Conventional farming has a staggering chemical addiction. Over 20,000 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can find their way into our food and water systems, all with the government’s approval. Agricultural chemicals are nothing new, however. Ancient Sumerians used elemental sulfur in crops, while arsenic and lead were used in medieval farms. In 1939 Dichloro-Diphenyl-Tricholoethane (DDT) became the most-used insecticide worldwide, kicking off the current pesticide era. By the early 1970s, however, DDT was banned for potentially hazardous human health effects.
Pesticide production and use didn’t end with DDT, though. In fact, it proliferated and the use of synthetic pesticides has increased more than 33-fold in the past 50+ years. Today, over one billion tons of pesticides are used in the U.S. every year, with about 2.5 billion tons used worldwide.
While there are more than 20,000 chemicals registered with the EPA, just know that hundreds more are added each year. The EPA, incidentally, tests, approves and establishes “tolerances” or maximum residue levels of pesticides. Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors pesticide levels on fruits and vegetables, while the Department of Agriculture (USDA) checks pesticide residues in meat, eggs and dairy products. (They are probably keeping pretty busy, too, because there are literally tons of pesticides around.)
Pesticides don’t stay just where they’re applied, though. Cornell entomologist David Pimentel says, "It has been estimated that only 0.1% of applied pesticides reach the target pests, leaving the bulk of the pesticides (99.9%) to impact the environment." Unfortunately, these chemicals have not only made their way into our farming practices, but have also infiltrated our health. That includes animals, people, land, waterways and plants.
Here’s an example: 37% of the world’s grain and 66% of U.S. grain is used for livestock feed—grain grown by conventional farming methods using enormous quantities of pesticides. The grain may also be genetically modified to withstand direct pesticide application or may be bred to contain pesticides in their genetic makeup. When animals eat this grain, residue builds up in the animals’ fatty tissue. Then we eat the meat and dairy products from these animals and are exposed to the toxins.
The chemicals are showing up, too. Many Americans carry high levels of pesticides in their bodies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the average American child between the ages of six and 11 carries four times the acceptable levels of pesticides called organophosphates which are known to cause neurological damage.
These kids aren’t alone. A 2004 analysis of CDC data revealed that 100% of blood and urine tests from all subjects they monitored showed pesticide residues, with two insecticides—chlorpyrifos and methyl parathion—at levels up to 4.6 times more than what the U.S. government says is acceptable.
It would be one thing if any of this was working, but, ironically, estimates say that more of the U.S. food supply is lost to pests today (37%) than in the 1940s. Total crop losses from insect damage alone have nearly doubled from 7% to 13%, and four primary crops—soybeans, wheat, cotton and corn—receive 73% of the pesticides in the U.S.
The truth is that chemical pesticides are known to cause poisoning, infertility and birth defects, nervous system damage and cancer, so you’ll want to avoid them. A starting point is to go organic. Over 3,000 high-risk toxins, including pesticides, are, by law, excluded from organic foods. What’s more is scientists from the CDC, the University of Washington and Emory University discovered that pesticide levels in those tested dropped to undetectable levels when they ate an organic diet. When the subjects went back to their conventional, non-organic diet, however, pesticide residues became detectable almost immediately.
It’s time to get this right. Our nation’s agricultural chemical dependency needs rehab—and soon.