In the 1930s the crop yields in the United States were comparable
to those of India, England, and Argentina. Since the 1950s the use
of petroleum-derived pesticides, fertilizers and a host of governmental
policies have vaulted the U.S. into the biggest farming economy
in the world. Today, fewer farmers feed more people than ever before
in the history of food production.
This farming success, however, has not happened without enormous
costs and environmental tradeoffs. Pesticide proponents argue that
the benefits far outweigh the harm. After all, pesticides do save
lives. Since the late 1940s DDT has prevented millions from contracting
malaria, bubonic plague and typhus. Proponents also contend that
pesticides work faster and are more effective than the alternatives.
Pesticide advocates also point out that the new-generation pesticides
are used at very low application rates compared to the older, out-dated
Insects breed rapidly, however, and quickly develop resistance
to insecticides. In addition, broad-spectrum pesticides kill natural
predators that keep pests in check. Use of synthetic pesticides
-- which include insecticides, rodentacides, fungicides, herbicides,
and others -- has increased more than 33 fold in the last half century.
Ironically, it is estimated that more of the U.S. food supply is
lost to pests today (37%) than in the 1940s (31%). i Total
crop losses from insect damage alone have nearly doubled from 7%
percent to 13% during that period. Cultivation of four crops --
soybeans, wheat, cotton and corn -- consumes around 75% of the pesticides
in the U.S.
In addition, for more than 40 years, ranchers and growers have
been feeding low levels of penicillin, tetracycline, and other antibiotics
to poultry, cattle, and pigs to speed growth and cut costs. That
use accounts for about one third to one half of all antibiotics
sold in the U.S. Scientists worldwide have decried the use of antibiotics
to promote animal growth because it increases the prevalence of
bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics' effects and jeopardizes
human health. Today about 2.5 million tons of pesticides are used
Every day the environmental and health consequences of commercial
farming become more apparent. The EPA has identified agriculture
as the greatest nonpoint source of water pollution. ii Pesticides
and nitrates from fertilizers and manure have been detected in the
groundwater of most states. In fact pollutants from agriculture
can be detected in both the north and south poles and in the deepest
reaches of the oceans. Commercially-grown food we eat contains detectable
levels of pesticides and antibiotics. And recent studies have implicated
pesticides as the possible culprits in causing Parkinson's Disease,
as well as increased aggression in children. iii
For reasons such as these and others, sustainable alternatives
to intensive, high-chemical input agriculture are gaining in popularity.
is a research toxicologist at the Environmental Studies Program
at University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the Chief Scientific
Advisor to EarthSave International and the author of "Eat
to Beat Cancer."
i Pimental, David, et al. 1992. Environmental and
Economic Cost of Pesticide Use, BioScience, Vol. 42,No.10, 750-60
Pimental, David and Hugh Lehman, eds. 1993.
The Pesticide Question: Environmental, Economics and Ethics. New
York: Chapman & Hall.
ii US Environmental Protection Agency. 1984.
Report to Congress: Nonpoint Source Pollution in the US Office of
Water Program Operations, Water Planning Division. Washington, D.C.
iii C. Hertzman and others, "Parkinson's
disease: a case-control study of occupational andenvironmental risk
factors," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE Vol. 17,
No. 3 (1990), pgs. 349-355.
G.P. Sechi, "Acute and persistent parkinsonism
afteruse of diquat," NEUROLOGY Vol. 42, No. 1 (January 1992),
K.M. Semchuk and others, "Parkinson's
disease and exposure to agricultural work and pesticide chemicals,"
NEUROLOGY Vol. 42, No. 7 (July 1992), pgs. 1328-1335.