I don’t know about you, but we are experiencing one of the hottest weeks of summer right now here in Barcelona and I am sure that you are also enjoying the huge variety of refreshing fruits and vegetables that you can find in the supermarkets, at your local markets or if you are really lucky also in your own gardens. But unfortunately, as many other good things in life, the consumption of all these delicious fruits and vegetables can have its risk factors regarding our health. We always need to take the necessary precautions before eating them in order to avoid the consumption of the pesticide residues as well. The easiest and most efficient way to get rid of the pesticide residues is what most people usually do, to wash and/or peel the fruits and vegetables before eating them, since the residues can mostly be found on the peels. But how about other type of foods that can’t be peeled, such as cereals for example? How can we ensure that the muesli/oatmeal/cereal bar or the bread that we eat in the morning is also free of pesticides? How about our rice/pasta etc. during lunch or dinner? Could there be a way for us, consumers to check the levels of pesticide residues in these type of foods?
Before answering this question, first let me explain to you why the use of pesticides is so important in our food production. Did you know that without crop protection (including pesticides) more than half of the world’s crops would be lost to insects, diseases and weeds? Pesticides not only help farmers protect the crops from the above mentioned pests and diseases, but they also help in increasing the number of times a crop can be grown on a land. For example, the production of major crops such as rice (which feeds almost half of the population!) has more than doubled since 1960, thanks largely to the use of pesticides. If you were starting to wonder about the bio and ecological products that are becoming more and more popular and accessible, you should know that all farmers use pesticides, even the organic ones. The only difference in their case is, that the pesticides they use come from natural sources, but both synthetic and natural pesticides can be toxic. The benefits of using pesticides not only rely in prolonging the life of the crops but also in preventing the post-harvest losses, since bugs, moulds and rodents can also cause damage in crops during their storage time. The use of pesticides also enables farmers to produce safe, quality foods at affordable prices. In other words, they ensure that we are provided with nutritious fruits and vegetables, grains, milk and proteins all-year-round, which are for example also vital for the healthy development of our children .
So I guess, now we can all agree on the fact that the use of pesticides in agriculture is inevitable, but this leads us to our following and less fortunate point, to the fact that these pesticides can potentially be toxic to humans. They can have acute but also chronic health effects, which depend on the quantity and the way the person has been exposed to the pesticide. One of the main risk factors are the older, cheaper pesticides, which can remain for years in soil and water. Even though the use of these chemicals has been banned in developed countries, they are still being used in many developing countries, which is another reason to avoid buying exported food products, especially from these countries. Obviously, the people who are at major risk are the ones, who come into contact with pesticides at work or in their home/garden. To protect the people from the potentially harmful health effects of pesticides, internationally-accepted maximum residue limits (MRLs) have been set for each pesticide, so that the use of pesticides is strictly regulated and controlled. The regular monitoring of the residues in food and in the environment is also required, in order to avoid the above mentioned harmful effects .
And here is where we come back to the initial question: if there is a way for us consumers to measure the level of pesticide residues, which also happens to be the challenge that I am aiming to solve during my PhD in the framework of the FoodSmartphone project. I am working on the development of an electrochemical immunosensor for the detection of different pesticides in cereals. The idea is to have a portable device with a smartphone connection at the end, which could be used on-site, so that for example the farmers would be able to measure the levels of pesticide residues in their crops, and only sell those crops that don’t contain more than what is allowed according to the regulatory limits. Furthermore, our aim is to not only have a device for farmers, inspectors, distributors, etc. but one that could easily be used by the consumers as well if they want to check the level of pesticides in their food while they are travelling/go on an excursion or at their home. As you can imagine this is everything but an easy task, since we have to develop a device that has the expected sensitivity, specificity, etc. from a technical point of view, but at the same time doesn’t require the performance of long and complicated protocols that non-experts couldn’t carry out. It is definitely a challenge, but I am lucky enough to work in a project that is full of inspiring and motivating researchers which also keeps me confident that we will be able to achieve this final goal.
Thank you very much for reading my blog, I will go into the more technical details of my project in the following ones.
Wishing you all a really nice summer,