Since before 2000 BC, humans have utilized pesticides to protect their crops. The first known pesticide use in food was elemental sulfur dusting used in ancient Sumer about 4,500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. By the 15th century, toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead were being applied to crops to kill pests. Until the 1950s, arsenic-based pesticides were dominant. Paul Müller discovered that DDT was a very effective insecticide. Herbicides became common in the 1960s, led by triazine and other nitrogen-based compounds.
During the 1940s manufacturers began to produce large amounts of synthetic pesticides for use on food and their use became widespread. Some sources consider the 1940s and 1950s to have been the start of the “pesticide era.” 2.5 million short tons of industrial pesticides are now used each year.
Environmental Effects of Pesticides in Food
Pesticide use in food raises a number of environmental concerns. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species. The air, water and soil in the treated area are all at risk. Pesticide drift occurs when pesticides suspended in the air as particles are carried by wind to other areas, potentially contaminating them. Pesticides are one of the causes of water pollution, and some pesticides contribute to soil contamination.
In addition, pesticide use on crops reduces biodiversity, reduces nitrogen fixation (inhibits plant growth), contributes to decline of pollinating insects, destroys habitat (especially for birds), and threatens endangered species. Pests can develop a resistance to the pesticide, necessitating a new pesticide. Alternatively a greater dose of the pesticide can be used to counteract the resistance, although this creates a circular problem of stronger resistance, stronger pest.
The heavy pesticide use in the United States can now be found in our bodies.
- 93% of Americans tested by the CDC have a neurotoxic insecticide in their urine.
- 99% of Americans tested positive for DDT, which was banned in 1972.â¨Women who were exposed to DDT as girls have a 500% higher chance of developing breast cancer.
How can the American government allow the use of pesticides in our food supply? Europe has a health-protective cautionary approach to the manufacture of food, as opposed to our government that treats chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty.” It can take decades before we ban a chemical from being used and by then it’s too late. Our EPA sets limits on the maximum amount of a particular pesticide that can be found on each food item, but there is no limit on the number of different pesticides found in food. Children exposed to pesticides have increased chances for ADHD, autism as well as future chances for reproductive cancers.
The good news is that in 2009, farmers grew $24.8 billion dollars worth of organic produce. We need more governmental support for this type of sustainable farming to help bring prices down so everyone can afford organic produce. More good news, when a child’s diet was switched to organic food, within days pesticides became undetectable in their urine samples.
If you have an iPhone, there is an app to inform you of the risks of different types of produce and what health issues could be a result of the pesticides on those foods. Go to WhatsOnMyFood.org and download the app to iTunes. Some examples of what you’ll find:
- Aznphos – a neurotoxic insecticide was found on 65% of pears.
- 97% of domestic catfish contain DDT.
- 48 different pesticides are found on spinach. 5 of them can cause cancer.
People have been trying to protect their crops with the use of pesticides for centuries but it is only in the last 6 decades that we’ve gone overboard and developed chemicals that aren’t found in nature. These chemicals “kill everything”, both the good bugs and bad. As obesity and illness rates climb ever higher, we need to reevaluate what pesticides are in our food supply and how we should avoid them.â¨