Should we still be using pesticides on food?
This research paper seeks to ask if food corporations should still be using pesticides on food. The debate on this topic is that pesticides are safe on food and their consumption, while the opposition is that pesticides are unsafe for the farmer to be in close contact, and unsafe for the consumer. This paper takes the position that organic food—those that are not sprayed with pesticides—are not affected by pests or suffer any consequences without spraying pesticides. Moreover, this paper points to the most substantial objections to the argument and refutes the notion that pesticides are at low levels in the food we eat, that organic food in the United States is not any better as far as health, and refute that pesticides prevent crop loss. The paper concludes on a summary of the positions taken within the paper and alternatives to pesticides.
Pesticides are widely used in modern agriculture with the purpose of preventing pests that eat and destroy crops, thus the pesticides kill pests to prevent crop loss (Chouinard, Firlej, & Cormier, 2016.) In fact, the purpose of pesticides is to kill, which has been the most common method (Chouinard, Firlej, & Cormier, 2016.) Alternatives to pesticides will be discussed in the conclusion, but the message in this paper is not to discourage anyone from eating fruits and vegetables—even if they’re not organic or do not comply with the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. Furthermore, this paper encourages everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables than any other food, but this paper is also encouraging the public to demand better quality (not quantity) of food. Below is an outline of myths made about pesticides and the excuses adopted which will be further refuted.
There are low levels of pesticides in the food we eat is the first argument discussed in the paper that will be refuted. All around us there are different levels of various chemicals, carcinogens, toxins, and heavy metals in the air, water, soil, and food, but that doesn’t excuse the continued use of pesticides on food. Karen Congro (2012) found that apples and celery have the highest levels of pesticides at 40 and 64 different pesticides. Even “blueberries are sprayed with 52 pesticides, including boscalid and pyraclostrobin, which are toxic to the human liver and thyroid and can irritate the skin in high doses” (Congro, 2012, p. 30.) Sweet peppers, strawberries, and pears have significant traces of various pesticides and all contain more than 10 hormone disruptors (Congro, 2012.)
Furthermore, much of the research known about food is that plants absorb the participles in the air, water, sun, and soil. Thus, harvested plants will contain the pesticides that are sprayed on them, and reabsorbed in the plant by the pesticide residue in the water, air, and soil. Robin Mathers (2015) in The Threats from Genetically Modified Food contends that due to run off, even pesticides used by home gardeners affect habitats. For instance, with the recommended application of Roundup of home gardeners, one study found that the pesticide was responsible for the death of 86% of the frogs studied in one day (Mathers, 2015.) The same study found that 98% of tadpoles were killed as well—even at a third of the recommended application of Roundup. Thus, this ingredient and the other chemicals found in pesticides are widespread, reaching across all states, especially rural areas, which will continue to have devastating effects on the environment we share with other life.
The active ingredient Glyphosate in pesticides are widely used among other companies (Mathers, 2015.) Consequently, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide has been “linked to birth defects in birds and amphibians, cancer, endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental damage in mammals, even at very low doses” (Mathers, 2015, p. 92.) Once the Roundup is applied around the food crops, the pesticide residue leaks into the soil and water affecting various habitats and life (Mathers, 2015.) Eight international studies showed that the Glyphosate in pesticides caused malformations in animals (Mathers, 2015.) Danny Hakim (2016) in Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, agrees that there are developmental affects linked from pesticide exposure. Hakim (2016) states that Roundup contains a chemical 2,4-D, which is found in Agent Orange—a chemical weapon used in the Vietnam War. Although this says little to the understanding of how these chemicals are used—the fact is, the purpose of Roundup is to kill weeds and other pesticides are used for killing other life. The act of killing is a paradigm in our culture—whether it’s the food system, or the prison system.
Additionally, we know that the method of spraying pesticides, are not always reaching the weeds or crops, and instead disperses in the air. Jane Goodall (2005) in Harvest for Hope says that 0.1% of applied pesticides only reach the target pests. Thus, the chemicals are dispersed in the air, environment, frogs, and other innocent bystanders which can cause malformations (Goodall, 2005.)
Organic food in the United States is not any better than nonorganic is one of the arguments that takes a more defensive approach. Some research has found “chemical, botanical, microbial, physical, predatory, parasitic” killing agents are present in both organic and conventional cropping system (Chouinard, Firlej, & Cormier, 2016, p. 13.) Even if the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 is a myth, that does not invalidate the argument that pesticides should not continue to be used. Even though there may be little nutritional difference in organic and conventionally grown produce, organic foods still reduce consumer’s exposure to pesticides (Congro, 2012.) If organic and nonorganic food crops are not nutritionally different and have no difference in health risks (Congro, 2012), this is a call for attention of the overall problems with the industrial food system. Farming has become mechanized into an industrial system, disconnecting us from a relationship with how food is grown (Pollan, 2008.)
Consequently, Steve Savage of “How Wrong Is the Latest ‘Dirty Dozen List’?” states that of the 2.2 million rows of information in Excel covering pesticides of food commodities, the analytical techniques used by the scientists detected less than 1% of the rows had traces of pesticide residue. That percentage equated to 15,450 rows of foods that detected pesticide residue (Savage, 2013.) Additionally, Savage states that there were only 0.18% of pesticide residues found that were higher than the EPA tolerance for all 21 commodities tested from 2011—half of which were 100 times lower than EPA’s conservative tolerance levels. Both Savage (2013) and Congro (2012) agree that there is still little to no long-term research conducted on organic farming.
The EPA (2016) has a list of pesticide research studies under the “Guidance for Human Health Risk Assessments for Pesticides”. But this is not a list of potential research on the safety of pesticides in food and the environment and the potential effects this may have. Instead, the research studies are proper methods, standard operating procedures, risk and exposure assessments, establishing alternative approaches, and recommended exposure to pesticides (EPA, 2016.) But once again, continual research will need to be reviewed from independent studies on the safety of pesticides.
Again, the food science ends up missing the big picture of how food crops should be grown. As Michael Pollan puts it In Defense of Food, the food science culture sells nutrition while undermining the food culture. The food science industry that claims the safety of GMOs and pesticides, also use chemical fertilizers to grow plants more quickly. This is a triad of questionable scientific methods of growing food. Despite the safety claim, this is not a true understanding of the complexity of plants and how are body processes the chemicals or nutrition in those plants. The safety of pesticides on humans aside, there is a link between pesticide use and the degradation of the environment and habitats, thus the health of the soil, plants, and animals are all connected (Pollan, 2008.)
Pesticide use prevents crop loss is one of the most substantial objections to the argument. Notice that weeds are continuing to build up a resistance to pesticides, to what we call a ‘superweed.’ Thus, more pesticides must be sprayed on the weeds, which reaches the food crops. Additionally, pests like insects are also building a resistance to pesticides (Goodall, 2005.) Likewise, when pesticides are overused, bacteria in the soil also becomes resistant (Goodall, 2005.) As mentioned, Glyphosate is the active ingredient in pesticides that are widely used throughout the world, which potentially is a predisposing factor of disease and toxins on plants (Mathers, 2015, p. 92.) The ingredient could significantly cause plant diseases, instead of preventing crop loss. In fact, two Purdue scientists contend that the ingredient potentially could increase various plant diseases while impairing plants’ defense of pathogens (Mathers, 2015, p. 92.) Likewise, pesticides can immobilize soil and plant nutrients, rendering them unavailable for plant use (Mathers, 2015, p. 92.)
The United Nations found that the US and Canada have not increased their crop yields per acre of food compared to France and Germany that are reducing their pesticide use (Hakim, 2016.) In fact, the US and Canada have not increased crop yields, nor have they attributed to a reduction in pesticide use which was the promise of genetically modified foods (Hakim, 2016.) According to the United States Geological Survey, the use of toxins killing insects and fungi have fallen by a third on crops like corn, cotton, and soybeans from two decades ago in the US (Hakim, 2016.) This is promising in a sense, but, the use of herbicides have increased 21% from two decades ago in the US (Hakim, 2016.) What’s worse, herbicides are used at much higher volumes, while France has decreased the use of insecticides and fungicides by 65%, and herbicides by 36% (Hakim, 2016.)
Food corporations is a similar mechanized system that packages food from a mechanized agriculture system. But the system is not efficient in the sense that food reaches all people—and in fact the system is so mechanized, that there is food waste while there are starving people. So the argument to continue to use pesticides because it prevents crop loss is for one inaccurate, but also does not count for the many crops that are lost in between the farm and to the community considering there is food waste. How is pesticides solving this systematic issue? And let’s be clear, when we talk about the world’s crop harvest overall, almost half is fed to animals to be fattened and eaten (Goodall, 2005.) How is pesticides fixing this system?
Alternatives to pesticides include simple methods such as exclusion barriers such as netting and garden cloths (Chouinard, Firlej, & Cormier, 2016.) Another alternative is Permaculture methods where self-pollinating and perennial crops are used with an emphasis on biodiversity. Biodiversity builds a stronger resistance to plant diseases, pathogens, and pests. Some people know that strong and healthy plants (ones grown in compost) are able to resist pests because they have built a health immunity within the plants. Actually, it is the weakening of the plants that attracts pests because the plants put off hormones that signals when they are dying, and either other plants aid the plant by exchanging nutrients, or pests attack the plant to feed.
Consequently, the use of pesticides will only increase as weeds become resistant to the pesticide, thus there will be higher levels of pesticides in the foods we eat. Additionally, the cost of food will increase as the use of pesticides increase. Potentially this could hurt farmers that must buy their own pesticide products. Based on the success of France Germany that have reduced pesticide use, the US potentially will have similar success considering our food system is increasing in crop yield while using spraying more pesticides. Although the US is reducing insecticide and fungicide use, herbicide use has increased by 21%. Once again, the research is divided on the safety of pesticides in the environment (soil, habitats, water, air,) animals, and humans. However, we do know that pesticides are not necessary, costly, and potentially are linked to much of the environmental degradation along with the many harmful industrialized methods of the modern food system.
Chouinard, Firlej, & Cormier. (2016). Going beyond sprays and killing agents: Exclusion, sterilization and disruption for insect pest control in pome and stone fruit orchards. Scientia Horticulturae, 208, 13-27.
Congro, K. (2012). The Argument for Organic Food Lies Beyond the Nutrients. Alternative Medicine, (7), 29-30,32.
Goodall, J., et al. (2005). Harvest for hope: A guide to mindful eating. New York: Warner Books. Chapter Three.
Hakim, Danny. (2016). Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops in The New York Times.
Mather, Robin. (2015). The Threats from Genetically Modified Food in FOOD: A READER FOR WRITERS by Aquiline, D., & Holdstein, D. H., p. 86-99.
Pollan, M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater's manifesto. New York: Penguin Press.
Savage, Steve. (2013). “How Wrong Is the Latest ‘Dirty Dozen’ List?” Science 2.0. ION Publications LLC.
US Environmental Protection Agency. (2016). Guidance for Human Health Risk Assessments for Pesticides. Web. https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-science-and-assessing-pesticide-risks/guidance-human-health-risk-assessments-pesticides#expsoure