For more than 10,000 years, humans have adopted agricultural practices through literal blood, sweat and tears, and have furthered these practices to meet the ever-increasing demand for food.
With demand for food growing larger due to population growth and other factors, agricultural practices had to, naturally, become more sophisticated and creative.
From this pressure came pesticides. Spawning a new era of operations, pesticides allowed the agriculture industry to control things that weren’t possible before, including: insects, weeds and diseases. This ended an age of these threats destroying once healthy and thriving crops, ultimately benefiting both consumers and producers. But, this pivotal shift resulted in overcropping, which at the time was a seemingly good problem to have for both parties.
Of course, the term ‘overcropping’ now has the necessary negative connotations needed for us to learn. Things such as chemical resistance from pests, nutrient depletion and soil erosion, public health impacts and many more alarming phrases having arised due to this commodification of agriculture via pesticides.
Within agricultural land use areas, herbicides are the most common type of pesticide found in streams and ground water. The most common contaminants found in these streams include atrazine and its breakdown product. Within shallow groundwater areas, the most common compounds include atrazine and DEA.
Now, I realize the names of these pesticides sound scary, and they are. But without boring you in the chemistry, all you need to know is that studies have shown the breakdown products of these chemicals are more commonly found in agricultural groundwater than the chemicals from which they derived from.
Also, compared to herbicides, insecticides were less frequently found in most agricultural streams, and it makes sense that streams are cleaner than groundwater given their constant movement rather than it being sedentary groundwater. But also, this is a result from their relatively low application rates and rapid breakdown in the environment.
Because of this finding, we knowingly understand that groundwater use in agriculture is more dangerous than using streams, yet, they are still being used towards the products that we later consume.
And, again, this is only agricultural land use areas. The use of pesticides in urban land areas is much more alarming and complicated, but here is the sparknotes version.
Urban Pesticide Usage – even scarier
The pesticide compounds found most often in aquatic bed sediments that reside near urban areas, and their fish, are related to major groups of insecticides that were heavily used in the 1960s.
Organochlorine compounds that are related to DDT and dieldrin were widely used in both agricultural and urban areas, but mainly they were spread in urban areas. Along with this, the herbicides found in our urban water communities, the most common consist of atrazine, metolachlor, simazine, prometon, 2,4-D, diuron, and tebuthiuron.
But, once more, these chemicals probably don’t mean much to you, unless you loved high school chemistry. What you should know is all of these are commonly used in nonagricultural settings for maintenance of roadsides, commercial areas, lawns and gardens.
This is a concern for all of us urban residents within the United States, and for our local aquatic communities. This contamination affects downstream water supplies, creating a very real possibility of harming recreational users of these aquatic areas, and their residing wildlife.
In conjunction with the non-local farming practices contaminating our water which threatens our food supply, use of pesticides in urban areas also threatens things like summer swimming in a local lake and other seemingly small activities. This is all due to the general unjustifiable pesticides practices allowed by our government.
Both agricultural and urban areas’ use of pesticides creates the possibility, which is currently happening, for us to later consume these pesticides in one way or another, from the moment the chemicals touch water; water that we recreationally use or water which is later used on the food we consume.
Public Health Impacts – *another word for still scary*
Over 100,000 people a year are affected by pesticide poisoning.
Inhalation, most commonly for agriculture workers working in fields with pesticides.
Dermally, which is the most common route of pesticide exposure when the skin comes into contact with the pesticide(s).
Ingestion, likely when individuals unknowingly consume pesticides.
All of these exposures have some type of effect on the human body. The most acute of the effects are irritation of the throat or nose, burning or itchy skin, blisters, nausea and dizziness, while the most chronic effects are, unfortunately, cancer, tumors, nervous system damage, brain damage, birth defects, and infertility.
Along with this already huge injustice that individuals must live with is the fact that these disparities impact vulnerable, lower-income and minority populations the most.
A public health study on racial disparities regarding disease burden and their related costs from exposure found that levels were significantly higher among non-Hispanic Black Americans and Mexican Americans, as compared to the total population. This is likely a result from these population groups, typically, residing closer to these agricultural land areas where the water, air, food, etc. is most contaminated.
So what can we do?
With the aid of research and raising awareness, we now understand that one of the best ways to minimize the health impacts from pesticide and herbicide usage does not come from better lawn practices or minimizing our water consumption, but that our choice of foods actually goes a long way in combating this issue.
Additionally, and more practically, this nonprofit group releases an annual list of the Dirty Dozen, which enlightens individuals on common grocery store products that contain the most amount of pesticides.
In 2021, the list was:
Bell and hot peppers
While this is worrisome to anyone who consumes produce, the Environmental Working Group does more than just spark paranoia; they also release their annual list of the Clean Fifteen, which contains the produce that are the ‘least contaminated,’ including:
Sweet Peas (frozen)
On top of this amazing work and list that the Environmental Working Group does on our behalf, the organization provides further resources for us, and prospective, conscious consumers, my favorite being the Pesticide Residue Calculator.
This calculator is made by The Alliance for Food and Farming that shows the quantity of produce an individual would have to consume in order to reach the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) minimum risk threshold.
The Power of Us… and Companies – more soothing
Grocery stores and other large scale corporations are starting to understand that customers are becoming more conscious in their shopping habits. As a result, these stores are appropriately responding to the now commonly held concerns regarding the quality of their products.
Whole Foods is trying to avoid, and even combatting, pesticide use in their products. The grocery store has created a unique program called Whole Foods’ Responsibly Grown that established their stores to “prohibit specific pesticides that have been identified by scientists as high risk but are commonly used in conventional agriculture today.”
Other stores that are actively trying to meet their shoppers’ demand for organic produce include Albertsons, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, Target, and Walgreens.
On top of this cultural shift away from pesticide use, Whole Foods, Target, Wegmans, and Costco grocery stores have publicly stated that they are taking measures to expand U.S. production of organic food and to better ensure support for their organic farmers.
Officially, organic farming is not yet as widespread as ‘conventional’ agriculture, yet it offers significant environmental and health benefits. Plenty of alternative pest, disease, and weed management strategies exist and are all growing bigger as more research is done on these topics.
Many resources exist for farmers transitioning to organic farming and for people who want to take action. From well-established nonprofits to emerging groups with modern platforms, there is plenty of organized support available for those who want to help our agriculture system evolve to safer and more sustainable practices, and I personally look forward to seeing the day come.
What do you think about pesticides? Are they a necessary evil, or can we progress our agricultural industry through other means? Are there initiatives that were missed in this article that you have seen at your local grocery store? Let us know!
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