Five Billion Pounds of Pesticides

When you walk into a supermarket to buy some apples, carrots, or even any packaged food, what crosses your mind? If you are like most other consumers, you consider cost, taste and perhaps even the amount of calories such food contains. What most people don’t think about are the pesticides, and just how many pesticides contaminate the food they buy and subsequently the food they eat. For instance, if you eat a normal apple you consume around 30 different pesticides, even if you wash it. Thirty pesticides? It’s unbelievable that such a small fruit can have so many pesticides. But what are the implications of this absurd pesticide use?


Overusing pesticides is not only a health problem, but also an enormous environmental issue. Annually, over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used worldwide, for myriad purposes: agriculture, forest managing, and lawn care to name a few. In the last few decades, pesticide use has been growing at an alarming rate. For instance, in 1954, India sprayed 154 millions tons, whereas in 2001, 88,000 million tons were used. Furthermore, an average 90% of these pesticides never reach their intended destination. Pesticides are typically sprayed on plants, so that approximately only 10% lands on the plant, and the rest remains in the soil or air, and from where it eventually ends up in groundwater. This results in alarming concentrations of pesticides in drinking water, which negatively impacts public health in nearby communities and local ecosystems. Because most agricultural pesticides are water soluble, pesticides are particularly damaging to aquatic ecosystems. Though the majority of pesticide related fish deaths go unreported, many studies have found links to high levels of pesticides and fish mortality. Compounded with other threatening problems, such as over fishing, pesticide use could drive vulnerable fish populations to speedy extinctions. However, pesticides do not only affect fish; they harm all marine organisms. Pesticides help to contribute to dead zones: hypoxic (oxygen deficient) areas in oceans or lakes. As the name suggests, dead zones are completely inhospitable areas for many creatures and thus can have detrimental effects on all forms of aquatic life. The largest dead zone is found in the Gulf of Mexico and spans 5,000 to 8,000 square miles of water so oxygen deficient that little life can be found there. All of this is caused by fertilizer and pesticide runoff from U.S. farming.


Pesticides do not only affect aquatic life. Studies have linked bird mortality with pesticide use; in the United States alone an average 672 million birds are exposed to high levels of pesticides and about 67 million, 10% of the population, are killed. Terrestrial species are also negatively impacted; pesticides can contaminate the food and water consumed by wildlife, which can lead to poisoning, or depending on the pesticides or combination of pesticides, can cause other adverse health effects.


So what can you do? The answer is simple. Buy organic! Certified organic foods are not sprayed with pesticide, so not only will the food you eat not be contaminated with chemical pesticides, but you will also be protecting the environment from further degradation. Organic options are globally becoming more common and affordable, so it should be relatively easy to buy organic products. But remember to start small: all the food you buy doesn’t have to be organic. As organic food becomes more readily available, you can buy more organic products and do your part to help the environment.


Michelle Donahue

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