On eating pesticides and communicating safety

I just need to quickly vent:

Conversations around the safety of pesticides are really complicated. Science communication often unintentionally oversimplifies and overstates these claims, opening space for more misunderstanding and distrust. When the court decision in the Pilliot v. Monsanto case came down last week, the jury ultimately chose not to trust Monsanto’s (now Bayer) assurances of the scientific proof of safety of the herbicide; according to a juror after the verdict was read, “I wanted you to get up and drink it, basically.”

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On the surface, this seems like an outlandish burden to meet. Especially when $2 billion is on the line.

But I am so uneasy with the hypocrisy we see when science communicators* often use this very same standard to demonstrate safety of a product to entertain their own audience. History of science is littered with examples of this—and they didn’t always end well.

Here’s just a few cases I can think of off the top of my head. Please help me add to this list!

  • In the 1970s, people willingly consumed DDT pills daily, in front of witnesses, in order to call attention to its safety.
  • In 1990, British agriculture minister John Gummer fed his 4-year old daughter a ground beef burger on live television to convince the world that British beef was safe during the BSE scare. This was not entirely true…
  • In 2015, former Greenpeace activist and supporter of biotech crops claimed that glyphosate is safe enough to drink — though he refused to when publicly given the opportunity. Other scientists have jokingly referred to glyphosate’s safety in these terms, as well.
  • There’s a particular Cornell professor that literally eats Bt in his lectures and offers it to the students and visitors in his audience to try, even public audiences. I’ve seen this happen multiple times and have always found it in poor taste. Actually, I find this ridiculous and every time I see it, I can’t believe my eyes. The power differential of a “Cornell scientist” versus a student or “the public” makes this particularly problematic.

Of course, I don’t think we should measure the safety of such an important agricultural input on whether or not we should eat it. But let’s hold our communication to higher standards and take some responsibility for this potentially unethical safety discourse. There are plenty of good communicators doing excellent work without eating things that aren’t food.

3 thoughts on “On eating pesticides and communicating safety

Add yours

  1. I agree, a “Jackass” attitude to health and safety measures probably isn’t doing science any good. However, only one of the people you mention in your post is a scientist, and thus your examples include pretty much the full list of actual scientists indulging in this particular thing in recent times, i.e. n=1.

    Patrick Moore’s (not) drinking glyphosate is your only newish example, and yes, he should have known better than to compare diluted herbicide to something you would drink. However, he isn’t a scientist, more of a professional activist – it is called “consultant” these days.

    Regarding the story about “people eating DDT pills”, eating DDT was a bit of a fad 48 years ago (see link), at a time when safety belts in cars were few and far between, and evidence based medicine not invented yet. And mr Loidl wasn’t a scientist, he was named as a Pest Control Executive in the original Time Magazine article.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey_Slim

    The burger incident isn’t anywhere near an example of “scientists drinking pesticide” – most Brits kept eating beef throughout the nineties like everyone else, so this little girl probably ate beef several times a week with her family anyway. Her father was a politician, not a scientist.

    1. Thanks for these points! I made a small edit to clarify that I’m referring to science communicators in general — not just scientists. I don’t think an absence of a million examples weakens my argument that this is really problematic.

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