It’s been 53 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ in which she described the detrimental effect of indiscriminate pesticide use on the environment. Carson was concerned about the use of DDT to fight malaria and other insect born diseases and because of the dangers to the environment and human health. Its use today is heavily regulated and restricted.
It’s been 50 years since pesticides became a main staple in ‘conventional’ agriculture. According to a recent report by Greenpeace* 'millions of tons and hundreds of types of synthetic chemical pesticides’ are applied every year in what the report calls agriculture’s ‘pesticide addiction’.
The global market for pesticides is still growing, says Greenpeace, and just six companies account for a whopping 76% of global pesticide sales. Switzerland-based Syngenta and two German companies, Bayer CropScience and BASF, have a market share of just over 50%; the other big players are the US companies Dow AgroScience, Monsanto and DuPont. These companies tell farmers how much to use if they want good yields. The report explains the concept of the ‘Treatment Frequency Index’ which gives the number of pesticide applications for individual crops in different countries per growing season. For German apple orchards this means 32 full doses of pesticides per growing season.
That you are not eating poisoned fruit every time you bite into a conventionally grown apple has to do with the fact that crops can’t be sprayed during a certain period (depending on the crop) in the run up to harvest. But the Greenpeace report makes it quite clear that we need to think about where pesticides end up because they don’t just vanish – DDT, as we now know, has a half-life of 6200 days. That means it would take 16 years for it to drop to half its initial value. According to the report, pesticides don’t just stay in the soil, from there they leak into groundwater, lakes and rivers. They harm fish and amphibians. Pesticides drift with the wind when they are sprayed; they wash off crops when it rains. They don’t discriminate between 'bad' and beneficial insects. Fewer pollinators, like bees, have a negative impact on yields. Insects that are eaten become part of the food chain, passing on their chemical load to harm birds and other mammals. ‘European data (...) suggests a widespread decline in the diversity of wildlife species’, says the Greenpeace report.
What about the regulators? Pesticides need to be approved, but the report concludes that ‘Europe is failing to effectively regulate chemical pesticides’. One reason is that regulators only approve the active ingredient in a pesticide – and that active ingredient (like Glyphosate) is defined by the chemical company. But here’s the problem: pesticides are sold as formulated products and contain lots of additives which in combination with, say, glyphosate, make the product on the shelf far more toxic than glyphosate would be on its own. Regulators also don’t study the impact of chemical cocktails of more than one pesticide, nor do they look at the build-up of pesticide residue. And, most worryingly: ‘Not one authorisation has so far been withdrawn because of the endocrine disruption threat and, despite the very serious human health risks involved, standardised methods for quantifying such properties are still under discussion'.
The Greenpeace report comes up with a long list of recommendations from overhauling the regulatory controls of pesticide risk assessment to shifting the whole agricultural system towards sustainable methods including: crop rotation, good soil management to improve fertility, use of beneficial insects, increasing biodiversity, breeding for disease resistance. In other words: what’s needed is for 'conventional' farmers to 'go organic', The Greenpeace report clearly states that ‘introducing fiscal measures discouraging the use of pesticides and promoting the implementation of ecological farming’ is an essential step. But how likely is it that there will be enough political will to do just that?
That’s where we as consumers come in. I don’t know a single farmer who likes dousing his fields and orchards with chemicals. Farmers know how toxic pesticides are and the risks they take spraying it. But they farm to make a living. By buying more organic fruit and vegetables, bread, milk, eggs and meat we can create the demand that will give more farmers the opportunity to switch to organic practices. Yes, organic produce is often a little more expensive than conventional produce, but most people will be able to afford some organic produce. Apples might be a good fruit to start with. Imagine how many insects, earthworms, frogs, birds, mice and hedgehogs you spared the fate of being sprayed 32 times with pesticides with your lunchtime apple.