What’s Worse: Pests or Pesticides? [Poll]

by | Dec 2, 2009
Photo by star5112

Photo by star5112

It’s never fun to find an unwelcome critter in your food, but if you spend much time shopping at farmers markets or buying organic produce it is something you need to get used to. Without pesticides, sometimes there are pests.

But… usually not.

Before you get too grossed out and dash to your kitchen to throw away your organic apples, I want to make it clear that the vast majority of the food I buy (~90% purchased direct from farms) is perfectly clean and insect free. But unlike sprayed and irradiated conventional produce, occasionally there will be a bug. And sometimes there will be many bugs.

But as scary as this can be the first time it happens, bugs really aren’t so bad. Most critters can be easily rinsed off under the sink. Some of the smaller, more persistent little buggers can be coaxed out with a short bath in water spiked with a splash of vinegar.

Herbivorous insects pose no real threat to humans beyond mild annoyance. Yes, they can add an unpleasant crunch to your food if you don’t find them in time, but generally they contribute no flavor and–as many of my Twitter followers pointed out–they may add a little protein to your diet.

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I somehow doubt that insects really provide a significant protein source, though I’ve heard they can contribute substantial vitamin B12 for vegetarians who ingest them accidentally in rural societies (couldn’t find a credible reference). But the point is that whatever insects do add to your diet probably doesn’t impact your health in a negative way.

That is, if you even notice them. Chances are you have never actually tasted an unwanted creature in your food (I know I haven’t), but they are probably there sometimes and you’ve probably eaten them.

Let’s be honest, the problem with finding bugs in your food isn’t how they taste. The real obstacle is our perception of bugs. In our society bugs are considered gross, so we don’t want to eat anything they have touched.

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But not all cultures consider bug eating repulsive (see photo). And after you’ve dealt with a few insects yourself, eaten your food anyway and come out unscathed, you realize there isn’t really anything to worry about.

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Only once have I encountered a situation where a vegetable was infested beyond salvation. These were some baby cabbage I had left for too long in the fridge. Over the course of a week the insects multiplied and completely took over. It wasn’t pretty.

But instances like these are rare and, in my case, it was self-inflicted.

True insectophobes, however, will not be comforted by this argument. I am entirely sympathetic to this viewpoint–at one time in my life I used to joke that I was afraid of butterflies (OK, live ones still creep me out when they get too close).

But what scares me even more than eating bugs is the alternative.

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We don’t yet know the extent of the damage done to our health by pesticides, but the history (dioxins, malathion, etc.) hasn’t been encouraging. The environment we live in is also significantly impacted by pesticide use.

Even if cancer and polluted lakes are a bit too abstract for you, there is still the bland, one-dimensional flavor of food produced on factory farms to consider. Taste is what really won me over when I first changed my eating habits.

I don’t mean to imply that it is never okay to eat conventional produce, just that there are serious issues to consider regarding where your food comes from.

Pests and pesticides can both be a little scary (I forgot to mention the live wasp that once crawled out of my spinach), but at this point it seems we do have to choose one or the other.

Which scares you the most? Vote now!

[poll id=”6″]

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15 Responses to “What’s Worse: Pests or Pesticides? [Poll]”

  1. Kate says:

    Not to be pedantic, but a vegetarian would not eat insects either–they are still animals 🙂 (Of course, it does depend on how one defines “vegetarian.”)

    And in some parts of the world, insects actually are a very significant source of protein in the diet. But you’d have to eat a lot more than the occasional caterpillar.

    Adult insects don’t gross me out too much–I’ll generally just chuck the part of the veggie that is infested (or brush off the critter) and get on with my life. But larva are just too ewwy. I have issues with squirmy things. This includes slugs and other gastropods, not just insect larvae. A slug in my lettuce is enough to put me off my lunch, at least for a little while. I also don’t like it when there are lots of little bugs, like in broccoli. I know they’re harmless…but it still grosses me out.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Oops, I guess I should have specified that I meant accidental ingestion of insects by vegetarians and for protein. I’ve edited the sentence for clarity. In the specific case I was talking about, Hindu vegan farmers that moved from India to England (where the food was slightly cleaner and contained fewer insects and bacteria) somehow developed vitamin B12 deficiency though they did not have it before on a similar diet. I’ve heard this claimed a lot, but couldn’t find the original documentation.

      Totally with you on the larvae thing. Eeewwww.

  2. Jordan Gregory says:

    Darya I completely agree when you said, “Taste is what really won me over when I first changed my eating habits.” Taste has also been a major motivator for me. Now box foods taste bland and flavorless. The sweet and juicy flavor of real fruits has been paramount in kicking the processed sweets! A bowl of Halloween candy is sitting in my kitchen and I am not even tempted to indulge or rather overindulge.

  3. J says:

    While a good topic, I am not sure if it is fair to call pests “protein” and pesticides as Parkinson’s-inducers in your poll. First of all, certain insects can cause gastrointestinal distress just as pesticides can.

    I also feel that it is unfair to imply (by the language used in the poll) that those who consume mainstream produce are causing themselves disease/cancer. The increase in cancer stats can be attributed to more reporting rather than true incidence. Rather than to blame or judge others who cannot afford or easily have access to organic produce, we need to create demand without raising the prices that make them inaccessible to so many of us. This means changing the politics of farming and distribution.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I was just trying to think of words that start with “P” 😉 Farm workers exposed to pesticides do have higher instances of Parkinson’s. I realize it is different for consumers, but this post was meant to be fun.

  4. Great question! I found that most store bought organic produce is close to being pest free anyways. I’ve seen some apples with little worm holes, but no worms to be seen.

    The tricky part is when you grow your own produce… this past summer I had so many slugs, earwigs, and caterpillars in my green leafy veggies. But it was just a matter of washing everything properly and then digging in. 🙂

  5. JC says:

    I don’t really have a problem with the lil’ critters. I’ve eaten plenty of apples with wormholes in them; never actually eaten a worm(that I know of). When I was younger, I used to pick apples off of my grandpa’s trees and eat them without second thought. heck I didn’t even take them in for rinsing…

    Speaking of eating bugs, I once found a resource for protein powder sourced only from insects – I think it was mainly crickets. The price was great. I have come so close to ordering it, just to say I’ve used it but haven’t gotten around to it.

  6. Allie says:

    Haha, great post! I never minded the occasional bug too much but now I think I’ll mind them even less. I suppose it’s all in your perspective.

    Although I will admit I’ve thrown away cauliflower once or twice in the past because of those little, tiny bugs. Next time I’m going to try your vinegar trick…

  7. Jessica says:

    Wonderful topic!
    Overall, I think that organic is better. But I have to share a story. I worked in a soup kitchen in Peru, and they were not getting quality charity food for the cooks to make soup out of. These people were given rotten potatoes from the local mountain farmers, leftover from a winter’s frost, and they were strewn with maggots. My job was to cut the maggots out of the potatoes, cut the potatoes, and then rinse them in water (strewn with parasites). After the potatoes were cooked from scratch, the potato soup was delicious. I might have been a little too brave, but I think that pests and people get along pretty well if I do say so myself.
    I can actually say I have come across more disgusting packaged food in which you see the oil separating from the contents of the package…(twinkies come to mind).

  8. Matt Shook says:

    Insects can be found in small amounts in a multitude of processed products, peanut butter being the most notable. We’ve all eaten insects without knowing it, so it’s not a big deal really. I’ve been an herbivore for over seven years now, everything from the lazy vegetarian to the raw foodist to the closet vegan, and I have no problems if I accidentally eat an insect in one of my organic fruits or vegetables. Plus, if I was in a survivalist situation I would target insects as an easily acquired form or protein.

    Pesticides on the other hand…I’m afraid those will continue to plague all living organisms for centuries…nasty stuff.

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