June 2017

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In early April, Winnette Collimore presented some of the work she has been doing to measure the levels of pesticide residue in local foods.

During the process, fruits and vegetables were obtained from supermarkets and markets in the central region. Organochlorine (OCs) and organophosphate (OPs) pesticide residues were detected in some of the samples.\

“The levels we’ve found so far are below the maximum residue levels (MRL),” said Collimore, but their findings provide an important look into the use of pesticides in local farming and by extension, local food production.

The latest available research is around 20 years old. Collimore saw it as an avenue to approach the topic in novel ways since new pesticides and methodologies have emerged in recent decades, and as Dr. Bent explained, not all available research applies to this country. “Some of the pesticides that we use are different,” she says, “our soil type and climate are different, so we need to get data which relates specifically to our region and country.”

One of the most noteworthy results of their work has been the development of a new method of detecting pesticides. The most common methodology is the QuEChERS method. (Wikipedia describes it as a streamlined approach that makes it easier and less expensive for analytical chemists to examine pesticide residue in food. The name is a portmanteau word formed from Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe.)

Collimore has developed a modified version of QuEChERS which would be cheaper for people in the Caribbean. During her presentation, the methodology received considerable attention from the gathered faculty and peers.

Their findings so far have been thought-provoking. “We found pesticide residues such as DDT and its metabolites in food purchased from the market,” explains Dr. Bent. “It was surprising because this pesticide was banned since 1995, more than 20 years ago. It shows the level of persistence in the environment.”

It wasn’t a cause for concern however, as the levels were below the MRL.”

Collimore wants people to understand just how these pesticides can affect the body. “Pesticides are not just cancer-causing agents,” she says. “They can affect every single system of the body.”

Even when people are exposed to them in small quantities, bioaccumulation over time can give rise to disease.

Despite the dangers, local farmers still use these chemicals. They are cheaper, get the job done, and apparently, it’s tradition.

“Why change to organic farming if my grandfather and my great-grandfather used it? I’m going to continue with the same thing,” says Collimore. But she feels farmers have to be educated as well, and should be encouraged to have their produce tested for residue. It will take some doing. Even when she offered free testing during the research period, they were reluctant.

“They think that you’re going to call names,” she explains, and they feel that the information will affect sales.

She feels that if they can be persuaded that with testing, they can guarantee their crops have low or non-existent levels of residue, then that branding could be a gateway for exporting their produce as the testing is part of export criteria.

Both Collimore and Bent think that the State can have a significant role in improving pesticide usage. Dr. Bent suggests stricter guidelines and policies, like regular testing. She proposes incentives for farmers who agree to it. Education in using alternative pest management and more funding for agricultural research could also have a significant impact.

It is not surprising that Collimore has chosen this particular research as her focus. This resident of Longdenville, Chaguanas and alumni of St. Francois Girls’ College is enthusiastic about chemistry and her research, as well as for the potential it can have in investigating societal problems and inventing new strategies as solutions.

She speaks excitedly about her discoveries, clearly fascinated by her readings in particular. She admits being a little paranoid though when she reflects on what might be found on the foods she and her family eats. She is particularly aware now that pesticides can be found in any food commodity like dairy products, milk and eggs – even her favourite morning tea!

She stresses that the best protection is to limit exposure to pesticides.

“Wash your crops before use,” she says. “You can wash with diluted detergent. Peeling… now we suggest that you peel.”

Unfortunately you can’t completely eradicate your exposure, but you can lessen it.

What’s the next step in this important research? Collimore would love to look at other classes of pesticides. For now, “When everything is conclusive…we would later on speak more about levels, the assessment levels we did and what are the scenarios so far with these pesticide levels in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Dixie-Ann Belle is a freelance writer, editor and proof-reader.