Banned From Home Use But Not Food Crops
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) March decision not to ban the organophosphate insecticide Chlorpyrifos (despite conclusive findings within its own department that it poses serious risks to children, adults, and the environment) was a blow to environmental groups and the general public, though not really all that surprising, given the current administration’s penchant for slashing important Obama-era regulations. In his announcement regarding the decision, Scott Pruitt, the current EPA director, cited the need to use “sound science” when making determinations on whether to ban chemicals such as Chlorpyrifos, as if the numerous studies done by both the EPA and independent research institutions that prove the toxicity of the insecticide are somehow untrustworthy.
What Is Chlorpyrifos — And How Does It Affect Us?
Chlorpyrifos, also marketed under the trade names Lorsban and Vulcan, is in the same class as sarin gas and is manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company (direct contributors to the Trump campaign and aggressive lobbyists in favor of reduced regulations for corporations and businesses). As a broad-spectrum insecticide used to kill a variety of insects, it was first introduced into the U.S. market in 1965 where it was used in the home to control bugs and mosquitoes.
Chlorpyrifos was eventually banned from home use in 2000 after numerous studies determined that it was toxic, causing adverse health reactions in both adults and children. The home use ban did not extend to agricultural applications, and it is still sprayed and dusted on a variety of food crops, including wheat, broccoli, oranges, and strawberries.
The chemical, which can be ingested through inhalation, skin contact, or consumption of contaminated water, is quite potent even in small doses. It acts by interfering with a specific enzyme that is essential to healthy functioning of the nervous, circulatory, and respiratory systems. Symptoms of poisoning vary but can include: wheezing, excess fluid in the lungs, bleeding from the eyes and nose, loss of motor coordination, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and in some cases coma and death. It also leads to low IQ, low birth weight, and developmental problems in children, and has been found in the umbilical cords of babies. Farm workers and those who live near large farming operations are at immediate risk of poisoning from Chlorpyrifos. The chemical also travels through groundwater, and residues of the substance linger on fruits and vegetables.
Studies have also determined that Chlorpyrifos is extremely toxic to honeybees, which is bad news since we rely on these creatures to pollinate over two-thirds of our food crops. The insecticide compromises the bees immunity, making them more susceptible to viruses and other threats. A 2014 Greenpeace Research Laboratory study analyzed bee pollen samples obtained from 12 European countries and determined that Chlorpyrifos, along with a number of other insecticides, was present in alarmingly high amounts. Bee pollen, the main food for young honeybees while in the hive, is also a nutrient rich supplement that is helpful in treating a wide range of ailments.
Why Do We Use Toxic Substances To Grow Our Food?
With so many negative effects attributed to pesticides and insecticides it seems counter intuitive that these substances continue to be used in food production, but farming and food access are multi-faceted issues, not easily solved by shifting from conventional to organic practices.
Dr. Morrone, professor of Environmental Health Science at Ohio University and former Chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Education Program, explains that:
Agriculture is an industry and this means that farmers have to make a profit, (and) the most effective way for large farms to make a profit is to use current techniques that include pesticides and monocultures.
While organic farming offers some hope for reducing reliance on pesticides, the food it produces is inaccessible to most people, especially those most vulnerable to food insecurity. Until we solve underlying social justice issues related to poverty and inequity, farming will not change. In other words, it is a very complex issue and one that requires us to look at systemic problems with our food supply.
Unequal access to food supplies is not a new problem, and was, in large part, what drove the agricultural innovations of the Green Revolution. Lauded as a milestone solution in the effort to solve the world’s famine and food shortage problems, the Green Revolution was characterized by an increase in food crop productivity despite less cultivated land. This was largely achieved through increased funding for crop research, market development, and policy advances, and of course the use of newly developed insecticides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers.
There were many positive outcomes of the movement; among them, an increase in worldwide food production and improved resource access for some small farmers and landowners. Many crops being planted at that time were newly developed, high yielding varieties with fast growing seasons, allowing for multiple crop rotations and thus greater yields per area of land planted. Of course there were negative effects as well, including land degradation from overuse of chemical fertilizers, water toxicity from agricultural runoff, and farmers increased reliance on external inputs, like fertilizers and insecticides, to ensure steady food production. This was a boon to companies like Dow and Monsanto who could now make big bucks marketing a variety of chemicals for use in agricultural production.
A scary consequence of using products like Chlorpyrifos is that over time farmers become reliant on them. Soils end up so depleted that in some cases using pesticides and insecticides is necessary to bring a crop from seed to harvest. It’s a vicious cycle, with farmers and consumers often ending up with the short-end of the stick, while the companies who manufacture said chemicals continue to reap enormous profits.
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How Do We Bring About Positive Change?
When we talk about changing the food system, it is important to remember that we are dealing with a complex issue closely tied to economic status, social mobility, and the interests of corporations versus the rights and needs of people.
According to Dr. Morrone:
People living in poverty cannot afford to buy organic foods on a regular basis, so once again, this is way more of an issue than just pesticides. It is a societal and economic issue, one that requires political will to provide incentives to farmers who do not use pesticides rather than to those who do, so that their foods can be accessible and affordable to all.
These issues won’t be solved right away, but, like most positive changes that have a lasting impact, we can start with a grassroots approach that is grounded in equality and respect. We can create safe spaces in our community for dialogue and support, we can plant gardens, eat locally, and educate ourselves about how to live in a more sustainable, self-reliant manner. By standing up for what we believe in and electing political leaders who are committed to making decisions that will benefit the long-term well-being of our planet, we begin to take steps toward a shared sense of global accountability. Little by little we will begin to shift the entrenched and disempowering approach that threatens to overtake our political and social landscape. After all, it is always better to take one small action than to do nothing at all.