I recently read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and was shocked. Published in 1962, it attacked the use of pesticides and read like a story that might have been written today about the detrimental effects of ____ (fill in the blank), a product that hasn’t been properly tested, but is being sold anyway. At the time, pesticides were being used quite extensively and people were starting to see the consequences – dead birds and other animals were obvious casualties of pesticide spraying. Rachel Carson’s book was met with fierce opposition; chemical companies (including Monsanto back in 1962!) were trying their best to silence her with lawsuits, personal attacks, and more. In response to the uproar caused by Silent Spring, President Kennedy requested an investigation into Carson’s claims that led to increased regulation over chemical pesticides.
While the investigation did lead to increased regulation, we are still dealing with unnecessary pesticide use today. New stories pop up frequently about the possible connection between pesticides and Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer, poisonings, infertility and more. The problems seemed clear 40 years ago: why is it that we are just learning that new studies on atrazine, a commonly used weedkiller, may be more harmful to humans that previously thought, being “associated with birth defects, low birth weights and reproductive problems among humans, even at concentrations that meet current federal standards.” (Regulators Plan to Study Risks of Atrazine New York Times, Oct. 7, 2009)
What are pesticides?
Natural pesticides do exist, like planting garlic with tomatoes to keep red spider mites away. But we are talking about chemical pesticides, which I will refer to as “pesticides” throughout this post. Pesticides are used to kill or discourage pests which can take the form of bugs, weeds, germs, animals like mice, birds, gophers, and more. Their use is nothing new; by the 15th century people were using toxic substances such as arsenic on crops to kill pests and arsenic-based pesticides were dominant up until the 1950s. But it was in the 1940s when synthetic pesticides began to be produced, and the 1960s when the associated problems were brought to the attention of the public. Pesticides can be used directly to poison whatever they are applied on, or in a systemic way, poisoning the pollen and nectar of a plant. This type of poisoning will kill insects, but can be problematic, also killing needed pollinators. Pesticides have many categories (such as insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and repellents), and various ways of working; you can find more detailed information here.
Where do you find pesticides?
Today we use pesticides in our homes to kill ants, mice, cockroaches, and other annoying creatures. We use them on our pets to repel fleas, and if they get fleas, we “bomb” the house with pesticides to get rid of them. There are signs posted in the subway and in the park next to my house telling me to be cautious of the poisons recently sprayed or pellets left behind. We spray them on our bodies to avoid mosquito bites, and DDT (banned for use in the US) is still used to prevent the spread of malaria in many countries. They are used to keep our lawns weed-free, backyard gardens bug-free and on a much larger scale in industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture is extremely reliant on pesticides. They are an inherent part of growing monoculture crops, either by direct spraying or by embedding pesticides innately within the plants themselves though genetic modification. Further, industrial farms use these crops to feed livestock. The residues of these pesticides end up in the soil and water and are often found in our food.
Why are pesticides a problem?
They are everywhere! When DDT was first used as a pesticide, it was hailed for reasons that we now wisely condemn – toxic to a wide range of pests, didn’t have to be reapplied often, didn’t wash off in rains, cheap and easy. DDT was banned in the US in 1972, and at the time, in a study conducted by the United States Public Health Service of restaurant and institutional meals, DDT was found in every single meal. Even with the ban on DDT, there are still millions of pounds of EPA approved pesticides produced and used each year. Pesticides can enter the body in many different ways – inhalation, ingestion, and direct contact with eyes or skin. Some pesticides accumulate in fatty tissue (bioaccumulation) and are endocrine disruptors. Repeated contact with even small doses of pesticides can cause build up in the body, possibly causing immune and nervous system disorders years after exposure. Because children have a habit of putting things in their mouths and because their bodies are still developing, they are at great risk of pesticide poisoning. With recent reports that some pesticides (such as atrazine) are not considered as safe as was thought in the past, we need to be more diligent to avoid them. Also, pesticides that have recently been banned could still be lurking in products that you have left over from years ago!
How do pesticides relate to sustainable food?
Farmers who employ sustainable practices are by definition addressing the undeniable need for pesticides. They use the very least toxic substances and in the smallest amounts possible to avoid damaging the health of humans and of the planet, thereby making farming truly sustainable for the future. While pesticides might still be used, sustainable farmers also consider options like Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This type of pest control operates by using methods such as rotating between different crops, selecting pest-resistant varieties, and planting pest-free rootstock.
Industrial use of pesticides continues to cause problems:
- Pesticides greatly impact biodiversity.
- Systemic insecticides which poison pollen and nectar in the flowers of plants have the potential to kill bees – an essential part of the growing cycle.
- Insects have become resistant to pesticides causing farmers to use more spray than necessary.
- It is estimated that only 80% of ground applied pesticides reach their targeted areas; the rest ends up in the air, water, or ground that it wasn’t intended for.
- Many health problems can be easily traced back to pesticide contamination, with higher reports near industrial farming sites (“Groups Petition EPA to Require Buffer Zones Around Pesticide Sprayed Farms” Beyond Pesticides, Oct. 16, 2009).
How to avoid pesticides?
I am a true believer in avoiding pesticides as much as I can. With Alzheimer’s disease in my family and the link between pesticides and neurological disorders being made, why would I take the chance? Avoiding pesticides is essential to keeping yourself and your family healthy now and in the future. While it is impossible to avoid pesticides 100% of the time, making any changes we can will be helpful in the long run.
- If you are using any type of pesticide, always read labels, ingredients and instructions on how much of the pesticide to use.
- Avoid the Dirty Dozen. Keep this list from the Environmental Working Group with you all the time. It lists fruits and vegetables that you should always buy organic. I have it on my iPhone; it’s really handy. You can also download and print a copy, or just memorize it.
- Use homemade or natural cleaning products.
- Use homemade or natural defenses against bugs in your home, lawn and garden.
- Think before you spray. It might take more time and internet research to find an alternative to the pesticide you are used to using, but it is important to try; find a good remedy and share it with your friends. Check out the “Non-Pesticide Advisor” at http://www.panna.org.
- As always, buy local sustainable and organic produce, meat and dairy as often as you can. Remember that just because a farm isn’t certified organic, doesn’t mean that they don’t employ sustainable practices. Please ask questions!
- From http://www.panna.org: reject anti-bacterial products. Many people are unaware that some soap, toothpaste, and beauty and laundry products needlessly include the antibacterial pesticide triclosan. To fight germs, use soap and warm water instead.
I hope that this series is helping readers make a serious connection between personal health and sustainable food! Please peruse the other posts about HFCS and GMOs here, and if you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
Some very informative websites: