Despite statements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies that apples treated with the chemical Alar are safe to eat, controversy still rages between groups that are against the use of chemicals in farming and farmers who believe chemicals are necessary and safe.

A few weeks ago, the National Resources Defense Council claimed that Alar, which it called a preservative and suspected carcinogen, posed a serious health threat, especially to children who consume large quantities of apples and apple juice.The NRDC report was aired on the "60 Minutes" television show and, later, actress Meryl Streep appeared on national television decrying the use of Alar in the production of apples.

Following this, several school districts across the nation announced they would not serve apples in their school lunches. An entirely unassociated event, finding two poisoned grapes in a shipment of fruit from Chile, helped stir the controversy over food safety.

Recently, farm groups and government agencies have defended the use of Alar. On March 16, the USDA, FDA and EPA issued a joint statement that there is not an imminent hazard posed to children in the consumption of apples at this time, despite claims to the contrary.

The three federal agencies encouraged school systems and others responsible for the diets of children to continue serving apples. Following this, many school districts that had banned apples from their menus reinstated the fruit in their school lunches.

Much of the recent argument seems moot, since only 5 percent of apple growers had used Alar in the first place and many have discontinued using the chemical since the recent debates about its safety. Nevertheless, the controversy has focused attention on the use of chemicals in agriculture and has, unfortunately, polarized opinion on several fronts.

Farmers use dozens of chemicals to grow food and fiber - to fertilize the ground, to kill or get rid of a long list of pests and weeds, and to promote plant growth and meat and milk production.

Federal and state agencies regulate the use of agricultural chemicals and act as a watchdog on the influence of these chemicals on the environment and people.

Despite this scrutiny and the government's assurance that apples and other food are safe, the public seems to have an increasing fear about chemicals. And there is a growing interest in organic farming - agriculture without chemicals.

A recent Louis Harris Poll found 84.2 percent of Americans surveyed would choose organically grown food if given the choice. More and more anti-chemical groups like the NRDC are springing up, suggesting farmers switch to organic farming in order to avoid problems that they say chemicals cause.

In Idaho, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides has called on all farmers to cut down on the use of pesticides and to switch to organic farming. The NRDC and other anti-chemical groups charge farmers are routinely using Guthion, Captan and parathion on the nation's $1.2 billion apple crop - chemicals they say are dangerous.

Farmers and agricultural scientists argue that not only are these chemicals safe, but necessary. They argue that pesticide use is the main reason for the United States' huge strides in growing a surplus of inexpensive food.

All the technological and political developments that have made the U.S the best food producer in the world have led to its dependence on agricultural chemicals, they say.

John Rice, a Pennsylvania apple grower and chairman of the International Apple Institute, says people will have to get used to biting into an apple and seeing a worm if agricultural chemicals are discontinued.

Other farm leaders contend that without chemicals, pests and disease would destroy fruit, fruit trees and grain in the field and in storage, and all farm yields would diminish to the levels of the 1920s and 1930s.

The organically grown apple, Rice says, "would be rather small and gnarled, covered with black fungus scabs and infested with various decay molds which could be natural carcinogens. It would undoubtedly have codling bud moths and other types of larvae."

Is America's food really killing us? Is modern science really endangering our health?

Anti-chemical groups would have us think so, but the facts are that people live longer and more pleasant lives today than in any other period of history. In 1900, average life expectancy in the United States was 47.3 years. By 1982, it had risen to 74.5 years and continues to rise.

It is time for farmers and agricultural scientists to explain the use of chemicals to the public, to allay the public's fears about chemicals and to explain the economics of going back to organic farming.

It is time, too, to speed up biochemical research and to increase its funding in an attempt to find inexpensive ways to continue America's abundant farm production while decreasing the use of chemicals.