Non-organic, Austrian cattle feed found to contain pesticide residues, hazardous combinations

Cattle diets on organic farms contain significantly less pesticide residue than that of conventional farms, according to a recent Austrian study. On conventional farms, nearly all of cattle feed samples contained residue of at least one pesticide and 62% contained residues of two or more, including four chemicals banned by the European Union. In contrast, only 11% of feed samples from organic farms contained pesticide, never containing more than one pesticide at a time and never containing a banned chemical (1/9 samples contained the pesticide Benzovindiflupyr and 1/9 samples contained Dinitrocarbanilide, a veterinary drug).

Dairy products are important to both consumers and agricultural producers, especially in Austria where dairy represents the largest sector of their agricultural economy. Recent research in the U.S. found that organic milk bought off the store shelves contained no pesticide residues nor antibiotics, while the majority of conventional milk samples contained pesticide residues and antibiotics, some of which have been banned for use in lactating cows.

This Austrian study sought to examine the accumulation of agrochemicals, starting with the diets of the cattle themselves. Representative diet portions were sampled from 102 farms in Austria—93 conventional, 9 organic (there were far fewer organic farms to study in this region and this sample size discrepancy meant the researchers could not make statistical significance comparisons between the two farm types). Samples were ground up and dissolved before researchers separated their unique components and identified them.

The conventional feeds contained residues of 13 different pesticides, with 5 different pesticides exceeding the EU’s maximum residue levels (MRLs) for feed in at least one sample. Additionally, there were 4 pesticides detected which are not approved for use on crops, two of which were contained in over 30% of samples.

Out of all feed components, brewer’s spent grains had the highest correlation with pesticide residue, possibly due to a great ability to absorb pesticides. None of the organic farms’ feed contained brewer’s spent grains. A combination of two or more pesticides were present in more than half of conventional cattle diets.

Past research has demonstrated that simultaneous exposure to multiple pesticides increases toxicity, resulting in adverse effects occurring at lower concentrations. Consuming low levels of these pesticides in tandem could threaten health implications even when each one individually follows the EU concentration regulations.

The results from this study suggest that to avoid pesticide consumption, in both our dairy and livestock products, it is best to consume organic food. Unlike organic farmers who rely more heavily on natural ecosystem functions, conventional farmers are allowed to mitigate crop pests and diseases by applying harsh chemicals. And contrary to conventional livestock production, antibiotics are not allowed for use in organic livestock except to prevent serious illness.

Human exposure to pesticides and antibiotics can cause a variety of health complications including cancer, infertility, and neurodegenerative diseases; it is imperative that we limit our consumption of these harsh chemicals, which can be harmful even in small quantities.

Photo Credit:  Annie Spratt;