That’s the headline for last Tuesday’s New York Times column by food writer Mark Bittman.

Bittman says he wrote the column for three reasons:

“I was impressed by a statement by the American Association of Pediatrics— not exactly a radical organization — warning parents of the dangers of pesticide and recommending that they try to reduce contact with them. The accompanying report calls the evidence “robust” for associations between pesticide exposure and cancer (specifically brain tumors and leukemia) and “adverse” neurodevelopment, including lowered I.Q., autism, and attention disorders and hyperactivity. (Alzheimer’s, obviously not a pediatric concern, has also been linked to pesticide exposure.)

This reminded me of recently disclosed evidence showing that pesticide exposure in pregnant women may be obesogenic — that is, it may cause their children to tend to become obese. The mechanism for this is beginning to be understood, and it’s not entirely shocking, because many pesticides have been shown to be endocrine disruptors, changing gene expression patterns and causing unforeseen harm to health.

And that in turn prompted me to recall that genetically engineered crops, ostensibly designed in part to reduce the need for pesticides, have — thanks to pesticide-resistant “superweeds” — actually increased our pesticide use steadily over the last decade or so. (In general, fields growing crops using genetically engineered seeds use 24 percent more chemicals than those grown with conventional seeds.)”

Bittman notes that “…every human tested is found to have pesticides in his or her body fat. And because pesticides are found (8 MB PDF) in nearly every stream in the United States, over 90 percent of wells, and — in urban and agricultural areas — over half the groundwater.”

I urge you to read the entire column.

I also urge you to read this excellent article written for BayBuzz back in June 2009 by Hawke’s Bay’s David Cranwell, a man with decades of experience in the pip fruit industry. As David recounted:

“The earliest memories I have of my parents orchard was of them telling us kids that we were never to turn on a tap in the orchard and drink from it as we would be poisoned and die! This for a young child of about 5 years certainly made an impression that I never forgot.

We were fascinated by these taps that were spread throughout the orchard, which Dad used to hook up long hoses to, and then drag them from tree to tree spraying them with a long-handled hand gun. The whole system was powered by a an electric pump in the shed which pumped the spray through the lines at about 700kpi pressure through the 2.5cm pipes. Breakages at joints were not uncommon with spay forming little geysers within the orchard. The spray shed was an old tin lean-to with an earth floor and a door that was impossible to shut.

Poison was the operative word. Arsenate of lead the main insecticide, Bordeaux mix applied liberally and regularly until the trees were blue, DDT, DDD, Lindane and the Organophosphates were to follow. A tough arsenal, in the main applied with little personal understanding of their effects on or protection of the applicator.”

David’s main point in writing, however, was to describe the laudable progress he’s seen the New Zealand fruit growing industry make in reducing pesticide use (despite a temporary setback when spraying increased to meet US requirements!).

He noted: “The transformation has been amazing, putting the New Zealand at the forefront of worldwide pip fruit production. We have seen insecticidal loading in orchards reduce by 80% between 1995-2008 … in 1995 organophosphates were applied at a rate of 11.6kg per hectare. In 2008 that had reduced to 2.6kg per hectare, made up of the softer, more benign chemicals that allow the natural enemies of pests to contribute to effective biological control.”

Cranwell concluded that still more could be done to lessen the chemical footprint of the industry. He was talking to us locals particularly about apples. I have to wonder, though, reading his account, what long-term damage was done to generations of ‘Fruitbowl of New Zealand’ residents, and particularly growers and their families.

Bittman, talking to Americans about food more broadly, is gloomy: “Much damage has been done, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” While he recites a number of ‘how to improve agriculture’ remedial steps, he says the only way for individual consumers to protect themselves today is to buy organic.

That’s cool. Still, I wish I hadn’t noticed his article!

Tom Belford

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1 Comment

  1. If it bleeds it leads. People like to read articles that rile them and so you see quite a few ‘panic – we’re all being poisoned’ headlines. We should be concerned as Monsanto are ‘drug dealers’ and not in the business of selling fewer drugs. Quoting the quantity of chemicals used can often be misleading though. Food prices have driven up production of many agricultural crops as has their use in biofuels. US corn produciton (until this year’s drought) have been increasing rapidly; up 35% in the last 15 years. You’d therefore expect a 35% increase in pesticides. In some crops GE has increased usage, in some it has reduced usage. You can find evidence for any position you care to hold.

    The key is never the quantity of pesticides but their human toxicity. As David Cranwell points out this has been dramatically reduced of recent times. The last paper I saw on it indicated a reduction in toxicity in apple production of 97% in 15 years. Sometimes this means a greater quantity of chemicals are used as they are softer, more targeted and sometimes less effective (i.e. some chemicals are now antagonistic rather than lethal). The extreme case is organic apples where startling quatities of ‘natural’ chemicals are applied, because they don’t work very well. David also hits on the point that the ‘natural’ lead arsenate was once widely used. It’s not sensible to believe that a natural product cannot be poisonous or a synthetic one cannot be safe.

    Most people have a poor understanding of science which leads to a great deal of confusion. The first basic principle is that everything is chemical – you’re 100% chemical and you’re tipping that ubiquitous chemical H2O down your throats in vast quantities. So chemicals are not inherently evil – some are, some aren’t. You need to do a fair bit of digging to work out which is which and probably it is not great fodder for a journalist. In any event, we’re all living longer and the regulators have never been so sophisticated. I feel mildly reassured…

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