Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pesticides - Agriculture's Modern Day "Snake Oil"

Pesticides are the ONLY class of toxic materials that are intentionally introduced into the environment to kill or damage living organisms. Make no mistake, pesticides are chemicals which are designed to kill. There are two major classes of pesticides -- insecticides and herbicides. Insecticides are meant to kill insects that may eat parts of a crop. Herbicides are meant to kill off weeds or other plants that compete for nutrients and water from the soil, which can cause plants to grow slower.

While many of the newer pesticides are better targeted at specific pests, this is not always the case. DDT was used (and still is in many places in the world) to eliminate mosquitos, but has a devastating effect on many bird species -- almost making California Condors extinct. There has never been enough testing done on pesticides before they are approved for use to foresee every possible effect of their widespread use. Newer insecticides (notably clothianidin and imidacloprid) have recently come under fire for their deleterious effects on bee populations, called “non target organisms” by the manufacturers. History has shown us that these chemicals that are designed to kill pests often end up killing and damaging far more than was ever intended. The danger remains that even humans are “non target organisms” and human exposure to pesticides has been shown to cause severe illness or even death. Over 300,000 farm workers are treated for pesticide related illnesses every year.

The notion that “pest control” only means high doses of dangerous and deadly chemicals (pesticides) is one promoted by the businesses that make and sell them. The pesticide manufacturers tell farmers that they “need” these chemicals because there is no other way to protect their crops, and this is a lie of marketing. In fact, there are many different integrated pest management (IPM) programs in place around the world that are extremely successful, which have little to no pesticide use at all.

Farmers who use pesticides every year are spending large amounts of money on a gamble. Pests won’t necessarily encroach on crops every year, but the pesticide salesmen convince farmers that their crops (their livelihoods) are in serious and imminent danger. Since the pesticide salespeople are the same people who diagnose the potential (or theoretical) pest problems, they can easily use the fear of possible crop loss to sell more pesticide products. This is very similar to the way that "Snake Oil Salesmen" of the early 20th century operated.

This system is like having a pharmaceutical representative warn you about the dangers of diseases you might possibly be exposed to, and then selling you drugs to take “just in case” so you don’t get sick. Not only does this have the very real potential of damaging your body (crops and soil), but also in creating drug resistant strains of disease (pesticide resistant pests). There are some very serious reasons (financial and legal) that pharmaceutical reps are not allowed to prescribe or dispense medicine, so why are pesticide salespeople allowed to do so?

How many pesticide products do you
use in your home alone?
Pesticide salesmen purport to act as the pest psychic/diagnostician, but often only tell farmers about nearby outbreaks that have already occurred without specifically gauging the risk to their particular farm. How can this possibly be a fair system? Before you get sick, do you go to a pharmaceutical rep for a check up to assess your risk of getting sick? Once you do get sick, do you go choose a pharmaceutical rep to assess which drugs would be best to treat your illness? There are very good reasons that only trained and licensed health care professional are allowed to prescribe pharmaceutical medications.  Medications are dangerous so we don’t want our physicians biased by a financial conflict to sell us a more dangerous drug. Why do we allow pesticide salesmen to act as the pest psychic/diagnosticians when their primary motivation is to sell as many chemicals as they can?

Pesticide salespeople promote a campaign of fear. They convince farmers that they must use pesticides every year to stave off the danger of pest infestation that is always lurking around the corner. This false belief is fostered by the pesticide salesmen, who release "reports" of recent outbreaks of pests in an attempt to sell more products and make more money. Due to a number of factors (pesticide persistence in soil, previous elimination of pests, etc.), the vast majority of the time, pesticides can be used as little as 3-5 years apart with no loss of efficacy.

As more pesticides are used preventatively (in the absence of pests), the problem of pesticide resistance increases. In the same way that antibiotic resistance occurs, insects and other pests reproduce (and mutate resistances) much faster than we can create pesticides to battle them. Compounding the issue is that the less tested, newer pesticides often affect “non-target organisms" like bees, butterflies, and other important pollinators. The damage from widespread use can be catastrophic (think Colony Collapse Disorder), and our understanding of these myriad chemical killers is lacking. Are the financial motivations enough to outweigh safety for our planet and our health?

A widespread adoption of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques would help this situation immensely. Proper (safe) pest management can only be developed with careful study of the local biosphere and proper planning and utilization of natural ways to deter pest infestation. Many IPM systems around the world use this technique to enable farmers to greatly reduce (if not entirely eliminate) pesticide use. When pesticides are actually needed, they can then be used much more efficiently (without risk of resistance developing), in much lower doses, and in a very targeted manner, thereby reducing the potential environmental and health hazards of overuse.

There are many aspects to a successful IPM. Planting later or earlier in a season to miss the hatching/feeding times of local pests will greatly reduce crop exposure and damage due to pests. Covering plants at key times of the season reduces exposure to certain pests. Crop rotation limits the risks of pests gaining a foothold on a given field for a given crop, also reducing the chance of resistance and soil accumulation if pesticides are used. Maintaining stocks of pest predators, such as ladybugs for aphids or certain birds for many insects, in a field allows them to feed on the pests before the pests can feed on the crop. In the same vein, planting a border of (inexpensive or native wild growing) plants around the crop that specific pests prefer to eat. This technique is often used in organic farming, with great success. All of these techniques require a little extra effort on the part of farmers, but the reduction in costs from not needing to buy pesticides more than makes up for it. The goal of IPM programs is to use natural ways of protecting plants from pests.

Organic and Biodynamic farming systems do not, by definition, use synthetic pesticides. One of the ways they are able to avoid the use of pesticide is through the re-mineralization of depleted soils with essential trace minerals. When soils are healthy with a full complement of essential trace minerals, plants will thrive and naturally resist disease and protect themselves from many types of infestation by pests using their own natural defenses that have evolved over millions of years. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true; “agribusiness farming” which over treats soil with pesticides and under nourishes soil with NPK fertilizer (only replacing three of the more than twenty essential minerals needed by plants to thrive) will eventually lead to lifeless and dead soil.  How can any of us, let alone the plants, hope to survive if we are killing soil upon which we need to grow our food and raise our animals to survive?

Supporting farmers and systems that endeavor to use healthier and more responsible methods of pest management is key to improving our health and well being. If we support those who make the extra effort to produce food in a healthier and more sustainable way, we improve not only our own health, but that of the planet as well. Until the system of allowing pesticide salesmen to predict/diagnose potential pest problems and also sell pesticide products to farmers is stopped, buying only organic, biodynamic, or pesticide-free foods is one of the biggest ways to effect change. Check the EWG Shopper's Guide to Pesticides for lists of products that are most heavily treated with pesticides. Choose wisely what you put into your body, as your health very much depends on it.

For more information:

On Integrated Pest Management:

On Colony Collapse Disorder:

On Pesticides and Agriculture:
See our resources page for books and videos

Follow Up Reading:
Pesticides and Produce - The Clean and the Dirty

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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