The Problems With Pesticides

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The history of farming closely parallels the history of technological innovation. Since we began cultivating crops, humans have looked for ways to increase yields and guarantee plentiful harvests. This should come as no surprise – nothing is more fundamentally important than guaranteeing the way we feed ourselves.

 

Besides uncertain weather conditions, the biggest threats posed to crops are pestilence, fungi and other plants competing for sunlight, water and nutrients – affectionately known as “weeds”. Pesticides and herbicides work towards mitigating these threats. 

Pesticides are, in many ways a necessary evil, part of the price we pay for living in the developed world. Some scientists believe that the world would be unable to sustain the current planetary population if it weren’t for modern farming techniques. Pesticides work towards increasing crop yields, keeping food prices affordable and harvests bountiful. Not least important among the pesticides, fungicides prevent our food supply from being contaminated with lethal doses of mycotoxins. Undoubtedly, these chemicals hold a vital place in our food system. 

Forms of pesticides have been used for thousands of years. Up until World War II, compounds as toxic as mercury and arsenic were often used to control pests. World War II led to many chemical and technological innovations; following the war’s conclusion, many of the chemicals that had been used towards the war effort found more domestic uses as fertilizers and pesticides. It was in this post-war era that the “miracle” pesticide DDT was put into heavy usage. 

DDT was noted for it’s “broad-spectrum” efficacy – in other words, it killed a lot pests but (at least initially) wasn’t found to be toxic to mammals. Dr. Paul Muller won a Nobel Price in 1948 for the discovery of this “miracle” compound. The more virulent effects of this chemical wouldn’t be discovered until years later; DDT was eventually found to be toxic to birds, fish and other animals. Rachel Carlson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, began to turn public opinion on the idea of pesticides. Up to this point, little concern was given to the side effects of pesticidal use. In her book she warned of the grave ecological effects of wanton pesticide usage. 

This leads us to the first problem of pesticides; their wanton usage poses a huge risk of damaging the ecology. The web of nature is intimately linked and forms a global nexus – pesticides have been detected in Eskimos and the seals they rely on for food, thousands of miles from any sort of farm. Carried far from where they are initially applied by wind and water, many pesticidal compounds don’t break down easily; in some cases, there are no bacteria in nature with the ability to decompose them. Unabated, these synthetic chemicals can wreak havoc on ecosystems. Other bugs and plants develop resistance to pesticides, leading to stronger forms, and larger doses, of pesticides. 

Pesticidal resistance raises another problem; many crops are now genetically engineered to be resistant to more powerful pesticides. This practice is becoming more common and leads us to the problem of consuming genetically modified food. Of course, most proponents find no harmful side effects from altering the DNA of the foods we eat, but numerous studies have pointed to the fact that these foods are unfit for human consumption and can cause disease, including cancer. That action has not been made to ban these types of crops does nothing but prove the moneyed interests’ lobby over our legislators. 

GM food isn’t the only health concern associated with pesticide usage. Pesticides, themselves, can pose a significant health risk. Some pesticides are carcinogenic, such as organochlorines, creosote and sulfallate. Some are tumor promoters, such as DDT, chlordane and lindane. Studies have proved inconclusive at determining the risk associated with exposure, and the EPA sets acceptable levels far below that which are deemed to be even slightly toxic to humans. Regardless, this doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk of exposure. 

So what can one do? Unfortunately – and we will delve more into this in next month’s issue – going organic does NOT mean you will not be exposed to pesticides. Organic farmers are still allowed to use pesticides, albeit non-synthetic pesticides. This is not to speak poorly of organic farming; going organic is a great idea for a number of reasons, and the shortened list of allowable pesticides will reduce your risk of exposure to potentially harmful ones. Regardless of whether you go organic, rinsing your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating or cooking them will help reduce your exposure. Try to join a local farming co-op, and talk to the farmers about what sort of farming methods they use. Many of them will be glad to tell you about it, because many farmers that operate these sort of co-ops are very conscientious of their methods.

Pesticides are part of the world we live in. You can reduce your exposure to them, but they are unavoidable. The best thing to do is rinse your fruits and veggies before enjoying the life-giving, anti-fungal benefits that lie therein. 

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