Summer 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Videotape Education on a Controversial Issue-Pesticides in Food

Using an interdisciplinary team approach, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension produced an educational package (videotape and bulletin) targeted for consumers and home gardeners to promote the concept of rationale alertness about the use of pesticides in the food chain. For the issue of pesticide residues in the food chain, we believe a logical role for Cooperative Extension is to present both sides of the issue and allow producers and consumers to take responsibility for informed choice. By its very nature, such a role demands the use of an interdisciplinary approach.

Jim C. Loftis
Extension Agricultural Engineer
Department of Agricultural and Chemical Engineering
Colorado State University-Fort Collins

Patricia A. Kendall
Associate Professor
Extension Specialist
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Colorado State University-Fort Collins.

A basic mission of Cooperative Extension is to provide unbiased, research-based information to clientele for informed decision making. Cooperative Extension professionals are comfortable with this mission in well-defined scientific disciplines. However, the world doesn't present the majority of its problems in disciplinary form. Many are presented as issues, matters of wide public concern arising out of complex human problems.1

Little is yet known about the results of issues programming in Cooperative Extension, especially for risk-benefit issues. Can we raise awareness about a complex issue such as the risk of pesticides in the food chain and provide scientific information needed for informed decision making without bias? Informed decision making includes rational assessment of the potential for risk, determining "acceptable risk," and taking responsible action to minimize or manage that risk for the well-being of those affected. Is a videotape an appropriate vehicle for such a program?

Using an interdisciplinary team approach, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension produced an educational package (videotape and bulletin) targeted for consumers and home gardeners to promote the concept of rational alertness about the use of pesticides in the food chain.2

Collaborative Development

The project team included faculty and Extension specialists from six university departments, specialists with the Office of Public and Media Relations, an evaluation specialist, and key Extension administrators and field agents. In addition, representatives of ES-USDA, Colorado Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Sierra Club were consulted.

We (the authors), as the two project leaders, initially met with the interdisciplinary team to discuss issues to be raised and topics to be covered by the video, then drafted a technical outline. The outline was distributed to all team members and revised based on review comments. Topics emphasized in the outline included the inescapable nature of risk in daily activities, the process by which pesticides are regulated, the role of pesticides in production, alternatives for consumers to reduce their risk of exposure to pesticides, and the need for consumers to assume responsibility to make rational choices.

Taped interviews were done with conventional and organic producers, scientific experts, grocers, and shoppers. From these, a video/audio script was developed and revised in response to team member comments. Once the videotape was completed, an accompanying brochure was produced to outline the main points and provide additional resources.

Evaluation of Impact

Impact of the videotape was evaluated by surveying seven audiences with before- and after-viewing questionnaires. Five of the viewings took place in Colorado, one in Georgia, and one in Oregon.

Of the 146 evaluators, 26 were males and 120 were females. The majority (54%) were between age 36 and 55. Residence was fairly uniformly distributed between farm or ranch, small town, medium-sized town, and cities over 50,000.

The group was highly educated-65.5% were college graduates (B.A./B.S. or higher) and another 26.7% had some college. Twenty- seven percent of the evaluators were Extension professionals, four percent identified themselves as producers, and the remainder (69%) were grouped as consumers.

Results were analyzed statistically to assess the importance of before-and-after differences in viewer responses and to evaluate relationships between responses and demographic factors, occupation, and purchasing habits.3 Since the sample group didn't represent a scientific survey, the results don't have broad or population-wide implications. In a less rigorous, more descriptive sense, however, the results are enlightening.

Table 1 summarizes changes in viewer knowledge and attitudes by comparing pre-viewing and post-viewing responses using a nonparametric test on the paired responses.4 After seeing the tape, viewers gave higher ratings to three important factors related to subject-area knowledge and confidence in personal ability to control risk. These factors were knowledge of the regulatory process, understanding of the "de minimis risk" concept used in setting acceptable limits of pesticides in foods, and confidence in ability to minimize personal exposure risks from pesticides in food. These results were encouraging since the goal of the project was to increase viewer knowledge and sense of control over personal risk levels as opposed to changing viewer opinions on the safety of the food supply.

Table 1. Self-reported changes in attitudes and knowledge after viewing the videotape.
ComponentNumber of respondents (146)1 Statistically
Increase Decrease No change
Knowledge of pesticide regulation 92
Understanding of deminimus risk concept 114
Appreciation for problems of regulation 48
Confidence in ability to minimize exposure to pesticide 62
Confidence in safety of food supply as related to pesticide residues40
1. Increase = post-viewing response higher than
pre-viewing response.
Decrease = post-viewing response lower than pre-viewing response.
No change = post-viewing response the same as pre-viewing response.
2. Statistical significance evaluated using Wilcoxon Signed
Rank Test with a two-tailed rejection at significance level of 10%.

Pre-viewing concern for the safety of the food supply was significantly higher among women than men. Not surprisingly, strong relationships were observed between concern for food safety and gardening and purchasing habits. As the level of pre- viewing concern for food safety increased, so did the tendency to purchase organically grown produce or to grow produce in home gardens using organic methods. On the other hand, correlations between viewer confidence in the safety of the food supply and occupational or demographic factors were weak.

The videotape was successful in achieving a balanced viewpoint. When judged on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=understates the risk, 3=balanced in approach to risks, and 5=overstates the health risks associated with pesticides in the food chain, over two-thirds (67.8%) felt the videotape was balanced in its approach to risks. Among those who thought it was not balanced, a higher proportion of respondents indicated that they felt the videotape overly minimized the risks (21.9%) than overstated the risks (10.3%).

Lessons Learned

Although we found the videotape an effective way to communicate about a risk/benefit issue, we learned several important lessons. First, programming on risk/benefit issues requires more careful preparation than programming for less controversial areas. Trust, control, and outrage factors can outweigh actual hazards and must be carefully considered. We found literature in the subject areas of risk assessment and risk communication to be important resources.5

Previews of materials by people from a variety of viewpoints (consumer, regulator, researcher, environmentalist) were helpful in avoiding word choices that could have blocked communication by belittling the issue or raising "red flags." For example, in an early draft we tried to put risks into perspective by comparing the minimal risk of cancer from pesticide residues to the much greater and well-known risk from smoking. However, reviews with both EPA toxicologists and consumers revealed that such a comparison didn't achieve the effect desired because smoking was considered a voluntary risk controllable by the risk taker, whereas pesticide residues on foods weren't.

In revisions, we were careful to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary risks and tried to establish the risks of pesticide residues in food as one over which the consumer has some control (by altering purchasing habits, growing their own, washing and peeling produce, eating a variety of foods). Once this was established, we were then able to say pesticide residues are but one of many cancer-causing agents encountered daily. Saccharine-containing soft drinks, nitrosamines in charcoal- broiled steaks, and cigarette smoke were given as examples of other common risks, all of which require rational alertness on the part of the individual.

Although we were careful to have the script evaluated by a number of important stakeholders, we and they failed to appreciate the power of the visuals accompanying the audio. The idea of pictures speaking louder than words is even more true when the viewer is already sensitized to an issue. For example, several frames of fields being sprayed were used throughout the video, primarily because the video production staff found them more visually appealing than other footage available. What was underestimated, however, was the negative visual impact this footage would have, especially on producers and rural consumers. The only message they received was that spraying was "dangerous." They didn't hear the rational message being delivered by the narrator at the same time. The use of storyboards during formative evaluation to visually portray images proposed to accompany this narration may be one way to help avert such problems.

While most viewers responded positively to the presentation, consumers responded more favorably than Extension professionals to the documentary method used in the videotape to raise issues and present risks and benefits without clear-cut answers. Comments from Extension agents and specialists indicated that, given the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, they'd have liked the videotape to conclude that the risk from pesticide residues in food "is insignificant and no cause for concern."

Unfortunately, "How safe is safe?" questions that arise in many health and environmental issues don't have easy answers, nor answers completely satisfactory to all concerned. For the issue of pesticide residues in the food chain, we believe a logical role for Cooperative Extension is to present both sides of the issue and allow producers and consumers to take responsibility for informed choice. By its very nature, such a role demands the use of an interdisciplinary approach.


1. K. A. Dalgaard and others, Issues Programming in Extension (Washington, D.C.: Extension Service-USDA, ECOP, and the Minnesota Extension Service, 1988).

2. Funding for this project was provided from ES-USDA as part of an eight-state "Safety of the Food Supply Pilot Projects" cooperative agreement. For information on the videotape, contact the CSU Bulletin Room, 171 SW Aylesworth Hall, CSU, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, 303- 491-6198.

3. P. A. Kendall and J. C. Loftis, Analyzing Risks from Pesticides in the Food Chain (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, 1989).

4. W. J. Conover, Practical Nonparametric Statistics (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1980).

5. P. M. Sandman, Explaining Environmental Risk (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Toxic Substances, 1986) and Committee on Risk Perception and Communication. Improving Risk Communication (Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy Press, 1989).