Pesticides and other chemicals have become fundamental to the modern farmer. From treated seeds to the amazing ability of scientists to alter DNA, advances in biotechnology have assisted farmers no end. Since the 1960s, agricultural output has soared. The so-called Green Revolution brought ancient farming cultures into the modern age. High-yielding varieties of staples were bred in labs, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers were introduced, and systems of land management were adopted that called for increased mechanisation. Dozens of new pesticides, herbicides and fungicides appeared annually, all with great claims of what they could do for the farmer. Many worked very well and world-wide yields doubled from 1961-1985.
Unfortunately, some chemicals were found to have severe negative impacts. DDT, synthesised in 1874, was in 1939 discovered to be a highly effective insecticide. Its widespread use in agriculture in the 1960s almost wiped out much of North America's wildlife. In 1963 a failed effort to have DDT banned in one part of New York state inspired Rachel Carson to write her hugely popular book 'Silent Spring', which warned that DDT was also causing cancer in humans. President John F Kennedy ordered a Scientific Advisory Committee to investigate and its conclusion, in the words of Science magazine, “add[ed] up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis”. DDT was eventually banned in 1973, after a long struggle between regulators and manufacturers, who sued the US government, but lost. DDT is still controversially used, but in a limited fashion, to tackle insect-borne diseases like malaria and typhus.
Health professionals have noticed a spike in rates of cancer among farm and pesticide industry workers. A 2010 US government study examined 24,000 farmers and agricultural chemical applicators. It found that those who regularly applied common chemicals developed melanomas (skin cancers) at twice the rate of an average person. The six chemicals most closely linked with increased melanomas were two fungicides, maneb and mancozeb, and four insecticides, namely methyl-parathion, carbaryl, benomyl and ethyl-parathion. The latter two were withdrawn voluntarily in light of the study. The rest are still available in most countries as attempts to have them banned are being resisted strongly.
Neonicotinoid seed treatments have been linked with massive bee losses around the world and our pollinator species are all in decline. Now we find that we ourselves are dying from the effects of these unnecessary food ingredients. Gramaoxone, a non-selective herbicide based on the organic compound paraquat, was once a very popular alternative to Roundup. The two could be used in turn as a 'knock-out' to reduce stubborn or resistant weeds. Use of Gramoxone is severely restricted now because it was found to be a contributing factor in the onset of Parkinson's disease.
Plenty of other academic research is turning up links between various cancers and common farm chemicals. A 2009 study investigated high incidences of various cancers in agricultural workers, including prostate, lymphohematopoetic, brain, stomach and soft-tissue tumours. It concluded by saying that the “positive association between BMI [Body Mass Index] and colon cancer in men who ever used carbofuran or metolachlor raised the possibility that certain pesticides may modify the effects of BMI on the risks of some cancers.”
About 40% of Europe's crop treatments, estimated to be worth €8-9 billion per annum, are triazole fungicides. These are known to contain endocrine disruptors which can cause hormonal imbalances, foetal abnormalities, neurological problems and immune system defects. Other health defects blamed on them include genital mutilations, infertility, cancer and IQ loss. In February 2015 an EU paper linked 31 commonly-used endocrine disrupting chemicals with health issues and recommended that the European Commission ban them (the list included chemicals used in agriculture, toiletries plastics and cosmetics). But industry giants including BASF and Bayer allegedly resisted the move and the paper was suppressed. Meanwhile Jean-Charles Bocquet, director of the European Crop Protection Association told reporters that, while he acknowledged endocrine disruptors were risky, current regulations were sufficient. He used the following analogy: “It is like if you have a very powerful car but it is driven carefully and safely, then you will not hurt the population with it.” The EU banned two of the 31 named chemicals earlier this year.
Many mistakes have been made with chemical inputs, from manufacturers under-estimating their effects on wildlife, to over-looking their impact on human health. The worst of these might be the effect on babies and children. While foetus abnormalities are associated with exposure to endocrine-disruptors, children are susceptible to many kinds of farm chemicals and should be kept well away from sprayed fields and store rooms. A 1998 scientific paper entitled 'Pesticides and childhood cancer' concluded: “it is noteworthy that many of the reported increased risks are of greater magnitude than those observed in studies of pesticide-exposed adults, suggesting that children may be particularly sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of pesticides.”
As if none of that were enough, for the past fifteen years or so some farmers have been spraying their crops with glyphosate just before harvesting (dessication). Glyphosate is the world's most commonly used non-selective broad spectrum herbicide, the main ingredient in Roundup. It has been linked with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and is a suspected endocrine disruptor. The WHO said last year it is “probably carcinogenic” and regulators in numerous countries have agreed, including France and the Netherlands. Pesticide companies, farmers' lobbies and the EFSA have defended glyphosate and state health bodies from the US, New Zealand and Australia have stated that they think it is safe. Yet the practise of pre-harvest dessication has seen levels of the glyphosate in food and water skyrocket. It is physically present on foods from beans and peas to grains, with high levels in wholemeal bread which contains the contaminated grain husks. How this practise was ever allowed to begin will probably be the subject of numerous court cases. Efforts to halt it are proceeding through Europe, which has also introduced restrictions on glyphosate.
The Green Revolution brought about a system of farming that benefits large producers and manufacturers. Prices have fallen considerably since its implementation and many small farmers are struggling. They lack the economies of scale to ride out fluctuations and to keep up with innovations. The major agri-chemical manufacturers are now half a dozen companies who own the world of agri-technology. As they grow, merging like the melted cyborg of Terminator II, so too does their lobbying power over politicians and farmers' representative groups. All of this leads one to wonder, what are the long-term effects of our current crop-production systems going to be?
Precision technology is reducing environmental damage by minimising our chemical usage. This is good, but even so, traces of these chemicals make their way into our food and drinking water. Is it any wonder then that so many of us are getting cancer?
The farming industry needs to stand up to the companies and regulators by demanding proper safety standards for ourselves, our children and those who consume our food products. If farmers suffer financially because of safety concerns about chemicals, then the trillionaire companies who manufactured the harmful chemicals, and the regulators who allowed them to be used, must cover those losses.
Industry has spent the past year motivating farm lobby groups to help them fight against tighter controls of chemical agents and, for all their loud complaints, they have largely succeeded. They say that rules are too stringent, never seeming to show any concern about people's health. Medical evidence and non-partisan scientific research is telling us that our rules are too lax. We need a strengthening of the precautionary principle, by which public health comes before private interests, so that dangerous chemicals are taken out of production. On top of that we need to be adopting methods that reduce our own reliance upon toxic chemicals around the farm. There are numerous safe options, tried and tested which will be explored here next week.