Joining Together to Give Thanks As We Confront the Challenges Ahead – Beyond Pesticides

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(Beyond Pesticides, November 24, 2021) On Thanksgiving, thank you for being a part of Beyond Pesticides and sharing and contributing to the vision necessary to protect the web and fragility of life. We believe that there is no time like Thanksgiving to think about how we can more effectively join together as families and communities across divisions and different points of view to find a common purpose in protecting the health of the environment and all that inhabit it. Unfortunately, there are a host of pesticides, genetically engineered materials, and others in conventional Thanksgiving foods that not only impact human health, but threaten the environment. With far too many adverse health and ecological effects associated with toxic chemicals, organic practices are viable solutions to mitigate pesticide contamination and subsequent exposure. Read on as we consider the range of challenges we must confront, and the solutions that can bring us all together.
The Climate
As climate impacts grow, an increase in uses of synthetic pesticides in agriculture is likely — because of waning efficacy (pesticide resistance) of these compounds, and mounting pest pressure (i.e., increasing insect population and metabolism). Production of pesticides contributes to greenhouse gas emissions gas (e.g., nitrous oxide). In addition to synthetic fertilizers often used alongside pesticides in conventional agriculture, these products contribute to the heating of the atmosphere. Compared to the general population, farmworkers experience greater health risks from climate-related impacts like extreme heat and poor air. Farmworkers, and their families who live near production fields, already experience greater health problems from pesticide use than the average state resident. 
The world faces an existential climate emergency. It also is contending with crises related to: biodiversity and pollinator decline; chemical pesticides that cause disease; pollution of water bodies, waterways, and drinking water sources by tens of thousands of chemicals deployed into the environment; increasing resistance to medically critical antibiotics caused to great extent by their use in livestock industries; food systems rife with pesticide residues and compromised nutritional value because of soil maltreatment with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and harm to critical ecosystems that provide environmental services that support all life. As global warming associated with the climate crisis continues to melt glaciers, banned and current-use pesticides pose a risk to human and animal health upon release into the atmosphere and waterways. Lack of adequate persistent pesticide regulations highlights the need for better policies surrounding pesticide use. By contrast, organic agricultural strategies have been shown to increase significantly the carbon drawdown and holding capacity of soils in field trials. Read more from Beyond Pesticides about the relationship between agriculture and the climate crisis
Health
Going organic drastically reduces the amount of pesticide in a person’s body. Although Thanksgiving is generally no time to think about dieting, we’ll aim to make it instructive: recent research finds that one of the biggest health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet comes when you go organic. Compared to individuals on a Mediterranean diet filled with chemically farmed foods, those that ate organic had 91% lower pesticide residue. This finding is backed up by a considerable body of prior research.
A 2015 study based on self-reported food intake found that those who eat organic generally have much lower levels of organophosphate insecticide metabolites in their urine. Additional research published in 2015 conducted an intervention study with children, finding that switching children to an organic diet decreased organophosphate metabolites in urine by 50% and 2,4-D by 25%. Research published in 2019 found that switching to organic reduced urine levels of certain organophosphates by up to 95%, and dropped neonicotinoid insecticide levels by 83%. A 2020 study found that switching to organic reduced glyphosate levels in the body by 70% over just a one week period.
Pesticide levels in our body have important implications for children’s health. A 2013 study found that children with higher levels of pyrethroid insecticides in their urine were more likely to score high on reports of behavioral problems like inattention and hyperactivity. Many pesticides are also considered obesogens, which may modify an individual’s response to diet and fasting, and promote weight gain across generations.
On the other hand, recent data indicate that children who eat higher amounts of organic food score higher on cognitive tests measuring fluid intelligence and working memory.
Disproportionate Risk
The agricultural industry has a long-standing history of synthetic chemical use, which disproportionally affects farmworkers’ health. Farmworkers are at the greatest risk of pesticide-induced diseases, and their average life expectancy bears this out. According to the National Farm Worker Ministry, farmworkers have an average life span of 49 years, a 29 year difference from the general U.S. population. Individuals working with and around these toxic chemicals are more susceptible to the augmented effects associated with adverse health effects. Furthermore, farmworkers’ children are at greater risk as their immune system response is immature and especially vulnerable to stressors from pesticide exposure. Synthetic chemicals present in pesticides can accumulate in bodies, causing an amalgamation of health effects. These effects can range from heightened risks of various cancers (i.e., prostate, hepatic, liver, etc.) and endocrine disruption to mental health problems (i.e., depression), respiratory illnesses (asthma), and many other pesticide-induced diseases. However, pesticide exposure is ubiquitous and not only confined to a field. Although pesticide exposure through the skin or inhalation is most prevalent among individuals working around these toxic chemicals, the general population also experiences pesticide exposure through residues in food and water resources. To learn more about farmworker protection, please visit Beyond Pesticide’s Agricultural Justice page.
People of color and low-income populations are at higher exposure risk of environmental contaminants (i.e., pesticides) exposure that can catalyze adverse health effects, especially in urban areas. Many people of color communities or members of low-socioeconomic backgrounds experience unequal amounts of chemical exposure from various sources. Placement of toxic waste plants, garbage dumps, industrial factories, farms, and other hazardous pollution sources lowers the quality of life for minority populations. Such high levels of chemical exposure can cause these communities to suffer from health outcomes that affect their ability at work and in schools. Women of color are especially vulnerable to chemical exposure as a 2020 study comparing women of different ethnicities in the U.S. finds these women have higher levels of pesticides and their metabolites, including toxic DDE and 2,4-D. The presence of pesticides in the body has implications for women’s health. Studies suggest women are more susceptible than men to certain types of cancers (i.e., breast cancer) as several pesticides produce endocrine-disrupting effects. Endocrine disruption promotes the development of hormone-related cancers that affect women more than men. The connection between cancer and pesticides is of specific concern to communities of color, as etiological studies often attribute cancer to genetics or environmental contamination without considering the disproportionate risk of exposure to contaminants.
Current pesticide laws lack adequate policies that protect workers and minority communities from pesticide exposure. Risk assessments that calculate “acceptable” risks across population groups fail to disclose the disproportionate effects pesticide use has on people of color communities. Although EPA’s Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) establishes safety standards that use a “health-based” standard for pesticide regulation, there is an inherent assumption that if a pesticide meets a highly questionable “acceptable” risk threshold, it has value or benefit. However, this flawed assumption allows the use of unnecessary toxic pesticide products without regard for either the health effects of chemical interactions or the availability of safer, non-toxic practices and products. These standards ignore the disproportionate risk, for example, to African American children whose asthmatic conditions are caused or triggered by the exact pesticide products that meet health-based standards. Furthermore, federal pesticide laws that aim to categorize disproportionate harm allows elevated risk to workers, particularly farmer and landscapers who are predominantly people of color, who experience aggregate effects of pesticide exposure from multiple sources.
Pollinators
Pollinator population declines show no sign of stopping, and in many ways the crisis is entering a new phase. After over a decade of consistent losses in managed pollinators (2021 being the second to worst year ever), driven by acute and chronic exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides, many beekeepers are being forced out of their profession. And with wild pollinators, researchers are now seeing the devastation caused by leaving pollinator-toxic pesticides on the market despite overwhelming evidence of their hazards. The Rusty-patched bumblebee was officially listed as endangered, as were monarch butterflies, and the American bumblebee is now under listing consideration.
One in three bites of food rely on the tireless pollinating efforts of these small and mighty insects. Combine that with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assessments that pollination contributes between $20 and $30 billion in economic value to agriculture each year and you have not only a necessary link of the food production chain, but an incredibly economically valuable one as well.
Imagine if you will your Thanksgiving dinner without the help of this small but invaluable worker. That tangy and sweet cranberry sauce? Gone. Those crispy morsels of onion on top of the green bean casserole? History. Those honey-sweetened carrots? Extinct. And last but not least, the pumpkin pie and cup of coffee you somehow make room for in your stomach? A figment of your imagination. As strange as a Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie or any of these staples might seem, it is an all-too-real scenario we might face if pollinators are not protected. To stop this crisis, we must stop the use of toxic pesticides that harm these important species. Supporting organic agriculture, which never allows the use of neonicotinoids or other toxic synthetic insecticides, helps grow the market for pollinator-protective practices.
Ecosystems and Biodiversity
Since the 1940s, the ecological theory maintains that greater diversity promotes the stability of an ecosystem. An increase in toxic chemical use threatens human, animal, and environmental health, as well as food security. Ecological research already finds a positive association between plant diversity and biomass productivity in grasslands and meadows. In addition, a University of California, Santa Barbara study demonstrates that crop diversity in commercial agriculture is just as essential to supporting a stable biological system as plant diversity on non-commercial landscapes (i.e., grasslands/meadows). However, U.S. commercial agriculture has become more chemical-intensive in its management and less diverse. Commercial, chemical-intensive agriculture has implications on a much grander scale, as farmers more frequently apply pesticide treatments to larger, monoculture crop areas. A growing body of scientific research supports the finding that larger, monoculture croplands contain higher pest concentrations. These regions can foster specific pests that persist as they have ample quantity of the same food source, thus resulting in greater insecticide use. Perversely, monoculture crops induce biodiversity and pollinator loss as exposure causes harm to pollinators and other animals. Pesticides can drift from treated areas and contaminate non-commercial landscapes, limiting pollinator foraging habitat. Pollinator habitat destruction results in loss of species biodiversity and stable ecosystem processes that are integral to sustainability. If one competent of an agricultural system is unsustainable, then the entire system is unsustainable. Therefore, agricultural systems must commit to regenerative organic agriculture and land management to meet future sustainability goals and alleviate the effect these chemicals have on humans and wildlife.
Genetic Engineering
Over the last 20 years, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture has massively increased toxic pesticide, threatening human health and the ecosystems on which we all depend. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of dicamba, developed as a new GE crop due to widespread glyphosate resistance, is emblematic of an agency concerned more with protecting industry profits than following their namesake mission. The history of dicamba’s use in GE agriculture reveal this to be the case. In the mid-2010s, Bayer/Monsanto developed new dicamba-tolerant seeds and received approval to sell them from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To complete the package, EPA needed to approve a corresponding herbicide the company developed. It failed to do in the time frame Bayer/Monsanto wished, so the company urged farmers to plant its new seed, claiming it would increase yields. The results of this were predictable: farmers began to use older, unapproved dicamba formulations on their new GE seeds, and reports of drift damage began to spring up throughout the US.  Dicamba has a strong propensity to drift off-site and can defoliate other crops at very low levels. Rather than take regulatory action to stop illegal use, EPA and USDA sat on their hands while GE agriculture pitted farmer against farmer, neighbor against neighbor, in communities throughout the U.S.
But by the end of 2017, according to reporting from Reuters, state agriculture departments had received thousands of complaints, and scientists indicated over 3.6 million acres of non-GE soybean crops had been damaged by dicamba drift.
EPA tried to tweak the label of the herbicide to lessen the impact, while Bayer persisted in blaming farmers for using older dicamba formulations. The agency let Bayer write its own rules on drift procedures, undermining the independent scientist who worked closely with the company at the last second. This led to the agency reapproving the highly drift-prone herbicide for another two year stint. Environmental groups sued, and a court ruling resulted in a ban on certain dicamba herbicides used on GE crops. However, EPA responded by reregistering the chemicals anyway, endorsing continued strife in farming communities. Consumers are encouraged to put their food dollars into organic cropping systems that do not utilize synthetic pesticides or GE plants, and place pressure on EPA to reform its failed pesticide regulatory system.
Clean Water
Pesticide contamination in waterways is historically commonplace and widespread throughout U.S. rivers and streams, with at least five or more different pesticides present in 90 percent of water samples. Thousands of tons of pesticides enter waterways (e.g., rivers, streams, lakes, oceans) around the U.S. from agricultural and nonagricultural sources, contaminating essential drinking water sources, such as surface water and groundwater. Thus, Aquatic environments continuously encounter environmental pollutants and certain unmonitored toxic compounds exceed federal drinking water standards. Pesticide use should be phased out and ultimately eliminated to protect the nation’s and world’s waterways and reduce the number of pesticides that make their way into drinking water. Replacing pesticides with organic regenerative systems conserves water, nurtures soil fertility, reduces surface runoff and erosion, and reduces the need for nutrient input (i.e., fertilizers). For more information about pesticide contamination in water, see Beyond Pesticides’ article Pesticides in My Drinking Water? Individual Precautionary Measures and Community Action, where Beyond Pesticides states: “This problem requires individual precautionary measures and preventive, community-based action to protect [individual and public health] and ultimately, stop ongoing pesticide use that ends up in drinking water from numerous agricultural, public land, and home and garden use. Beyond Pesticides urges a solution that keeps pesticides out of the water, rather than trying to clean them up after they enter our waterways and drinking water supply.”
One of the ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protects human and environmental health is by regulating pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and point source pollution in waterways as regulated by the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. However, according to advocates, government and state agencies fail to uphold their responsibility to protect the public from toxic pollutants. Previously, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)-National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) has criticized EPA for not establishing sufficient water quality benchmarks for pesticides. This lack of monitorization is concerning for the health of vulnerable individuals such as infants/children, pregnant women, and the elderly or immunocompromised. These health issues range from kidney problems to an increase in various cancers. However, the ubiquity and persistence of certain compounds make it difficult to limit the number of toxicants that enter waterways, especially since aquatic environments continuously encounter environmental pollutants and certain unmonitored toxic compounds exceed federal drinking water standards. Many of the most commonly used pesticides in the U.S. are detectable in both surface and groundwater, which serve as drinking water sources for half of the U.S. population. As the number of pesticides in waterways increases, it has detrimental impacts on aquatic ecosystem health, especially as some chemicals work synergistically (together) with others to increase the severity of the effect. In addition to adverse health effects on marine organisms, these chemicals harm terrestrial organisms relying on surface or groundwater. The report, “Human Health and Ocean Pollution,” finds that the combination of nonpoint source chemical contamination from pesticide runoff can have an adverse synergistic effect on species’ health and ecosystem. Many of these chemicals cause endocrine disruption, reproductive defects, neurotoxicity, and cancer in humans and animals while being highly toxic to aquatic species. 
The Organic Solution
Beyond Pesticides has long advocated for healthier and more environmentally friendly pest management practices to protect the environment and wildlife. Organic agriculture is necessary to eliminate toxic chemical use that threaten so many aspects of human and ecosystem life and ensure the long-term sustainability of food production, the environment, and the economy. Organically managed systems support biodiversity, improve soil health, sequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. There are claims that organic agriculture cannot sustain global crop production. However, scientific studies argue organic yields are comparable to conventional and require significantly lower inputs. Additionally, some pesticide levels in the human body reduce by 70% through a one-week switch to an organic diet. Therefore, purchasing organic food whenever possible—which never allows glyphosate use—can help curb exposure and resulting adverse health effects. Learn more about how consuming organic products can reduce pesticide exposure and the harmful health and environmental impacts of chemical-intensive farming produces. For more information about organic food production, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Keep Organic Strong webpage. To learn more about how organic the right choice for both consumers and farmers, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage on Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture. 
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
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