Pesticides and fertilizers are used particularly in commercial and industrial agriculture to grow food and crops, and there’s pros and cons to heavy use of these chemicals.
In this guide, we list the foods and crops that use the most pesticides and fertilizers.
We’ve also included a list of the foods most likely and least likely to contain pesticide residue on them when bought at the store.
Summary – Foods & Crops That Use The Most Pesticides & Fertilizers To Produce
In terms of pesticide use by crop in the US, as a percent of total pounds of active ingredient applied, corn uses the most pesticide
It is followed by soybeans, potatoes, cotton and wheat (in that order)
In the US, livestock production is responsible for 37 percent of all applied pesticides – so, livestock is an indirect cause of pesticide use via the animal feed that is grown for them. Beef might be one of foods that uses pesticides for animal feed
Some studies show kale samples being found with 18 different pesticides in the US
The same studies show kale and spinach samples had, on average, 1.1 to 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.
Strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, and nectarines are some of the other foods that might be found with more pesticide residue on them
Although, other reports say meat, poultry and dairy have the most pesticide residue
In terms of total nitrogen fertilizer applied in California in 2007, cotton received the largest fraction of the total nitrogen applied, 16%, while almond received 15%, rice and wheat each received 10%, processing tomatoes received 7% and lettuce received 6%. Altogether these six crops account for 64% of the total nitrogen use.
Worldwide, the crop with the highest fertilizer application rates in kg per hectare (of nitrogen, phosphate and potash) is bananas
Cereal crops top the total fertilizer usage worldwide as a % at 64% of total fertilizer used
In addition to the above data and numbers, it would be useful to know the countries, States, and agricultural producers or companies that use the most chemicals
Fertilizers and pesticides have benefits such as having greatly helped increase agricultural yields in the past (fertilizers can also be used for growth and better yields for animal feed), protecting crops from pests, and supporting incomes and economic growth in the agricultural sector, as well as providing food for a growing population
But, there’s cons as well, such as exposure to pesticide chemicals, and the environmental pollution problems such as water pollution, air pollution, GHG emissions, ag. chemical build up in the environment and wild life, and more
Some sources also say that up to a third (in some cases) of nitrogen fertilizers can either be washed away or can convert into nitrous oxide before they can take affect on the crops they are applied to
Organic farming methods using more natural farming processes and less synthetic and harmful chemicals can be an option to address agricultural chemical use, but might be difficult to implement practically on a large scale in many countries for various reasons. There are also overall pros and cons to organic farming to consider
[*NOTE: with pesticide and fertilizer data, there are a number of measures of usage such as amount/application rates per area of land, total weight of chemicals used, and so on. Rates per square area are perhaps a more accurate indicator of which crops and foods use pesticides and fertilizers more heavily on a ratio basis, whereas total load use gives an indicator of overall usage. With pesticides, there’s the pesticide applied at the farming level, and there’s also the residue that might be left at the consumer level]
Other variables such as the type of fertilizer or pesticide used should be considered.
It’s worth noting that commercial and industrial scale agriculture can be very different to the farming or growing that takes place on smallholder agricultural land, or in developing countries.
So, pesticide and fertilizer use by food type can vary by country, and even the individual grower or farmer.
Cocoa might be one example of this – with most of the growing being done by smallholder farmers, and less fertilizers and pesticides being used.
Foods & Crops That Use The Most Pesticides To Produce
In 2008, 21 selected crops accounted for roughly 72 percent of total conventional pesticide (excluding sulfur, petroleum distillate, sulfuric acid, and hydrated lime) use in U.S. agriculture
The following was the pesticide use by crop, as a percent of total pounds of active ingredient applied:
Corn – 39.5%
Soybeans – 21.7%
Potatoes – 10.2%
Cotton – 7.3%
Wheat – 4.5%
Sorghum – 2.7%
Oranges – 2.5%
Other – 2.5% (lettuce, pears, sweet corn, barley, peaches, grapefruit, pecans, and lemons.)
Peanuts – 2.0%
Tomatoes – 1.9%
Grapes – 1.5%
Rice – 1.5%
Apples – 1.4%
Sugar Cane – 0.8%
In the United States, livestock production is responsible for 37 percent of all applied pesticides
Foods With The Most And Least Pesticide Residue On Them
According to EWG’s latest guide, the foods with the most and least pesticide residue on them are:
Most Pesticide Residue
Strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers
Least Pesticide Residue
Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and broccoli
Some other stats are:
More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
Multiple samples of kale showed 18 different pesticides.
Kale and spinach samples had, on average, 1.1 to 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.
earthsave.org has a slightly different take on pesticide residue:
Meat, poultry and dairy products contain the major source of pesticide residues in the western diet
95% of human exposure to the potent carcinogen dioxin comes from consuming meat, poultry and dairy
Foods & Crops That Use The Most Fertilisers To Produce
In California, [nitrogen] Fertilizer use is not distributed equally among crops.
Of the 345,900 tons of nitrogen fertilizer accounted for in the application rates of the 33 commodities considered in [a particular study], approximately 34% is applied to perennials, 27% to vegetables and 42% to field crops.
Notably … estimates show that relatively few crops account for much of the nitrogen use.
Multiplying the average-nitrogen-use estimates for each crop by the average harvested acreage for 2002 to 2007 indicates cotton received the largest fraction of the total nitrogen applied, 16%, while almond received 15%, rice and wheat each received 10%, processing tomatoes received 7% and lettuce received 6%.
Altogether these six crops account for 64% of the total nitrogen use.
The high nitrogen fertilizer use crops are (as a relative proportion of the overall nitrogen fertilizer used):
Cotton – 16%
Almond – 15%
Wheat – 10%
Rice – 10%
Processed Tomatoes – 7%
Lettuce – 6%
Grapes – 4%
Walnut – 4%
Stone Fruit – 3%
Oranges – 3%
Broccoli – 3%
Carrots – 2%
Pistachio – 2%
Onions – 1%
Potato – 1%
Avocado – 1%
Lemons – 1%
Cauliflower – 1%
Celery – 1%
Strawberry – 1%
Sweet Corn – 1%
Melons – 1%
Peppers – 1%
Fresh Market Tomatoes – 1%
Dry Beans – 1%
Worldwide, the crops with the highest fertilizer application rates in kg per hectare (of nitrogen, phosphate and potash) are:
1. Banana – 479 (kgs per hectare)
Sugar beet – 254 kg/ha
Citrus – 252 kg/ha
Vegetables – 242 kg/ha
Potato – 243 kg/ha
Oil-palm – 242 kg/ha
Sweet potato – 225 kg/ha
Tobacco – 225 kg/ha
Tea – 225 kg/ha
10. Sugar cane – 202 kg/ha
And, worldwide, fertilizer use on the different types of arable and permanent crops, both as a % of total and an application rate in kg per hectare, was:
Cereals – 64% (of total fertilizer use), and a 102 kg per hectare fertilizer application rate
Oilseeds – 9.2%, and 85kg/ha
Vegetables – 4.9%, and 242kg/ha
Sugar beet/cane – 4.7%, and 216kg/ha
Roots/tubers – 4.5%, and 212kg/ha
Fibres – 4.4%, and 144kg/ha
Fruits – 3.6%, and 163kg/ha
Tobacco, beverages – 2.0%, and 153kg/ha
Pulses – 1.9%, and 39kg/ha
Pesticides & Fertilizers Used For Livestock & Livestock Feed
[Livestock like cattle can be treated with pesticides to prevent infestation or disease]
Pesticide residues are found in meat and animal byproducts
Veterinary drugs and heavy metals can also be found in meat
The Environmental Working Group estimates that … 167 million pounds of pesticides are used each year just to grow food for animals in the United States.
For glyphosate, the most commonly used pesticide in the world, residues allowed in animal feed can be more than 100 times that allowed on grains consumed directly by humans, and the amount of glyphosate allowed in red meat is more than 20 times that for most plant crops.
… fertilizers [are applied] to hay and pasture fields … to substantially increase … yields
The Pros Of Pesticides & Fertilizers
Some of the benefits of pesticides can include:
Protection of crop losses/yield reduction
Vector disease control (killing off vector disease carrying insects and organisms)
Quality of food
In the United States, fertilizer has the following benefits:
Nitrogen is necessary for crop growth and development, and thus nitrogen fertilizer use supports California’s robust agricultural economy and rural society
The Cons & Potential Hazards Of Pesticides & Fertilizers
Some of the cons of fertilisers can include:
Overuse of nitrogen fertilizer threatens the health of the state’s agricultural, human and natural resources
Applying nitrogen in excess has been linked to water and air pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, climate change and numerous human health concerns
You can see a good diagram showing the impact of the nitrogen cycle in the calag.ucanr.edu resource.
The hazards of pesticide can include:
Direct impact on humans (such as crop workers that come in contact with and breathe in the pesticides)
Pesticide residue on foods which consumers consume when they eat
Contamination of soil, water, turf, and other vegetation. In addition to killing insects or weeds, pesticides can be toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants. Insecticides are generally the most acutely toxic class of pesticides, but herbicides can also pose risks to non-target organisms.
Surface water contamination (streams, lakes, rivers etc.)
Ground water contamination (aquifers)
Impact on soil fertility
Contamination of air and non target organisms and vegetation
Pesticides have been linked to public health effects, development of pesticide resistance in pests, crop losses, bird mortality, groundwater contamination, and more.
Nitrogen fertilizer represents the single largest investment of energy in the production of many crops, and circulation of reactive nitrogen can have negative effects on atmospheric conditions, in terrestrial ecosystems, in freshwater and marine systems, and on human health
Phosphorus fertilizers are produced by mining finite resources of phosphate rock, and can fuel harmful algal blooms when lost to the aquatic environment.
Can Organic Farming Eliminate The Use Of Fertilizers & Pesticides?
Some people estimate it takes about 30 percent less energy to grow organic soy and corn than it does to grow the conventional kind.
However, others say that organic crops and foods may take more land to grow because the yields (how much produce you get per acre or hectare of land) won’t be as high
Organic overall does seem to be more environmentally friendly in many other areas though
You may also consider simply eating more foods that use less pesticides and fertilizers, or have less pesticide residue on them, and reducing your intake of high fertilizer/pesticide usage foods.
Pesticide & Fertilizer Footprints In Food
4. Rosenstock T, Liptzin D, Six J, Tomich T. 2013. Nitrogen fertilizer use in California: Assessing the data, trends and a way forward. Calif Agr 67(1):68-79. – http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.E.v067n01p68
6. Aktar, Md Wasim et al. “Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards” Interdisciplinary toxicology vol. 2,1 (2009): 1-12. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984095/
11. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one, 13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405