In a 2013 survey, 71 percent of Americans expressed a concern over the number of chemicals and pesticides in their food supply.1 And no wonder — research has linked long-term pesticide exposure to infertility,2 birth defects,3,4 endocrine disruption5 and obesity, reduced IQ,6 neurological diseases7 and cancer.8
It is only a common-sense conclusion that reducing your pesticide exposure would result in improved health.
The amount of pesticides used both commercially and in residential areas has grown immensely since 1945. More than 1 billion pounds are used each year in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, an estimated 7.7 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, and that number is steadily increasing.9
According to a 2012 analysis,10 each 1 percent increase in crop yield is associated with a 1.8 percent increase in pesticide use. Logic tells us this is an unsustainable trajectory when you consider the health and environmental ramifications associated with pesticide use and exposure.
As just one example, studies done by the Chinese government show that 20 percent of arable land in China is now unusable due to pesticide contamination!11 Every now and then, though, a ray of hope descends.
Earlier this month, two United Nations (UN) experts called for a comprehensive global treaty to not only regulate but actually phase out toxic pesticides in farming, and to move food production across the world toward more sustainable agricultural practices.
This is a significant change in stance that can — and hopefully will — have far-reaching consequences.
UN Calls for Global Treaty to Promote Sustainable Farming Without Toxic Pesticides
The two experts, Hilal Elver, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food and Baskut Tuncak, the special rapporteur on toxics, shared research with the Human Rights Council in Geneva showing pesticides are responsible for 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year.
“The experts particularly emphasized the obligation of States to protect the rights of children from hazardous pesticides … The experts warn that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends …
The experts say the use of neonicotinoid pesticides is particularly worrying because they are accused of being responsible for a systematic collapse in the number of bees around the world. Such a collapse, they say, threatens the very basis of agriculture as 71 percent of crop species are bee-pollinated.
While acknowledging that certain international treaties currently offer protection from the use of a few pesticides, they stressed that a global treaty to regulate the vast majority of them throughout their life cycle does not yet exist, leaving a critical gap in the human rights protection framework.”
The special rapporteurs challenged the pesticide industry’s “systematic denial of harms” and “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics,” noting the industry is spending massive amounts of money to influence policymakers and contest scientific evidence showing their products do in fact cause great harm to human and environmental health.
Toxic Pesticides Are Not an Irreplaceable Farming Necessity
Even more importantly, their report firmly denies the idea that pesticides are essential to ensure sufficient amounts of food for a growing world population, calling the notion “a myth.”13
Not only have decades of heavy pesticide use failed to eliminate global hunger, they said, the same chemicals have now become a troubling food contaminant — contaminants made all the worse by the fact that they cannot be washed off like many older generation pesticides could. According to Elver and Tuncak:14
“The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading.
In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it …”
Moreover, the report highlighted developments in sustainable and regenerative farming, where biology can completely replace chemicals, delivering high yields of nutritious food without detriment to the environment.
“It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production,” they said.
Which Foods Are the Most Contaminated?
According to the 2017 Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” reports,15,16,17 which rank foods based on highest and lowest pesticide contamination, strawberries still top the list of foods most likely to contain the highest amounts of residues, containing a minimum of 20 pesticides — twice the amount of the second-most contaminated crop — while non-GMO sweet corn has the lowest amounts.
EWG’s Dirty Dozen — Foods containing the highest amounts of pesticide residues and therefore best to purchase organic include:
|1. Strawberries||2. Spinach||3. Nectarines|
|4. Apples||5. Peaches||6. Pears|
|7. Cherries||8. Grapes||9. Celery|
|10. Tomatoes||11. Sweet bell peppers||12. Potatoes|
EWG’s Clean 15 — Foods containing the lowest amounts of residues, and therefore safer to buy conventional if you cannot afford organic varieties include:
|1. Non-GMO sweet corn||2. Avocados||3. Pineapple|
|4. Cabbage||5. Onions||6. Frozen sweet peas|
|7. Non-GMO papaya||8. Asparagus||9. Mangos|
|10. Eggplant||11. Honeydew melon||12. Kiwi|
|13. Cantaloupe||14. Cauliflower||15. Grapefruit|
European Parliament Report Highlights Benefits of Organic Foods
Another favorable piece of news is the recently released report,18 “Human Health Implications of Organic Food and Organic Agriculture,” by the European Parliament, detailing the many benefits of organics. The report is unusually comprehensive in that it reviews a wide range of effects of organics, from nutritional content and the benefits of fewer pesticides to environmental impacts and sustainability.
Its conclusions are based on hundreds of epidemiological and laboratory studies and food analyses. The clearest benefits of organics on human health were found to be related to lowered pesticide, antibiotic and cadmium exposure. As noted by Civil Eats:19
“Most striking in its findings is the evidence suggesting organic food can help protect children from the brain-altering effects of some pesticides. And while there is evidence of greater nutrient content in some organic food — particularly milk and meat — as health benefits, these differences appear to be less significant than organic food’s lack of hazardous chemicals …
The report was prepared for a European audience, but its findings clearly apply to the U.S. ‘They did a really comprehensive job of a global literature search, so I don’t think anything in the report wouldn’t be applicable,’ said Boise State University assistant professor of community and environmental health Cynthia Curl, who researches links between diet and pesticide exposure …
‘As a consequence of reduced pesticide exposure, organic food consequently contributes to the avoidance of health effects and associated costs to society,’ write the authors, noting that research suggests these costs are currently ‘greatly underestimated.’”
The Many Drawbacks of Industrialized Agriculture
The UN’s special report on pesticides and call for a transition toward sustainable agriculture worldwide adds ammunition to an already well-stocked munitions store against conventional agriculture and genetic engineering. I’ve detailed a wide range of drawbacks of chemical-dependent industrial farming in previous articles, including the following:
Degrades and contaminates soil
Grains account for about 70 percent of our daily calories, and grains are grown on about 70 percent of acreage worldwide. The continuous replanting of grain crops each year leads to soil degradation, as land is tilled and sprayed each year, disrupting the balance of microbes in the soil.
Top soil is also lost each year, which means that, eventually, our current modes of operation simply will no longer work. Soil erosion and degradation rates suggest we have less than 60 remaining years of topsoil.33
Forty percent of the world’s agricultural soil is now classified as either degraded or seriously degraded; the latter means that 70 percent of the topsoil is gone. Soil degradation is projected to cause 30 percent loss in food production over the next 20 to 50 years. Meanwhile, our global food demands are expected to increase by 50 percent over this span of time.
As explained in Peter Byck’s short film, “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts,” farm animals form symbiotic relationships where one species helps keep parasites from overwhelming another. It is the separation of crops and animals into two distinctly different farming processes that has led to animal waste becoming a massive source of pollution rather than a valuable part of the ecological cycle.
Contaminates water and drains aquifers
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of our fresh water use. When the soil is unfit, water is wasted. It simply washes right through the soil and past the plant’s root system. We already have a global water shortage that’s projected to worsen over the coming two or three decades, so this is the last thing we need to compound it. On top of that, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a major water polluter, destroying what precious little water we do have.
The EPA has noted that U.S. states with high congregations of CAFOs report 20 to 30 serious water quality problems each year.34 According to a report35 by Environment America, corporate agribusiness is “one of the biggest threats to America’s waterways.” Tyson Foods Inc. is among the worst, releasing 104.4 million pounds of toxic pollutants into waterways between 2010 and 2014; second only to a steel manufacturing company.
Contributes to greenhouse gas emissions
While fertilizer production produces its share of greenhouse gases, most of the emissions occur upon application. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1 out of every 100 kilos of nitrogen fertilizer applied to farm land ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas (300 times more potent than CO2) known to deplete the ozone.36
In 2014, the amount of N2O created by nitrogen fertilizer spread on American farmland was equal to one-third of the N2O released by all cars and trucks in the U.S. More recent research suggests the real number is three to five times higher than that.
The efficiency model of large-scale industrialized agriculture demanded a reduction in diversity. Hence, we got monoculture: farmers growing all corn, or all soy, for example. Monoculture has significantly contributed to dietary changes that promote ill health. The primary crops grown on industrial farms today — corn, soy, wheat, canola and sugar beets — are the core ingredients in processed foods known to promote obesity, nutritional deficiencies and disease.
According to a report by the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K., one-fifth of all plants worldwide are now threatened with extinction, primarily through the expansion of agriculture.37 Ethanol and corn sweetener subsidies have also led to farmers abandoning conservation measures designed to preserve fragile lands and protect biodiversity in the natural landscape.38
Worsens food safety and promotes pandemic disease
Agricultural overuse of drugs, especially antibiotics, has led to the development of drug-resistant disease,39 which has now become a severe health threat. Pandemic outbreaks are also becoming more prevalent in CAFOs, revealing the inherent flaws of industrialized animal farming.
In 2015, an avian flu outbreak spread across 14 states in five months. The year before that, a pig virus outbreak killed off 10 percent of the American pig population. As noted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy:40 “The rapid spread of new disease strains … is one very visible reason why the expansion of factory-style animal production is viewed as unsustainable.”
Threatens food security by decimating important pollinators such as butterfly and bee populations.41
Promotes nutritional deficiencies and poor nutrition
Industrial farming is set up and subsidized to grow ingredients used in processed foods. This is the cheapest way to feed the masses. However, what people really need more of in order to thrive is fresh produce.
According to research42 presented at the 2016 American Heart Association’s Epidemiology meeting, reducing the price of fruits and vegetables by 30 percent could save nearly 200,000 lives over 15 years by lowering rates of heart disease and stroke.
If people added just one additional serving of fruits and vegetables a day, up to 3.5 million deaths from heart disease could be prevented in just two years. Testing also reveals nutrient content of foods has dramatically declined across the board since the introduction of mechanized farming in 1925. For example:
- To receive the same amount of iron you used to get from one apple in 1950, by 1998 you had to eat 26 apples; today you have to eat 36
- Between 1950 and 1999, levels of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C levels in 43 different vegetables and fruits significantly declined43
- Analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that, on average, calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels dropped 37 percent; vitamin A levels dropped 21 percent; vitamin C levels declined by 30 percent
Healthy soils contain a large diversity of microorganisms, and it is these organisms that are responsible for the plant’s nutrient uptake,44,45 health and the stability of the entire ecosystem. The wide-scale adoption of industrial farming practices has decimated soil microbes responsible for transferring these minerals to the plants.
If we do not change, we will eventually reach a point of no return, where soils will be too depleted and microbially “dead” to grow food. Conventional may be more efficient, and may provide somewhat greater yields in some cases, but in the long term it’s unsustainable.
Necessitates the use of toxins, poisons and harmful mechanical farming methods
Industrialization led to the separation of crops and livestock farming into two different specialties. That change alone has done tremendous harm, as livestock are actually a core component of regenerative agriculture. As a result, a whole host of land maintenance services that animals serve for free have had to be replaced with chemical and mechanical means — all of which have detrimental effects on human health and the environment.
Is less profitable than organic farming and cannot affordably and sustainably increase production
Research has even shown that conventional farming cannot significantly compete with organic in terms of profitability. At least 1,000 studies have compared organic and conventional farming in terms of productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing.
One such study46,47 found that organic farms are more profitable,48,49 earning farmers anywhere from 22 to 35 percent more than their conventional counterparts. They also produce equally or more nutritious foods with fewer or no pesticide residues. Organic farms also use far less energy, were found to be at a distinct advantage during droughts, and provide unique benefits to the ecosystem, along with social benefits that are hard to put a price tag on. According to one of the authors:
“If I had to put it in one sentence, organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. In some ways, there are practices in organic agriculture that really are ideal blueprints for us to look at feeding the world in the future. Organic may even be our best bet to help feed the world in an increasingly volatile climate.”
Assures decimation of food production should feared climate changes turn into reality
Recent research50,51 indeed confirms that conventional farming methods cannot protect us from a repeat of the devastating conditions experienced during the 1930s “dust bowl,” a time when consecutive droughts decimated food production in the U.S. According to simulations, if the U.S. were to experience the same kind of drought as in 1936, we’d lose 40 percent of our corn and soy, and 30 percent of our wheat.
These losses are very similar to those back in 1936. But when including current climate change trends into their calculations, crop losses increase by 25 percent for each 1-degree increase in temperature. A 4-degree increase in average temperature would reduce crop yields by a staggering 80 percent over the course of a season. As noted by bioethicist George Dvorsky:52
“Given recent predictions53 that parts of the U.S. could soon experience ‘megadroughts’ lasting for as long as 35 years (yes, you read that correctly), these results should serve as a serious wakeup call.”
Directly promotes ill health and chronic disease
Health statistics suggest the average toxic burden has become too great for children and adults alike. More than half of all Americans are chronically ill, and toxins in our food appear to play a primary role. According to Dr. Joseph E. Pizzorno,54founding president of Bastyr University, toxins in the modern food supply are now “a major contributor to, and in some cases the cause of, virtually all chronic diseases.”
A recent report55,56 by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics.57 which represents OB-GYNs in 125 countries, warns that chemical exposures, including pesticides, now represent a major threat to human health and reproduction. Pesticides are also included in a new scientific statement on endocrine-disrupting chemicals by the Endocrine Society task force.58,59
This task force warns that the health effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals is such that everyone needs to take proactive steps to avoid them — especially those seeking to get pregnant, pregnant women, and young children. Even extremely low-level pesticide exposure has been found to considerably increase the risk of certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Family Against Pesticides?
In order to reduce your exposure to toxic pesticides, you’d be wise to make some changes in your lifestyle choices. Here are just a few suggestions to help you get started.
- Eat organic foods. Look for organic produce and grassfed meats and dairy products. Investigate the farmers markets in your area and consider planting your own garden to supply produce through the summer months. Although buying organic foods may be slightly more expensive today, they help to reduce your overall health costs in your future.
- Go green in your lawn and garden care. You don’t have to give up a green lawn if you want to remove pesticides from your garden. However, it may take a season or two in order to get the growth you’re looking for.
- Talk with your school board about lawn care at your children’s school. Pesticides sprayed on the school lawn and play areas can increase your child’s exposure. You may be able to change how they care for the lawn when you educate the administration about the risks involved to the children.
- Play in a healthy environment. Before joining a golf club or playing frequently, talk with the course superintendent about the pesticides they use to control weeds and insects. Bring members together to request cleaner and safer lawn care. Talk to your city administrators about the care given to the lawn in your local parks. Educate them about the risks to adults, children and pets from pesticides.