Some Thoughts on Pesticides

Current Location: Geneva, Switzerland

I have mixed feelings about pesticides. I had mixed feelings about pesticides before writing my undergraduate honors thesis on the relationship between genetically modified crops and pesticide use, which resulted in my feeling more mixed. It’s impossible to deny the benefits of large-scale agriculture that pesticides have allowed us to achieve; billions of people rely on low-cost crops for their food every day. Even though there are still millions of people around the world who are food insecure, we have made drastic improvements in feeding the world’s population with the use of pesticides. At the same time, it’s also impossible to deny the risks that pesticides pose to both human and environmental health. Basically my feelings amount to this: pesticides can be amazing, but also extremely dangerous if not properly monitored.

I recognize that this is a cop-out non-answer. While avoiding pesticides altogether would certainly be better, I recognize that opting out of pesticides is not an option for many people because of their physical location or income. There’s no simple answer that organic agriculture is the best option. First and foremost, people need to eat.

Something that had never occurred to me before is that the price premium on organic foods may create a safe and an unsafe market for food, and only those who can afford it can buy into the safe market. I have always implicitly trusted food at grocery stores. I have been lucky to live in places where I feel confident that food I purchase will not make me sick. I try to buy local/organic when possible (even though I do have mixed feelings on the merits of both of these traits), but I am 22, so the majority of the food I buy is of the “regular” variety. Until last week, I never had any cause to believe that pesticides had any short term impact on my health.

Last week I may have contracted a mild pesticide poisoning. I will never know for certain if this was the case, but the confluence of my abruptly strange and specific symptoms coinciding with the European egg contamination scandal indicates that it’s a very real possibility. For those of you who have not been following the issue, a criminal investigation uncovered that a poultry farm in the Netherlands has been using an illegal insecticide called fipronil. Fipronil fights fleas, but also has the human health side effects of “abnormalities of the thyroid and the kidneys, and potentially seizures and death.” The short term side effects are those associated with a mild poisoning.

After doing some research, I discovered that of the two major supermarkets in my area, Coop and Migros, only Migros had discovered traces of fipronil in their eggs. Migros only imports eggs from the Netherlands for their budget brand. Since local eggs are absurdly expensive in Geneva, this is the exact carton I had bought and consumed over the past week. When I started having symptoms, I ate scrambled eggs because this is normally a safe option for an upset stomach. My symptoms persisted until a few days after I switched to a carton I purchased at Coop. I realized all of this much later.

It’s scary not to be able to trust your food. Even in Europe where the regulatory standards are much higher than in the US regarding pesticides and insecticides, contamination happens. But in this case, it was no accident. It’s extremely sad and scary when a bout of e. coli contaminates a season of crops because of negligence, bad practices, or an accident, but when a segment of people are exposed because producers of budget products can more easily cut corners, people become at risk because of their limitations. The bottom line is, organic more expensive because it is safer. But is that fair?

I don’t know the answer. Some food for thought…


4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Pesticides”

  1. GMO foods can sometimes result in more pest resistant crops therefore much less pesticides can need be used. I am all for less pesticides and think that the furor over GMO is caused by ignorance of the offsetting value of ingesting less pesticides and that GMO foods are safe.


    1. Sometimes! It depends on the GMO trait-some are pest resistant and some are pesticide resistant (among other traits). But overall yes, the research suggests that GMO crops result in lower pesticide toxicity. There is some bias to this though, and this is specifically a question I addressed in my thesis 🙂


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