Over 66,000 tonnes of pesticides and herbicides are used by farmers and agriculture workers in France every year, according to La Spéciale d'Envoyé programme, which was broadcast this week on television channel France 2.
Such pesticides remain on the skin of fruits and vegetables, it said, and may then end up on our plates.
Over 72% of non-organic fruits, and 41% of non-organic vegetables, contain traces of pesticides by the time they reach our dining tables, according to a report from NGO Générations Futures.
The least-contaminated fruits were found to be the avocado (23% residue), kiwi (27%), and plum (34%). In contrast, grapes, clementines, cherries, grapefruits, strawberries, peaches and oranges were all found to have 80% pesticide residue.
Vegetables were less susceptible to contamination than fruit, the programme showed, as they often grow in the earth and are therefore less exposed to illnesses and other problems that might prompt the use of pesticides.
Physically, vegetables are also likely to have a thicker outside skin, protecting them more. For example, an artichoke or an aubergine is more protected than a cherry, strawberry or grape.
The least-contaminated vegetables were wheat, asparagus, tropical vegetables madeira and yam, and beetroot and cauliflower, all of which had less than 7% pesticide residue.
The most-contaminated were celery, fresh herbs, endives, lettuce, and bell peppers.
François Veillerette, president of Générations Futures, said: “[The amount of pesticides] will depend on the level of industrialisation, the [fruit or vegetable] skin, and the type of tree or plant that it is growing on.”
The programme also considered how consumers might try to limit the amount of pesticides that end up on their plates, by taking steps to wash and prepare fruit and vegetables ahead of eating.
Author of the anti-pesticides book Le Grand Livre Antitoxique, Catherine Levesque, said: “As far as possible, it is preferable to peel fruit and vegetables before eating; even though many of the nutrients are in the skin. I [also] recommend soaking them in a big bowl of water, and cleaning them with a little vegetable brush.”
For organic products, a quick wash and wipe is usually enough, she said, as these will be treated with fewer, if any, pesticides in the first place.
Pesticides have long been controversial in France, with the herbicide glyphosate drawing criticism in particular. It has been linked to health conditions including cancer, and eye issues.
Yet, moves to try to legally ban its use have been repeatedly blocked by the Assemblée Nationale, despite President Emmanuel Macron’s public support of a legal ban in France by 2021.
In September 2018, minister for agriculture, Stéphane Travert, suggested that instead of an outright ban, there should be further research on eco-friendly solutions for farmers.
At the time, he said: “We would like to be present in three years, to respond to the President’s objective, and that of the wider population.”
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France