A study released last week by the National Research Council reported that we know more about how excess calories and fat cause cancer in humans than we know about how pesticide residues on our food, or the naturally occurring substances in fruits and vegetables cause cancer in us.
The spin put on the story by the media is that we don't have to worry about pesticides on our food, at least as far as cancer is concerned. I imagine this spin was encouraged by the chemical industry's well-funded public relations machine.
The report, however, seems to be filled with uncertainty and with calls for refinement of research techniques. Nine years ago another committee of the National Research Council found that almost half of the insecticides, over 60 percent of the herbicides and most of the fungicides used to grow our food are oncogenic, or tumor-producing. Pesticides themselves, if not low levels of residues, have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and other diseases.
Should we worry about pesticide residues in our food? If we are healthy, eat a well-balanced, varied diet, and are only worried about ourselves and cancer,perhaps not. If we consume too much fat and too many calories, they'll probably give us cancer before the pesticide residues do.
However, the study didn't look at non-cancerous effects. Pesticides act in many different ways. Some of them mimic hormones such as estrogen in our body.
There are certainly other details that scientists can and probably will study and argue about for years. Whenever the scientific debate gets too thick, however, it's good to step back and look at the bigger picture, in this case, the whole life cycle of pesticides. Then we realize, that even if their residues on our food were good for us, we wouldn't want to use pesticides.
Pesticide residues didn't just appear on that broccoli or in those strawberries. The pesticides had to be made somewhere, like in Naugatuck, Wallingford or North Haven, for example, where large piles of toxic wastes are enduring monuments to pesticide manufacture there. These toxic landfills pollute surface, ground and drinking water. They are very expensive to clean up. (And, I doubt that those factories were ever very healthy places to work.)
Once manufactured, the pesticides need to be sprayed on the crops to be useful. (Food crops may be treated with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and soil sterilizers while they are growing, as well as with post harvest fungicides before they go to market.)
Less than one percent of the pesticides applied actually reaches the intended pests. The toxic chemicals fall on the ground and on the parts of the plants which are left in the field. Pesticides are blown around by the wind and carried away in the water. They even pollute the rain. Agricultural chemicals applied to crops have polluted wells in Connecticut, on Long Island and around the world.
Methyl bromide, used in large quantities in California to sterilize the soil for strawberries, carrots and grapes, may not appear on the food, but it rises up to destroy the ozone layer, fostering our children's skin cancer.
Most of the pesticides kill more useful or harmless organisms than harmful ones. They leave behind a greatly diminished ecosystem with just a few species which become resistant to the chemicals which have been used.
Farm workers are the people most seriously affected by toxic-chemical use.Their workplace exposure causes many serious health problems.
Looking at the big picture, our concern with pesticide residues in our food seems trivial. The damage pesticides cause is much more serious and long-lasting than any cancer we could get. And, the primary result of all that pesticide use is the enormous quantities of cheap food which make it very easy for Americans to get cancer from eating too many calories and too much fat.
Fortunately, the problems with farm chemicals, the advantages of using natures' methods, and peoples' desires for organic food, are causing big changes in agriculture.
Farmers, gardeners and researchers are learning how to work with nature to build healthy agricultural ecosystems with predators in balance with pests and diseases resisted by the healthy plants growing in fertile soil.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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