Andreas Späth

Ooh, yummy: pesticides!

2016-03-14 12:47

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Folks who dismiss organic ways of farming in favour of conventional industrialised agriculture will tell you that the latter is simply the only way to grow enough food for everyone. But, while world hunger is widely acknowledged to have more to do with the economics, access and distribution rather than the production of food, what they’re not telling you is something that’s implicit in their argument: that we have no choice but to keep pouring vast quantities of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides onto our soils, the crops that grow in them and the animals that live on those.

The consequences of this unspoken premise are pretty devastating, as ever-mounting evidence in the scientific literature suggest.

Even in places where pesticides are supposedly strictly controlled they have the potential to cause considerable damage. In California, for instance, a recent report indicates that the state’s nominally tough regulations only consider the impacts of pesticides one at a time.

That’s a problem as most farmers routinely use several of the chemicals in combination and when that’s done, the interactions between the various constituents can significantly influence their toxicity and endanger the health of the farm workers and local residents who are exposed to them. This is the case even at low concentration levels and for substances that appear harmless when used on their own. When applied together, the widely used pesticides chloropicrin, 1,3-dichloropropene and metam sodium, for example, may lower the human body’s capacity to “remove or neutralize toxic substances”, “attack and damage DNA” and impair the proper function of DNA.

Last year, the World Health Organisation evaluated the cancer-causing potential of five organophosphate pesticides. It classified the world’s most popular herbicide, glyphosate (you may be familiar with it as Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ from your local nursery), as well as two insecticides (malathion and diazinon) as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and the insecticides tetrachlorvinphos and parathion as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

And then there are the bees.

In February, an international panel of scientists assessed the global state of pollinating insects, the critters on which an estimated US$677 billion’s worth of agricultural produce is dependant annually. Along with climate change and disease, it identified pesticide usage as a dominant threat.

A study published in March found as many as 57 different pesticides in poisoned European honeybees. According to lead author Tomasz Kiljanek of the Polish National Veterinary Research Institute, “Honeybee poisoning incidents are the tip of the iceberg. Even at very low levels, pesticides can weaken bees' defence systems, allowing parasites or viruses to kill the colony”.

Recent research conducted in New Zealand shows that honeybees exposed to tiny amounts of the pesticide chlorpyrifos suffer from severe learning and memory problems and “even in sublethal doses, may threaten the success and survival of this important insect pollinator”.

Not only are synthetic agricultural chemicals dangerous to humans and the environment, there are also more and more indications that organically produced food is more beneficial to people than it’s industrially-grown counterpart.

Two new papers published in the British Journal of Nutrition evaluate a wide range of existing scientific literature on the matter and show that there are notable differences between organic and conventional meat and milk. The authors found that grass-fed cows that are reared outdoors produce milk and meat that is “consistently higher in desirable fatty acids such as the omega-3s, and lower in fatty acids that can promote heart disease and other chronic diseases”.

According to co-author Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University in the UK, “our study suggests that switching to organic would go some way towards improving intakes of these important nutrients.” Last year, the same team of researchers found that organic crops and foods made from them tend to contain more antioxidants as well as lower concentrations of pesticide residues and toxic heavy metals like cadmium than conventionally grown food.

Chew on that the next time you’re standing in front of the fresh produce isle at your local supermarket.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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