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How many pesticides does it take to grow a strawberry?

Credit: oliver-hale-Qse3AFWnc48-unsplash

This is no joke… and the answer is at least 7!

Fresh strawberries are an enticing sight in supermarkets from late spring and throughout summer. Rows of strawberry punnets are on sale as you enter many food stores and displayed prominently in the fruit and vegetable sections. They are like nature’s eye candy and difficult to walk on by without putting a punnet (or two) in your shopping trolley. However, they may not be as healthy as they could be… because many contain a cocktail of chemical pesticide residues.

When I moved from South Africa to The Netherlands five years ago, I was under the impression that the EU had stricter regulations about pesticide use. So it came as a surprise to me as a health and environment-conscious person that even here in the EU, the weedkiller Roundup™ is readily available to consumers and pesticide usage is fairly high for some crops. Both South Africa and The Netherlands are large fresh produce exporters. South Africa has the sun and space ideal for farming. In contrast, The Netherlands has become an international horticulture giant by using high tech greenhouses. Both use chemical pest control routinely in commercial agriculture and I guess I was naive and hopeful to expect anything different.

Of all Dutch grown fruit and vegetables, the most pesticide residues can be found on strawberries and cherries. This was the finding in a 2016 study done by the Dutch Food and consumer safety authority (or NVWA) which examined a selection of fruits and vegetables for pesticide residues. Out of 39 samples of Dutch strawberries, the researchers found, on average, 7 different chemical pesticide residues per sample and alarmingly seventeen residues on one sample. Dutch grown sweet cherries were also found to have similar residues.

Why do farmers use so many pesticides?

Have you ever seen a wild or woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca)? They are vastly smaller and less showy than their modern counterpart. The modern strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa) is a human-made hybrid crop and would not survive long in a wild setting. They have been bred for colour, taste, firmness and shelf life. This genetic tampering weakens the strawberry plant’s resistance and forces growers to use chemical pesticides to repel fungi and insects. As pests become more resistant more chemical agents are needed to ensure crops make it to the supermarket shelves in large quantities and in an attractive and edible form.

Credit: maksim-shutov-IXOjM_g-XBQ-unsplash

So what is the big fuss about consuming pesticide residues?

Pesticides have both unintended human health effects (especially on children) and environmental health effects on pollinators (especially bees). Many are not officially listed for negative health effects because either the research has not been done or there is not enough evidence yet to support making official claims. However, there is mounting anecdotal evidence and some legal precedent (including the Roundup™ court case) to suggest the following effects of many chemical pesticides used in horticulture and agriculture (including strawberries):

  1. Carcinogenic (or cancer-causing)

  2. Hormone disruption (involved with reproductive, development and fertility problems)

  3. Neurotoxic (or toxic to the nervous system)

The problem is not only single pesticide use per se. Of further concern are also the combined effects when multiple pesticides are used. They make for a potentially unhealthy cocktail, of which the long-term combination effects on humans and our environment are not known. Sadly this aspect seems to be largely ignored by farmers and lawmakers.

The Pesticide Action Network or PAN Europe coordinates independent food testing initiatives designed to inform consumers about the levels of pesticides in foods. PAN Europe has repeatedly stressed to regulators to consider, in their food safety evaluation, this untested ‘combination effect’ where combined toxic effects may in fact be magnified and more harmful to the environment, ecosystem and human health than expected.

It’s insane that pesticide-contaminated food has become the norm” adds Angeliki Lysimachou, the environmental toxicologist of PAN Europe “…regulators must act responsibly and put an end to these daily pesticide exposures. If not for the sake of ourselves, then for the sake of our children.”

These findings are not unique to The Netherlands and mirror similar findings by the Environmental Working Group or EWG in the United States. The EWG publishes an annual list for consumers on the most sprayed produce called the ‘dirty dozen’. Strawberries appear at the top of the list as the ‘dirtiest’ and most pesticide-laden of all and cherries are not far behind!

Here is the 2021 EWG ‘Dirty Dozen’ most pesticide-laden produce:

  1. Strawberries

  2. Spinach

  3. Kale/Collard/Mustard greens

  4. Nectarines

  5. Apples

  6. Grapes

  7. Cherries

  8. Peaches

  9. Pears

  10. Bell and hot peppers

  11. Celery

  12. Tomatoes

What do apples, pears, cherries and strawberries all have in common?

They are all on the EWG’s dirty dozen list and in The Netherlands, they are still sprayed with two pesticides known for their health and safety concerns. According to Foodwatch, five pesticides were exposed as problematic in 2015. Two of these products may still be used in the Netherlands until the middle of 2022 in the cultivation of apples, pears, cherries and strawberries. Reassuringly, the Dutch government has expressed the ambition for local farmers and horticulturists to use the least pesticides in Europe, and to be ‘chemical-free’ by 2030. Let’s hold thumbs…!

Can you wash off the pesticide residues?

No. Even rinsing them well doesn’t remove the pesticides that have penetrated the peel and deep into the produce. A study showed that surface pesticide residues on apples were most effectively removed by a sodium bicarbonate (baking soda or NaHCO3) solution when compared to either tap water or Clorox bleach. Peeling is more effective to remove the penetrated pesticides; however, the nutrients and bioactive compounds in the peels will be sacrificed and lost.

Here are some take-home points to help you avoid high exposures to pesticide residues on strawberries and other commercially farmed ‘dirty’ produce like apples, pears and cherries:

  • Buy organic produce especially of those on the dirty dozen list

  • When buying commercial fresh produce, check your strawberries/cherries for country of origin

  • Grow your own at home or in an allotment

  • Wash commercially grown produce in a baking soda solution

  • Choose to eat imperfect, wild and heritage plant varieties where available

  • Read my earlier articles on Going Organic or on a related pesticide theme When less is more… science, alchemy and cabbages

Moms and Dads, please think twice about feeding your young children a diet high in commercially farmed strawberries this summer. Just when you were feeling pleased that they were eating fresh fruit, here comes another spoiler alert…

But to end on a serious note, their health and wellbeing are most vulnerable to the effects of pesticide residues together with the other small bodied creatures like our friends the bees!

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Written for Eindhoven News and Medium

By: Nicole Cullinan, Functional Medicine Homeopath and creator of Wellness Place International


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