HEALTH: Cyprus tops EU list for excess pesticide residues in food

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Samples from Cyprus as part of an EU-wide study on food quality revealed that the island has the highest rates of pesticide residue levels in food.

Environmentalists and experts are concerned over the high rate of pesticide residue levels found but argue the problem is more widespread than what appears in the report compiled by the European Food Safety Authority for 2017.

The report released last month shows that out of the 353 samples from Cyprus, 5.7 per cent were over the allowable maximum residue level (MRL) legally permitted in foods or animal feeds. Cyprus came top followed by Greece and France.

Malta had topped the list with 13.5% in 2016 but managed to clampdown on excess use of pesticides, bringing its rate down to 2.4% in 2017. Cyprus increased its ratios from the previous year by 0.2%.

Reporting countries, EU and EFTA member states, covered a wide variety of unprocessed and processed food products (e.g. cereal products such as flour, polished rice, wine, vegetable oils, fruit and vegetable juices, canned fruits and vegetables, milk products, dried fruit, dried herbs, different types of baby food) presenting a comprehensive picture of the market.

According to the report Cyprus has a particular problem with pesticides on products such as carrots, cauliflowers and potatoes.

A plant protection agriculturist with years of experience in the use of pesticides told the Financial Mirror that the problem with pesticide is much bigger than what the report portrays as on several occasions produce has been sent back to Cyprus after being exported.

“Potatoes are the main product which seems to be regularly detected with pesticide residues. On several occasions whole containers of potatoes have been sent back by importers from countries such as the UK, one of our biggest clients for potatoes,” the expert said.

Problems with residues arise from the fact that there is no control over how farmers apply the pesticides or on the quantities purchased.

The argued that farmers are using an “excessive amount of pesticides” either because they think using more will bring better results, or due to ignorance.

“It is known that in some cases, especially in some villages in the Famagusta region, farmers instead of following instructions and diluting the pesticides before spraying them on their plants, attach barrels of pesticides directly to their sprinklers.

This not only poisons the produce itself but also residues of pesticides remain in the ground, affecting the next crop.”

It is why Cyprus potatoes are more prone to being polluted with pesticides than other crops.

Checking at source

The agriculturist said the root of the problem lies with the legislation which does not foresee any checks being performed by state services at the source.

Also, there is no legislation which obliges farmers to consult a qualified agriculturist on the proper use of pesticides.

“A farmer can order, if he wishes too, quantities that would normally see him through 15 months. The merchant can deliver the pesticides straight to the field. From there on the farmer is free to apply the pesticides as he sees fit.”

He stressed that legislation foreseeing that farmers are obliged to consult an agriculturist before purchasing the pesticides should be introduced.

“The best way is for every shop selling pesticides to have an agreement with an agriculturist to offer advice to farmers.”

Another problem, the expert said, stems from the fact that farmers are opting to buy pesticides imported from Turkey by Turkish Cypriots.

“It is well-known that on a given day, a van from the north of the island crosses over and sets up shop for a few hours on a certain street in Famagusta.”

These are pesticides which have not been checked and, in most cases, contain substances illegal in the EU.

The agriculturist said that the ultimate solution would be for farmers to opt for biological pesticides which are as efficient as conventional ones.

Confirming the magnitude of the problem with pesticide residues on fresh produce, Cyprus Green MP Charalampos Theopemptou told the Financial Mirror, that the whole system of checking fresh produce is inadequate.

“Checks are performed only at the shelves of supermarkets and not in the fields or even the producers’ warehouses,” said Theopemptou.

“This creates a problem of traceability. When the Health Services go to inspect fresh produce on the shelves of a supermarket or a grocer’s they find that they are not able to identify the producer as sellers tend to mix the produce of various producers,” he added.

Growers place their card in each box of fresh produce they send to the market, but “cards tend to get misplaced…”

Theopemptou also argues that farmers should turn to biological pesticides and greener ways of dealing with pests and plant diseases. He also encouraged people to grow fresh produce at home.

Talking to the Financial Mirror, head of the Public Health Services, Alvertos Karris, confirmed that his department has issues tracing fresh produce with high residues of pesticides back to their producer as the products are mix once they are put on supermarket shelves.

“We have requested that relative laws be changed so we are permitted to perform checks at supermarkets and producers’ warehouses.”

Karris noted that the Health Services are doing what they can to detect produce with high pesticide residues and to comply with EU regulations and directives. He said the Health Services are collecting twice the samples of countries with a population of a few million.

Indeed, Cyprus collected for 2017 significantly more samples than countries such as Bulgaria and Croatia.

The Health Services are currently drawing up a national strategy to combat the excessive use of pesticides.

“We have prepared a road map on how we can discourage farmers from making excessive use of pesticides. One of our suggestions is that penalties for excessive use of pesticides increase from €850 to €2000.”

Karris said that the Health Services would need to team up with the Agriculture Department to push for changes that would see officials checking produce during the packaging process, or in the field if the services are suspicious that a producer is excessively using pesticides.