Often times, people fail to consider pesticide contamination before they eat their meal. Many foods, from spinach, to strawberries, or even steak, contain pesticide residue. This is because synthetic chemical pesticides were created in the 20th century as a weapon to kill bugs that interfered with the levels of food production. However, the oversight of pesticide regulation has had a detrimental effect on the environment, causing human health problems; further damage can only be prevented by increased regulation.
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Pesticides were created to protect crops and increase produce yields; but over time they have developed into a threat on the environment. There have been many attempts to regulate pesticide usage, but none have been extremely effective. For example, the Federal Insecticide Act of 1910 was the first pesticide legislation enacted, and it was created to protect farmers of any potential deception from the manufacturers of the arsenic-based pesticide. Yet, the Federal Insecticide Act of 1910 did not intend to regulate the use of pesticides, and the extent of the pesticide problem started here. More recent regulation includes when “President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law as an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The Chemical Safety Act requires EPA to evaluate existing chemicals and establish new risk-based safety standards, but it does not mandate that EPA, states, or regulated entities perform cumulative risk assessments” (Williamson). Furthermore, the new acts impose new standards, but it did not include ways to enforce them, which makes a majority of current legislation, like the Chemical Safety Act, inefficient. The lack of effective regulation makes the already dangerous chemicals even more dangerous. This is shown through the common use of Methyl Iodide, a known carcinogen, which was approved by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR). The chemical is injected into soil before planting, in an attempt to exterminate weeds along with plant diseases. Many researchers argue that “the decision of the CDPR was made against the advice of the state Scientific Review Committee. They claim that the use of the pesticide could lead to serious groundwater contamination problems as well as a health problem for those on the front lines, namely those workers involved in strawberry planting and harvest” (“California” 66). The use of Methyl Iodide is just one example of a toxic pesticide that is permitted due to the current ineffective system of pesticide regulation. The widespread use of pesticides leads to an increased risk of environmental pollution and harmful effects on humans.
The use of pesticides in large amounts can cause agricultural pollution. The pesticides can effectively contaminate the soil, air quality, and water supply. Similar to how mustard gas contaminated the air in World War II, many pesticides that are sprayed on a field can spread through air currents; “More than 90 percent of pesticides used in California (including non-agricultural pesticides) are likely to drift, and roughly a third of those are highly toxic to humans” (Cook 36). The pesticide drift can leave residue in the surrounding areas, potentially reaching the organic crops and leaching into water sources. A majority of the United States’ water supply comes from groundwater, that is potentially at risk for contamination. For example, a study concluded that “ in California, state regulators detected pesticides in 95 of 100 locations in the Central Valley [surface rivers and streams]. More than half of these sites exceeded safe levels for aquatic life and drinking water consumption” (Cook 35). Although the contamination is unintentional, a single drop can be polluted and the water can transport pesticides where they were never meant to go. This poses a threat to communities that get their water supply from the groundwater with potential pesticide exposure. According to a study by Cornell University, “[Pesticides found in groundwater supply] typically occur in trace levels, and the concern is primarily for their potential for causing chronic health problems. Measurements are made of the incidence of cancer, birth defects, genetic mutations, or other problems such as damage to the liver or central nervous system” (Trautmann). Stricter legislation needs to occur because even the effects of minor pesticide exposure can be extremely dangerous. Moreover, the effects of a person that comes into direct contact with pesticides can be more detrimental to their health.
Many farmworkers are directly affected by unintentional pesticide poisonings each year. Through the Pakistan Journal of Agricultural Sciences, scientist Muhammad Ali Tarar created a study to demonstrate the effects of pesticides on farmer’s health. He randomly selected 160 random farmers in Pakistan and measured the frequency and quantity of pesticides that they were exposed to. The results explain that “the majority (83.8%) of the respondents said that they have often experienced any health problems after the application of pesticides” (Tazar). An analysis of the study’s data showed an association between farmers experiencing respiratory disorders and exposure to pesticides. Moreover, it highlights the negative effects of the overuse of pesticides and the lack of regulation for protective gear. Like war troops on battlefields, farmworkers are the ones who come into direct contact with these chemicals. However, they are not the only ones who face health concerns from working in the fields. Due to the lack of sanitary regulation, many of the chemicals can remain on farmer’s clothes, skin, or hair. Pesticides are then potentially distributed into the households of farmworkers, or nearly anyone else they come into contact with. According to the study, 72% of the farmer’s family members often feel sick because of pesticide use (Tarzar). This demonstrates how pesticide usage has led to many dangerous and unintended effects, and more effective regulation needs to be placed into legislation to attempt to reduce the effects.
Stricter regulation needs to occur to limit the detrimental effects that pesticides can have on the environment and human health. Current regulation under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows pesticides to be temporarily allowed on the market without complete toxicity tests under conditional registration. As reported by the EPA, amicarbazone was granted conditional registration in 2013 (“Status of Conditional Registration”). It is used as a pesticide in corn fields, but is often found in the meat of animal byproducts. Conditional registration provides loopholes for companies to put potentially harmful pesticides on the market without testing. This means that consumers are unaware of any toxicity, and could purchase corn or meat that contain traces of amicarbazone. It becomes more dangerous as it is a highly soluble chemical, which contributes to a risk of it leaking into the groundwater, and therefore raising human health concerns. This puts consumers at risk from unintended pesticide contamination, and people often do not realize the health risk that they are taking. Pesticides, like amicarbazone, pose a dangerous threat to human health, but the oversight of government regulation that allows the pesticides, is a large contributor to the problem.
Although the best solution to reduce the effects that pesticides have had on the environment and human health would be to get rid of pesticides entirely, it is almost impossible due to the stakes pesticides have on the economy and food production. Therefore, legislation needs to be created that limits pesticide use and mandates a transition to organic farming. The legislation must hold agencies, like the EPA, accountable to prevent loopholes and put a stop to the issue. Pesticides play a crucial role in boosting agricultural output and providing food security, however, organic farming can still compete against pesticide farming. According to a study done by the University of California, Berkeley, “organic yields were 19.2% lower than conventional [pesticide] yields” (Ponisio). Even though organic farming produces fewer crop yields, it is not a critical amount that could jeopardize food security. Moreover, it is more imperative to adopt sustainable agricultural practices that do not harm humans or the environment. The best solution to effectively reduce pesticide use is to implement strict limitations on pesticides for agricultural use can aid the transition to organic farming. This proposition is ambitious and will require time to implement, which is why other agricultural diversification practices need to be adopted.
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In the meantime, a simple and sustainable solution for the reduction of pesticides could be crop rotation. Crop rotation is a method of farming that plants different crops on plots of land throughout different seasons. This method is proven to have many benefits as it “substantially reduces the yield gap (to 9 ± 4% and 8 ± 5%, respectively) when the methods were applied in only organic systems” (Ponisio). Although critics may argue that it is more labor intensive and requires more time, the benefits of crop rotation outweigh the costs as it can improve crop yields while reducing pesticide use. In fact, farms in Iowa have already started to rotate their crops. Upon analysis, researchers found that for crop rotating farms in Iowa, “herbicide use was reduced by 25 to 51 percent and herbicide runoff in water was reduced by 81 to 96 percent” (“Rotating Crops”). Crop rotation can be a great method of organic farming that has proven to provide a safe way to reduce pesticide usage in ways that do not jeopardize food security. It is one of many viable solutions that could replace the overuse of pesticides in farming.
Ultimately, pesticides were synthesized as a solution for pest control. However, many bugs and insects have developed a resistance to the pesticides, making them ineffective and requiring stronger chemicals. It is ironic how the “solution” has become a part of the problem. The chemical warfare against insects has been what seems like an endless cycle, and the environment has been collateral damage. The problem will only continue to rise if not properly managed, and pesticides should be strictly limited to promote organic farming and stop what seems like a pesticide arms race.
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- Trautmann, Nancy, and Keith Porter. “Pesticides: Health Effects in Drinking Water.” Pesticide Safety Education Program, Cornell University, psep.cce.cornell.edu/facts-slides-self/facts/pes-heef-grw85.aspx.
- Williamson, Bryan. “Rethinking Chemical and Pesticide Regulation.” 6 July 2017, https://www.theregreview.org/2017/07/06/williamson-rethinking-chemical-pesticide-regulation/.
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