionally been found in baby foods, but these have been at very low levels that wouldn’t be a significant risk to a baby’s health.
Are pesticides used on organic food?Most organic food is produced without using pesticides because organic methods avoid using them. There are strict standards on what farmers are allowed to do when producing food that will be sold as ‘organic’. Farmers are allowed to use a very limited range of pesticides on organic crops, but this is as a last resort and only on some types of crops.
Do pesticides affect the environment?Pesticides can present risks to the environment, for example to insects, birds, fish and creatures living in soil. Before pesticides are approved for use, these risks are considered by experts on environmental impact, who sit on committees that advise on whether the risks are acceptable.
The Government has a long-standing policy of minimising the use of pesticides and encouraging farmers and others to use pesticides in ways that will have the least negative impact.
For further information on environmental issues, see the Environment section of the Pesticides Safety Directorate website. There is also an industry-led Voluntary Initiative to reduce the environmental impact of pesticides by increasing best practice by professional users. To find out more, visit the Voluntary Initiative website.