MARCH 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 3
R E V I E W
Breaking the Pesticide Habit
by Justin Castillo
In October of 1988, the National Toxics Campaign released Shadow on the Land: A Special Report on America's Hazardous Harvest. This report describes the economic and ecological damage caused by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals; calls for reform of the use of pesticides; and presents a two-stage plan to help American farmers end their costly and inefficient chemical dependency. It introduces alternatives which will produce better, safer crop yields at lower cost. The report also identifies the organizations which, because they profit from and support the status quo, oppose reform.
The report's critique is not new. When Rachel Carson, wrote Silent Spring 26 years ago, she pointed out that the development of synthetic chemicals, especially pesticides, marked a dangerous turning point in the world's relationship with the environment. Her observations remain valid today.
Because pesticides are often inefficiently and wastefully applied, they quickly spread to outlying areas. Crop dusting by airplanes is criminally inefficient: only 25 percent of the chemicals hit the crop, leaving the remaining 75 percent to blow away. Once sprayed into the environment, pesticides can wash into rivers, leach into the soil, accumulate in the food chain and poison people and wildlife. According to Shadow on the Land, 99.99 percent of all pesticides ultimately fail to reach the pest.
Less than a decade ago, ground water supplies were considered invulnerable to pollution because experts claimed that pesticides would break down and become harmless. In 1979, however, the pesticide aldicarb was discovered in the groundwater of Long Island and later in the groundwater of Florida, Wisconsin and other states. The contamination was initially blamed on mishandling, but it soon became clear that everyday use of pesticides threatens ground water. The latest EPA figures indicate that groundwater in 24 states is tainted by one or more of 22 different pesticides. In some rural areas of Iowa, 70 to 90 percent of rural farm wells contain pesticides.
Pesticides also contaminate food. Nearly every American unknowingly consumes fruits, milk and vegetables tainted with potentially dangerous pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals, some of which cannot be removed by washing. According to a study released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1987, carcinogenic pesticide residues may cause as many as 20,000 additional cases of cancer per year. This figure, which translates into 1.46 million additional cases of cancer in the United States over the next 70 years, makes pesticides as great a cancer threat as asbestos or radon.
According to the NAS report, the main cancer danger comes from 15 foods which are treated by a few highly toxic pesticides and which form a large part of the average American's diet. They are, in order of danger: tomatoes, beef, potatoes, oranges, lettuce, apples, peaches, carrots, chicken, corn and grapes. Tomatoes alone account for 15 percent of the total dietary risk from pesticide residues because they are treated with four of the most dangerous chemicals. It is no wonder, then, that the EPA considers pesticides in food one of the most pressing health and environmental problems facing Americans today.
Pesticides also threaten the lives and health of farm workers and of people who live near fields which are sprayed. After 75 farm workers were sprayed with aldicarb while harvesting grapes, Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, organized a nationwide boycott of table grapes. During the summer of 1988, Chavez conducted a 36-day hunger strike to publicize the plight of workers who are exposed to pesticides.
In California's San Joaquin valley, one of the most fertile and heavily cultivated areas in the world, pesticides are killing people. Seven percent of the pesticide use in the United States is in the 250-mile long valley, which constitutes only 1 percent of the country's cropland. The heavy use of chemicals there has injured many of the valley's 2 million inhabitants. In February of 1988, a California state task force studied the diet and working conditions of the people in McFarlane, a town in the San Jose Valley. The task force concluded that pesticides were probably linked to the town's unusually high rates of cancer, stillbirths, low birth weights and other health concerns.
A costly future
In addition to the significant health risks, there is another problem with the heavy reliance on pesticides: they simply don't work. Between 1940 and 1974, crop losses due to pests remained at a steady 30 percent even though pesticide use skyrocketed during that period.
Heavy pesticide use fails for two reasons. First, the pests targeted can develop their own natural counter-measures to poisons faster than new pesticides can be developed. "The ingenuity of chemists," noted The Economist, "is no match for the versatility of evolution." For example, 450 species of insects are now resistant to DDT. The Colorado potato beetle can develop resistance to a new pesticide in less than a year. Farmers then must resort to new, more lethal (and often more expensive) chemicals. But these too become ineffective quickly, since many pests can develop immunity to different classes of chemicals. Second, the side effects of the chemical often cause as much ecological damage as they prevent because pesticides invariably kill non-target species. Although insects are finding a way to survive the chemical onslaught, biologically complex animals at higher levels of the food chain, such as birds and people, cannot adapt so readily.
Farmers' heavy reliance on chemicals imposes crushing economic burdens on the producer and, ultimately, upon the consumer. According to Shadow on the Land, U.S. farmers spend $10 billion per year on pesticides and fertilizers. One-third of the cost of growing an ear of corn is spent on chemicals. To break this hazardous and costly dependency, Shadow on the Land presents a two-stage program for making the transition from high- to low-chemical agriculture.
The first stage transcends purely environmental issues and enters the debate about the nature of the farm crisis. It seeks to reduce abuse of farmland by using less chemically-oriented cultivation methods over larger acreage. Current farm policy attempts to curb farm output by paying farmers to reduce the amount of land they have in production, not the number of bushels produced. Chemicals offer farmers a way to circumvent these limits, albeit at a cost, by using vast quantities of chemicals to increase yields on the acreage which remains in cultivation.
Shadow on the Land argues that it is more sensible to actually set limits on the amount produced yearly, letting the farmers set the price. The report acknowledges that there are problems with this approach. Critics charge that it is simply a way of letting farmers form a nationwide cartel. But the authors of the report observe that tax savings from reduced farm subsidies would exceed the higher prices consumers would have to pay under the plan. In other words, the American public ends up footing the bill one way or another, and an environmentally sound option will be less costly in the long run.
The second step in Shadow on the Land's program is to reduce the amount of chemicals farmers use through techniques such as integrated pest management (IPM). IPM uses a combination of preventative, non-lethal and alternative pest control methods to handle bugs, fungi, weeds and other nuisances.
IPM approaches pest control from a broader environmental perspective than traditional pest control methods. In the late thirties, before the development of substances such as DDT, farmers used crop rotations, pest-resistant crop varieties, weather and natural controls to manage pests. IPM blends those effective methods with the carefully-controlled application of some chemicals to form a more effective and efficient pest management strategy.
With 1PM, natural predators such as birds may be introduced to control insects. In addition, the growth of the insect population may be limited through the release of sterile males which will mate with female insects, and produce no offspring. According to the 1978 edition of Environmental Quality, IPM can and should also be used for home gardens and lawns, which receive higher doses of chemicals per acre than any other type of land in the United States.
Shadow on the Land offers additional strategies for reducing chemical use. It calls for tougher pesticide laws, increased testing of domestic and imported food to detect pesticide residues, educating consumers about the health dangers of pesticide residues and providing incentives for farmers who make the transition to low-chemical agriculture.
But Shadow on the Land recognizes the barriers to implementing a low-chemical strategy. Low-chemical agriculture has encountered broad institutional opposition, especially from groups that benefit from the status quo. Wasteful use of chemicals has a large and powerful constituency. Lenders who are anxious about crop yields make their farm loans conditional on the use of chemicals. Many USDA extension officials actively discourage low-chemical agriculture. Agricultural universities have a strong bias toward high chemical agriculture because the need for chemicals provides research and development opportunities. The pesticide industry, which has made billions of dollars developing and selling bug-, weed-, and other pest-killers, also has a vested interest in seeing consumption of its products continue to climb steadily.
Farmers are also part of the problem. Over the past 40 years, many have become accustomed to using vast amounts of chemicals, and they may resist adopting new techniques. Cash-strapped farmers may lack the re-sources to make investments in terracing, wind-breaks and other things needed to make low-chemical agriculture effective.
Shadow on the Land presents a compelling analysis of the chemical problem and of the forces resisting change. In the 26 years since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, agriculture's substance abuse has worsened. Citizens and farmers must take action to change the status quo. Consumers must demand that their grocery stores sell pesticide-free food and that their government protect them from the harm which chemicals pose to our air, water and food. Farmers must fight the banks and chemical companies which push chemical use and must demand that the USDA and state universities work for, rather than against, low-chemical agriculture. Unless we take action, Shadow on the Land, like Silent Spring, will be just another unheeded warning and the poisoning will continue.