Tag Archive | Pesticides

Conspicuous in Their Absence. Pesticides and Environmental Impacts.

This week a new paper entitled Leverage Points for Improving Global Food Security and the Environment was published in the journal Science. (Science Daily summary)

The authors focus on the 17 major crops that account for the vast majority of calories produced and consumed, inputs used and environmental impacts from agriculture. The heavy hitters, no surprises. Corn, wheat, rice and cotton. The big impacts that they focus on are water use; carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and methane pollution of air and water, and tropical deforestation. The major points of leverage included switching from crops for meat production to crops for human consumption, better irrigation, closing the massive yield gap in countries with low performing agriculture, reducing food waste (especially meat waste) and improving the precision use of inputs like nitrogen and water in countries where overuse is the biggest problem.

Two things might surprise folks who get their sustainable ag news from urban reporters and not from academics. The first is that the percentages of over use of inputs in the US are fairly low, while our impact is large, not because our farmers are out of control, but rather that we produce so much freaking food that a few percentage points of over use is a big impact relative to the production in other countries.

The second is the absence of even a mention of pesticides as a major environmental impact anywhere in the paper. Why is this? Because, while pesticides remain a labor issue for farm workers, especially in developing countries, they have improved so much in their mode of action and use in the last half century that they really don’t rate as a major environmental impact, at least in comparison to the big foot issues raised in this paper.

The salience of pesticides as an environmental impact doesn’t come from the size of their effect on the environment, but rather on their psychological impacts. It’s better understood by run of the mill chemophobia. Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren’t many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.

The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that sets organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn’t have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it’s organic that has some splainin’ to do. Thus, a big to-do is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.

There is more to look at in this paper, but the absence of pesticides as a major environmental impact was the first thing that popped out at me.

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The REALFOOD.ORG Reader: Pesticides

As a follow up to the post highlighting the CHAMACOS Study on the impact of pesticides on the children of California, I thought it would be a fine idea to gather some informative readings on pesticides.

Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain
Susan Freinkel | The Nation | 11 March 2014

From infancy on, the children of the mothers with the highest levels of organophosphates were at the greatest risk for neurodevelopmental problems. That association was present at every stage the researchers checked in on the kids. At 6 months, they were more likely to have poorer reflexes. At 2, they were at higher risk for pervasive developmental disorder, an autism-related condition, like Asperger’s, in which children have trouble connecting to others. At 5, they were more likely to be hyperactive and have trouble paying attention. At 7, they scored lower on IQ tests, by an average of seven points—the equivalent of being a half-year behind their peers. Eskenazi can’t say whether the associations persist, because she hasn’t been funded to keep looking.

Pesticides: Probably Less Scary Than You Imagine
Steve Savage | Applied Mythology | 23 September 2012

One of the best ways to look at what is being used in both conventional and organic farming is to look at the extensive and transparent, California Pesticide Information Portal (CalPip).  California has a tremendous diversity of crops and also a very large share of the organic market.  It is a source for data which comes from mandatory reporting of all commercial pesticide use in the state.  CalPip posted two lists of the top 100 pesticides used – one based on total pounds applied and one based on the total number of acres treated.  I created a list that combined the two without the surfactants or other spray additives.  That left 104 materials.  I then looked up the publicly available, MSDS documents (Material Safety Data Sheets) to get the acute toxicity (oral ALD50) for each of the products (see graph below).

How Wrong Is The Latest Dirty Dozen List?
Steve Savage | Applied Mythology | 16 May 2013

They grow a crop as best they can, and use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA. Much of what they use are pesticides with very low toxicity. In years that their crop is selected for the PDP, random samples of their commodity are purchased in stores, including examples coming from other countries. They are taken to federal and state laboratories and scrutinized for trace residues of hundreds of different chemical pesticides. When the data is finally published (usually two years later), the highly qualified experts of the USDA, EPA and FDA conclude that the system is working and that consumers should confidently purchase and eat the crop without concerns about residues. In fact, studies show that the anti-cancer benefits of eating things like fruits and vegetable far, far outweigh and minuscule risk associated with pesticides.

Then each year, the EWG takes advantage of the transparent availability of the USDA-PDP data, but then performs their own “analysis” which experts have rejected as utterly anti-scientific. They generate an incorrect “grade” for the crop and post it as part of their “Shopper’s Guide,” and on their notorious “Dirty Dozen List.” The grower’s virtually perfect grade gets forgotten and what is passed along by an un-critical press and blogosphere is the distortion that the crop is “dirty.” Many consumers believe this and heed the EWG’s suggestion that they need to buy organic versions of that crop (the actual agenda of the EWG is the promotion of organic and also their own fundraising). Worse still, there is some evidence that this disinformation causes consumers to purchase and eat less produce. At a minimum, many consumers feel guilty for not buying organic.

Roundup in 75% of Air? What the Report Actually Says
Kevin Folta | Biofortified | 2 March 2014

Figure 4 shows the difference in herbicides between 1995 and 2007. Peak applications are in May, as expected. What you see is that glyphosate becomes the main herbicide detected. What the activist literature does not bother to tell you is that the increase in glyphosate substitutes for “other herbicides”. Atrazine levels decreased 36%. Trifluralin was present in almost every sample but its levels were 20 times lower than 1995. Essentially, glyphosate removed the need for other herbicides with higher environmental impact, a fact well documented (e.g. Duke et al., 2012).

Concentrations? Oh, and don’t forget to look at the y-axis units. We’re dealing with nanograms per cubic meter. Considering these compounds are biologically relevant at the conservative level of milligrams per kilogram, we’re talking about levels millions to billions of times below any biological relevance.

proxy

. . . Here’s another set of data that the dirty green media forgot to report, but more likely they didn’t read it because it was not in the abstract. The trend from 1995 to 2007 shows a decrease in insecticide use. In 1995 methyl parathion was heavily used in Mississippi on cotton (160,000 kg!). By 2007 its levels dropped twenty fold. In 1995 there was high reliance on Chlorphyifos and malathion, and by 2007 the levels were down substantially, the authors citing ”no local use”. All “other insecticide” levels were lower as well.

Why? Why the decrease between 1995 and 2007?

The introduction of transgenic (GMO) Bt cotton and Bt corn, the two principle crops of the region.
insecticides

Do GMOs Really Increase Pesticide Use?
Anastasia Bodnar | Biofortified | 24 November 2009

The 2008 report GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996- 2006 (pdf) produced by PG Economics did answer these questions*. They used an index called EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient) which was first described by Kovach et al in 1992 (to learn exactly how the EIQ is calculated, see the American Farmland Trust’s explanation). The EIQ actually factors in how toxic a pesticide is as well as how much active ingredient is used. This report found (on page 60-61) that, in soybeans, the global impact has been:

In 2006, a 6% decrease in the total volume of herbicide [active ingredient] applied (10.1 million kg) and a 23.7% reduction in the environmental impact (measured in terms of the field EIQ/ha load)

Since 1996, 4.4% less herbicide [active ingredient] has been used (62 million kg) and the environmental impact applied to the soybean crop has fallen by 20.4%.

A similar global impact was seen in maize:

In 2006, total herbicide ai use was 8.3% lower (10.9 million kg) than the level of use if the total crop had been planted to conventional non GM (HT) varieties. The EIQ load was also lower by 10.8%

Cumulatively since 1997, the volume of herbicide ai applied is 3.9% lower than its conventional equivalent (a saving of 46.7 million kg). The EIQ load has been reduced by 4.6%.

Pesticides and Farm Workers. A Labor and an Environmental Issue.

This week’s must read comes from Susan Freinkel writing for FERN in The Nation on long term research into the impact of pesticides on the children of farm workers in California:

When Eskenazi and Bradman began visiting the valley, they were met with some wariness. Growers feared they had an anti-pesticide agenda, and farmworkers worried they could lose their jobs if they agreed to participate. The researchers connected with local clinics and gave gift cards to families who enrolled. Over a two-year period, from 1999 to 2000, they enrolled a cohort of 601 pregnant women—most born in Mexico, working as or living with farmworkers, and with an income well below the poverty line. As the women gave birth, the researchers began following the children—an initial group of 536—with periodic assessments.

To determine what the children were exposed to in the womb, the researchers took urine and blood samples from the women while pregnant and at delivery. To gauge the presence of pesticides in participants’ homes, the researchers did inspections and took dust samples. And to assess impacts, they questioned the mothers every few years about their children’s behaviors and tracked the kids through periodic tests: physical exams, neurobehavioral assessments, and analyses of their urine, blood, saliva, baby teeth and hair. (Over time, about half of the children dropped out of the study, so in 2010 and 2011, the researchers recruited another 300 9-year-olds to start following.)

All of that information—including more than 150,000 biological samples stored in banks of freezers at a facility in Richmond, California—constitutes a treasure trove of data that Eskenazi and her colleagues have mined for more than a hundred scientific papers. Over the years, they have broadened their investigations to look at the effects of other chemicals to which the CHAMACOS children have been exposed, including fungicides, fumigants, bisphenol A and flame retardants. (They explored the last one because, until recently, California required the retardants to be present in any upholstered furniture sold in the state.) “We call the exposures we’ve looked at ‘the California mix,’” Eskenazi says.

This is what they found:

Prenatal exposure to even tiny amounts of organophosphates—in the parts per trillion range—can have significant impacts on the brain, the CHAMACOS study suggests.

From infancy on, the children of the mothers with the highest levels of organophosphates were at the greatest risk for neurodevelopmental problems. That association was present at every stage the researchers checked in on the kids. At 6 months, they were more likely to have poorer reflexes. At 2, they were at higher risk for pervasive developmental disorder, an autism-related condition, like Asperger’s, in which children have trouble connecting to others. At 5, they were more likely to be hyperactive and have trouble paying attention. At 7, they scored lower on IQ tests, by an average of seven points—the equivalent of being a half-year behind their peers. Eskenazi can’t say whether the associations persist, because she hasn’t been funded to keep looking.

The article underscores one of the biggest fault lines in US agriculture. To me the issues surrounding class and labor issues between produce growers in California and Florida are very different than even the largest family farms in the Midwest. In developing a productive and accurate critique of so-called ‘Big Ag’ on ‘Industrial Agriculture’ it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just one thing. Large commodity crop farms in the Midwest are almost universally family farms and highly mechanized. They don’t require many hired hands and those they do hire tend to be long term and local. The people handling the pesticides tend have college degrees in agriculture, and relationships with extension agents and sales reps. You can bet if their kids are helping out, they using best practices for handling those pesticides. The same is nowhere near as true for farm workers, especially migrant farm workers in places like California and Florida.
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