Farming with Pesticides and Why we Shouldn't Use Them
Farming with pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers? See this excellent article and perhaps you may reconsider why you should use them.The Food RevolutionRebecca Bloch
Agriculture is one of the top polluting industries. Industrial farmers dependence upon chemical fertilizers forces agriculture to be the industry with the highest use of petroleum based products worldwide. Pesticide use is the most harmful agent in farming practices to date. Instead of using biological and cultural methods to reduce pest population, farmers have moved towards spraying their field with chemical components to kill off any crop predation.
When pesticides were introduced, it seemed like a miracle cure for a battle that had been taking place between farmers and pests. A pest is loosely defined as a plant, animal or insect that competes for food, invades fields, or is a nuisance to the farmer. A pesticide can be an insecticide, herbicide, fungicide, nematocide (nematodes are arthropods that live underground and feed off of the root matter of plants) or rodentacide.
Major pest control use began in 1939 when entomologist Paul Muller discovered DDT. This substance was distributed worldwide to farmers, and it was not until much later that scientists discovered the abominable affects it had on humans as well as other life forms.
Since 1950 pesticide use has risen more than 50% and chemicals used today are 10 times as toxic as the originals. Today, pesticides are mainly composed of Organophosphates, Carbamates and Botanicals. Chlorinated Hydrocarbons such as DDT are still used in developing countries. These substances are toxic, persistent in the environment and mostly broad-spectrum agents, which mean they damage or kill most species they come in contact with.
Less than 2% of crop sprayed pesticide reaches the target pest, and less than 5% of sprayed herbicide reaches the target weed.
Pesticide use has devastating effects on many trophic levels. Today, pesticides and their deadly residues, are found in air, surface water, groundwater, bottom sediment, food and non-target organisms including humans and wild life. In fact, less than 2% of crop sprayed pesticide reaches the target pest, and less than 5% of sprayed herbicide reaches the target weed. The rest of the chemicals may end up on your dinner plate, in the air, water and soil, to persist for many generations to come.
Pesticides & Pests
Application of pesticides are harmful to biodiversity as a whole. They often wipe out the natural pest predators that controlled the pest population for thousands of years. To date, 100 of the 300 most destructive pests in North America are secondary pests, created by the use of pesticide. The insecticides wiped out their natural predator so these other insects developed the ability to invade with no biological control agent. Pests have short generation time, coupled with the incredible ability for species to mutate (as discovered by Darwin over 150 years ago), resulting in new generations of pests (plants, animals, insects, microbes) becoming immune to the pesticide. Stronger applications of pesticides are then required to suppress the pest population.
Approximately 1000 agricultural pests, 220 weeds and 230 plant diseases, are now immune to pesticides.
The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental policy organization in Washington, D.C., reports "…despite a tremendous increase in the use of pesticides since 1950, the percentage of crops lost to pests has stayed roughly the same. In the United States, where pesticide use has increased 10 times in the last 50 years, the share of crops lost to pests actually increased from 30% to 37%."
Pesticides & Human Health
Pesticides have devastating human health effects. Through bio-accumulation and with humans at the top of the food chain, we ingest the highest rate of pesticide concentration. Approximately 165 active ingredients approved for pesticide products are known human carcinogens. A recent US National Academy of Sciences’ study estimated pesticides in food cause 1.4 million cancer cases in the U.S.
A Natural Cancer Institute study showed non-organic farmers have 6 times greater risk of contracting cancer than non-farmers and over 1 million people are poisoned by pesticides annually in North America. The most significant cancers associated with pesticides are uterine, prostate and breast cancer, and leukemia and brain cancer in children. Studies also show the relation of pesticide exposure to genetic mutations, birth defects, nervous system disorders, immune and endocrine malfunctions.
Organic food is grown without synthetic or artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fumigants, growth regulators, antibiotics, preservatives, dyes, additives, chemical coatings or irradiation. Growing food organically, for sustenance gardening or larger scale retail, is a viable alternative to the degrading cycle in which many farmers find themselves.
Organic farming does not allow the use of these pesticides. When we farm organically, or support organic farmers, we reduce the exposure to chemicals on many levels. On an anthropocentric view, we are protecting ourselves from ingesting these harmful byproducts of food production. We are also supporting a healthier work environment for the farm owners and laborers.
Organic farmers have fields with diversified habitats that support pest predators, such as perennial plant refuges, micro-habitats, pollen and nectar plants, insectory plants and plants with high aromatic content that were found to naturally deter pests. They encourage beneficial soil microbes by using good composting practices; this reduces the need for chemical fertilization. For high production organic farmers, there are new natural pesticides derived from soaps, oils and plant byproducts that deter massive outbreaks on a need only basis.
There have been numerous success stories when farmers resign from their addiction to chemicals, and move towards more integrated systems of crop management. One example occurred 15 years ago, when the rice fields in Indonesia were plagued with pesticide-resistant brown plant hoppers. After much research and consultation the government eliminated $100 million in annual pesticide subsidies, banned 57 pesticides and started a comprehensive Integrated Pest Management program for farmers throughout the country. Since then, pesticide use has decreased by 60% and the annual rice harvest has increased by 25%.
Another problem with industrial farming is the high use of chemical fertilizers. During the boom of agricultural science, people found that using chemical fertilizer could reduce the amount of labor it took to support plants with the nutrients they needed for optimum yield.
Nutrients needed in the highest doses for agricultural crops are nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. Mining industry, biological and chemical extraction enabled agro-industry to provide these products but the extraction and use is known to require the highest petroleum output of any industry. What farmers and industry did not predict were the negative ecological effects these products would have on the environment.
Since industrial fertilizers come in chemical form they cannot integrate properly into the soil. In fact, they deteriorate soil life itself. Chemical fertilizers can deplete the hummus of a soil in a single generation; it can damage or deteriorate the soil structure, which leads to erosion.
Over 3 billion tons of topsoil is lost annually due to non-organic farming methods such as chemical fertilization in Canada and the US.
Soil Nutrient Depletion
Ironically, chemical fertilizers can lower the overall nutrient content in the soil. Furthermore, if an application of fertilizer does not integrate into the soil matrix; it rapidly leaches out of the soil. Since farm practices have deviated from integrated application, the soil has lost much of its overall fertility.
The International Food Policy Research Institute released a study showing that 40% of the world’s agricultural soil is seriously degraded due to erosion and nutrient depletion from chemical fertilizer and salinization due to excessive irrigation. Over 3 billion tons of topsoil is lost annually due to non-organic farming methods such as chemical fertilization in Canada and the US. Pesticide and fertilizer contamination in groundwater has affected the drinking water supply in most states and provinces.
To farm organically one must create ecologically diversity in the field, resulting in a diversity of crops for the local community.
These 'agricultural advances' have created a farming industry where farmers spend more on production cost than they receive in income. The technology of these products reduces the need for physical labor, but they create a net economic loss for the workers of the world. Furthermore, industrial agriculture forces communities to only grow one crop. The poverty and inaccessibility to a diversity of crops leaves the farmers themselves starving.
Organic farming deals with the finances of this paradigm both practically and ethically. To farm organically one must create ecologically diversity in the field, resulting in a diversity of crops for the local community. Because chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not accepted it relies on labor-intensive practices such as hand weeding, composting agricultural waste and tending to livestock for manure. Since much of organic agriculture is a poly-culture method, farmers cannot depend on one machine to harvest the entire crop.
A five-year scientific study from Washington State University concluded that organic food is more financially profitable for farmers internationally than industrial farming. Dr John Reganold led a team of scientists who compared systems of growing apples in experimental plots. The study measured the sustainability indicators of soil quality, horticultural performance, orchard profitability, environmental quality and energy efficiency. They reported that "…escalating production costs, heavy reliance on non-renewable resources, reduced biodiversity, water contamination, chemical residues in food, soil degradation and health risks to farm workers handling pesticides all bring into question the sustainability of conventional farming systems."
The study also found that the impact on the environment was 6.2 times greater with industrial versus organic methods. Additionally, the organic orchard was more energy efficient and required less water per apple produced. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide costs were eliminated and less water was consumed, giving direct savings to the cost of production. Finally, using an independent amateur tasting panel, they found that the organic apples were firmer and sweeter. This advantage allowed the farmers to command a higher market price for their product.
The Food Revolution
By growing food organically we are literally changing the agro-business system. We are giving the power back to the farmers to work at the rate that the land needs to produce food naturally. The more support for the industry, the more viable it will be for farmers to grow their crops. Farmers can work for the good of the environment as well as make a living without being indebted to the agro-industries that supply all the unnecessary inputs to the system of farming. It is in itself a revolution.
We are taking back the power to feed ourselves, without damaging the life systems that support us. Growing and purchasing organic products is an investment in the future. The money one is spending goes to promoting a human labor force and systems that do not degrade the environment. In fact, the biodiversity needed to support an organic farm can be seen as a net gain of biodiversity for the entire planet.
It is that simple. The more support for organic agriculture, the more opportunity for labor to be used, landscapes to be salvaged and a return to homeostasis on earth.
Simple Guide to Organic Gardening by B. Sherman.
Organic Agriculture Economic and Ecological Comparison With Conventional Methods by R.C. Oelhaf.
Living In the Environment Thirteenth Edition by G. T. Miller.
101 Benefits of Organics: www.hgof.ns.ca
The Green Revolution A Step Forward?: www.mindfully.org
The Gardener’s Table by R. Ortiz Merrill.
One Straw Revolution An Introduction to Natural Farming by M. Fukuoka
Growing Food Organically by J. B. Harrison
Introduction to Permaculture by B. Mollison
Rebecca Bloch is an organic farmer living on Salt Spring Island, Canada.
Source: The Green Muze
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