The Dangers of Conventional Farming

By Sonya Welter
Spraying Pesticides

Prior to the 1940s, all food was grown more-or-less organically, although the regulatory organization did not exist in the United States until 1990. While civilizations have been using pesticides for centuries … in ancient Sumer, they dusted elemental sulphur on their crops in 2500 BC, and in the 15th century farmers used naturally-occurring toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead to control pests and disease — these methods were expensive and provided inconsistent results, and so they were used infrequently. Modern pesticide use exploded after 1939, when the powerful insecticidal properties of DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) were discovered by Swiss scientist Dr. Paul Hermann Müller (he would later be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery). Initially used to combat insect-bourne diseases like malaria, typhoid fever and dysentery, its use during World War II saved the lives of countless soldiers and war refugees.

After the War, in August 1945, the United States approved DDT for agricultural purposes and use skyrocketed, even though very few tests were done as to its long-term safety for humans and other warm-blooded animals, or for the ecosystem. Soon it became apparent that DDT was killing more than just the targeted pests: earthworms ate leaves with trace amounts of DDT and collected the chemical in their body fat, and the robins who ate those earthworms died; crustaceans in waterways absorbed DDT from the mud, and fish ate the crustacean and birds like gulls, eagles and osprey ate the fish, and as a result produced fewer eggs and eggs with abnormally thin shells. Eventually, DDT-resistant strains of mosquitoes, houseflies, and other insects began appearing and stronger applications would be needed to control the target insects. The chemical was already proving to be far more toxic than ever anticipated, and entire species were threatened with extinction. Its use was finally banned in the United States in 1972, following the publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson. (It is still legally used in many Third World countries today, often to control malaria.) Despite being banned over thirty years ago, the use of DDT was so widespread and the chemical is so insidious that most Americans … even those born after 1972 … have traces of DDT stored in their body fat.

And DDT is far from being the only synthetic pesticide out there, and today’s chemicals aren’t necessarily much better. Today there are over 1,600 kinds of pesticides available, with over 4.4 million tons applied worldwide each year. We have more safety precautions in place now, but it is impossible to know the long term effects that synthetic pesticides have on human health and the environment. The EPA estimates that as many as 6,000 new cases of cancer each year are pesticide related, and pesticides are also suspected to contribute to asthma, diabetes, liver problems, neurological disorders like Parkinson’s Disease and weakened immune systems.

Some pesticides can be washed off by the consumer, but more often they are absorbed into the plant and are impossible to remove (this is especially true of foods with a higher water content, such as leafy greens or berries). Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers also leach into the groundwater, contaminating drinking water and creating dead zones in lakes and rivers where no aquatic plants or animals can survive. Amphibians like frogs, with their extremely permeable skin, often experience grave mutations as a result of contact with pesticide residue. The populations of many bird species are threatened today, either as a result of direct poisoning from pesticides, or because pesticides are removing their food source … insects … from the environment; an estimated 67 million birds are killed each year as a result of pesticide use.

Pesticides also destroy the microflora and fauna that keep soil healthy and stable; without them, soil quality quickly degrades and the land is more susceptible to erosion. Worldwide, topsoil is currently being eroded ten to forty times faster than it can naturally be replaced, and over the last forty years 30% of all arable land has become unproductive due to erosion.

And the chemicals aren’t even doing their job: despite pesticide use increasing 33-fold between 1945 and 1990, we still lose about 37% of our crops in the US to insects, fungus or weeds … essentially the same amount since before World War II. Like an addict seeking a fix, we have to spray more and more to get the same result. This is partly because pests naturally develop a resistance to the chemicals, but also because farming practices have become increasingly less sustainable, and unhealthy conditions invite pests.

Livestock operations are even worse for the environment. Animals are kept in crowded, filthy, unhealthy conditions, without access to the outdoors and often without even any freedom of movement, and are pumped full of antibiotics as a quick fix against the inevitable respiratory diseases from poor ventilation and infected sores from constantly rubbing against their too-small pens. They are also often given artificial growth hormones, like the controversial rBGH and rBST, to produce more meat or milk in less time. These hormones and antibiotics are still present in the meat, dairy products or eggs that the animals produce, and they very likely have effects on human health. Factory farms keep large numbers of animals in very small areas, and so they produce huge amounts of waste … 250,000 pounds every second in the United States … that pollute the soil and groundwater