An Oct. 21 Viewpoint discussed the potential impacts a ban on pesticides would have on our everyday life, including our food supply.
The writer stated that although the chemicals in question are toxic and poison, there is more to the story. There certainly
is, but not for the reasons stated. There has been a considerable amount of research into the negative effects and unintended costs of pesticide use, which is a common part of modern agriculture. It is important to separate domestic use of pesticides for roach and rat control, for example, from agricultural use of pesticides, which, in fact, account for 85 percent of total pesticide use. Although pesticide use has become a near constant in conventional U.S. agriculture (More than 500,000,000 kilograms a year in the United States alone - that is more than 1 billion pounds.), there was no discussion in the article of the broader costs and the litany of negative side effects.
Much of the content of the article appears to be paraphrased from the CropLife America website, a strong pro-pesticide lobby group, and was intent on alarming the consumer of pending shortages and high prices for food without pesticides.
This should be balanced by an assessment of the indirect costs associated with high usage of chemicals in our environment, which is provided by the research of scientist David Pimental from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. His 2005 study of pesticide use provides some sobering statistics on the environmental and economic costs of pesticide use. The potential impacts even with presumably properly used and regulated pesticides include: public health (acute and chronic poisonings), pesticide resistance in pests, crop losses associated with pesticide applications, nontarget loss of animal life (birds, bees, etc.), and ground and surface water contamination. It is worth noting that resistance within crop pests is one of the biggest impacts on crops as resistance has led to the use of even more pesticides.
The writer includes organic agriculture as a user of pesticides. While organic farmers do, on occasion, use insecticides and fungicides, organic farmers do not use herbicides - period. We use cultivation practices, cover crops, mulch, crop rotation and a variety of techniques to manage weeds. We do not use synthetic chemicals to manage weeds. Most of the herbicides used for weed management also take a toll on the soil microbial life. It is this life that is the glue, literally, that keeps erosion of soil to a minimum. The widespread use of herbicides contributes dramatically to soil erosion of agricultural land, which is 10 to 100 times faster than the rate of soil production. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once opined, "A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself."
There is a substantial difference between an organic pesticide and one used by chemical or industrial agriculture. Organic pesticides are natural concentrates of plant extracts or microbes. They are derived from natural sources and thus can be assimilated back into the natural environment with limited to no toxic effect after application. This contrasts entirely with synthetic pesticides and herbicides, which are compounds that the natural world has never seen before and which have unintended consequences in the environment, including humans. Endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, cancer, etc., are associated with many synthetic pesticides, and this is what people are worried about. Additionally, many of these compounds may persist in the soil for long periods of time after application and be redistributed into the broader environment. This is not the stuff that organic farmers use, so let's not use the term organic to try and legitimize the use of synthetic pesticides.
While pesticides may be a key part of modern agriculture, our collective population would benefit from integration of diverse agricultural practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, mechanical weed management, etc., that would reduce pesticide use and the negative side effects. Pimental has suggested that yields would actually increase and side effects would be greatly reduced by a 50 percent decrease in pesticide use.
Agriculture can only be considered sustainable if it moves away from the toxins and poisons and views itself as a part of the global or island ecosystem - and treats it with respect.
* Gerry Ross is an organic farmer and owner of Kupa'a Farms in Kula. He also is a former board member of the Maui County Farm Bureau.