In food everyday it’s hard to avoid chemicals. They seem to be in everything we eat as they started as a base part of raising the crops that make these foods. However, it’s not impossible to avoid chemicals with so many organic options. These organic options can be a lot more expensive and difficult to find. Many are willing to pay the price and avoid possible negative effects from chemicals, but others are left wondering if pesticides and other chemicals are really as dangerous as people make them out to be.
Deb Thummel, who is the owner-operator of a farm in Sheridan, Missouri, says that it’s not really necessary to avoid chemicals such as pesticides, as long as they’re used responsibly. There’s a certain time and amount for pesticides to be use and a crop’s yield and profitability are negatively impacted if the pesticide isn’t used correctly. There’s also an economic threshold that needs to be considered before using pesticides.
The economic threshold is how much the crop can tolerate a pest before it is negatively affected, Deb explains. It’s important to consider this threshold to get the best use out of chemicals like pesticides without using too much or applying them at the wrong time. If a pesticide is applied at the wrong time or in the wrong quantity, it results in economic loss to the producer, increased probability of pests and weeds becoming resistant, and possible harm to helpful bugs. When used correctly, pesticides and herbicides greatly increase the yield and profitability of the crops.
When asked how farmers could ensure they were using a safe pesticide, Deb responded the best bet was to consult a professional. Otherwise, there is too much of a risk that the pesticide is unsafe or inefficient and will result in a loss to the producer of the crops. Professionals can eliminate the guesswork of comparing chemicals because they already know what the safest and most efficient chemicals are.
Next Ed McCreary, who works in Mount Ayr, Iowa, was interviewed. His job is to inspect chemicals and fertilizer samples. When asked how a chemical is deemed safe or unsafe, he said tests are run with human breathing and ingestion experiments to ensure that people could safely be around the chemicals. These tests can be referred to when making sure a chemical is safe before buying it, and can help people like Deb Thummel to find the right pesticide or insecticide for their farms. He was also asked if all chemicals were somewhat dangerous. His response was that some were completely safe for people. If that is true, then why do some people go out of their way to find “organic” food?
Karrie Rea, a health enthusiast here in Michigan, argues that all chemicals can cause health problems. When asked about the negative side effects of pesticides, Karrie said that pesticides become toxic build up in the blood and tissues. They take a very long time to break down, having half lives between 20 and 25 years. In many studies, people that came into exposure with chemicals had an increased risk of cancer later in life, though it is not proven that it was the pesticides that caused the cancer. She went on to give an example of a common pesticide that was proven to be dangerous. Glyphosate is found in every water supply in the country and in almost every food or drink that isn’t labeled as organic. The company that owns it, Monsanto, recently fought and lost a court case to prevent their product from being labeled as carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. However, the carcinogenic label barely deters people from using glyphosate and the pesticide is still very prevalent today. She was also asked if she thought avoiding foods treated with pesticides and herbicides was necessary, based on the cons to chemicals that she gave. Her answer was a definite yes, and she mentioned that along with possibly causing cancer, pesticides also have been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. “Our health is much too important to sit back and not ask questions about where our food comes from,” she said.
Next, Karrie answered the question of how a person could make sure they weren’t eating something with chemicals in it. She responded that anything labeled as organic is safe, but if it isn’t organic then it definitely contains pesticides. If a food is labeled as “natural”, it is likely to still have pesticides in it. The most assured way to find organic foods is to buy from local sources and go to farmers’ markets whenever possible. Buying from these dependable sources also supports the farmers so they can continue to produce food without the use of pesticides and herbicides.
Finally, Karrie explained her views on the importance of pesticides. She said that she doesn’t believe they should even play a role in agriculture. Farmers have been raising organic crops long before the invention of pesticides and some have continued raising organic crops even after the invention. Raising crops with pesticides is the easiest way, she continued, but it isn’t the only way and it certainly isn’t the right way. While Karrie raises some valid points, there are some other factors to look at from the farmer’s perspective that cannot be ignored. First, there is the issue of carcinogenic pesticides. The subject is very difficult to study because other unknown factors could cause cancer and mess with the data. Many pesticides don’t seem to be carcinogenic right now, but more research is required to come to any sort of conclusion on the matter.
Next, it’s important to take a closer look at the economics behind organic farms. According to an analysis based on a 2008 USDA report written by Ph.D Steven Savage, only 0.58% of US farmland is organic. It seems that because organic food is not grown in many places, farmers can raise the prices of their products. However, if there was a large scale shift to organic farms, these higher prices would have to be lowered to stay competitive as organic food would be the new norm.
Organic farmers do tend to make more money than farmers that use pesticides and other chemicals, but only a small amount more because of how much lower their yield is. The paper also reported that in a hypothetical transition to organic farms, the US farmland would need to be increased by 39% to turn out the same yield it could make with conventional farms. This lack of efficiency, combined with a lowering of prices, would ruin the farming economy. Without pesticides, the business of agriculture as a whole would collapse. So although at least some pesticides are dangerous, they play a necessary role in agriculture that cannot be ignored. According to the findings of a study that started in 1993 and is still being expanded on today, farmers are at a higher risk for certain forms of cancer such as prostate cancer. However, these findings aren’t linked to pesticides and other chemicals in the study. The study only reports that accidental exposure to large concentrations of pesticides may affect health later in life. The research also indicates that simply wearing chemical-resistant gloves can reduce exposure to pesticides by 50–80%.
This study shows that though there are risks to using pesticides, the risks are not as high as people think. As long as pesticides are used with caution and the correct protective gloves, farmers aren’t too negatively affected by pesticides and herbicides. However, people still worry that these chemicals are in the food they eat and can give them health issues. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service published a 2015 Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary that could alleviate some of these concerns.
The summary reported that in 2015, over 99% of the samples tested were quite a bit under the pesticide residue level established as unhealthy by the EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency. The report claims to have tested over 10,000 food samples. There is a rigorous testing program in place to ensure that nothing is able to slip past and harm American consumers.
Chemicals can be difficult to avoid, but it isn’t impossible to keep them away from one’s diet. However, the idea that it is necessary to avoid pesticides and other chemicals in the first place is questionable, and many aren’t willing to spend the extra time and money to stay away from something that may not be very harmful. Pesticides and herbicides aren’t entirely safe. However, there are many cautionary actions that farmers can perform to reduce risks to themselves, their crops, and those who will buy their crops. There are also many steps that agencies like the EPA are taking to ensure that the American food supply is safe. Consumers can also take precautions by eating more organic foods, but it may not be necessary to eat only organic food.
Pesticides are important to the business of agriculture, and when used with caution they are more helpful than harmful.