A study released last week by the National Research Council reported that we
know more about how excess calories and fat cause cancer in humans than we know
about how pesticide residues on our food, or the naturally occurring substances
in fruits and vegetables cause cancer in us.
The spin put on the story by the media is that we don't have to worry about
pesticides on our food, at least as far as cancer is concerned. I imagine this
spin was encouraged by the chemical industry's well-funded public relations
The report, however, seems to be filled with uncertainty and with calls for
refinement of research techniques. Nine years ago another committee of the
National Research Council found that almost half of the insecticides, over 60
percent of the herbicides and most of the fungicides used to grow our food are
oncogenic, or tumor-producing. Pesticides themselves, if not low levels of
residues, have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma and other diseases.
Should we worry about pesticide residues in our food? If we are healthy, eat a
well-balanced, varied diet, and are only worried about ourselves and cancer,
Perhaps not. If we consume too much fat and too many calories, they'll probably
give us cancer before the pesticide residues do.
However, the study didn't look at non-cancerous effects. Pesticides act in many
different ways. Some of them mimic hormones such as estrogen in our body.
There are certainly other details that scientists can and probably will study
and argue about for years. Whenever the scientific debate gets too thick,
however, it's good to step back and look at the bigger picture, in this case,
the whole life cycle of pesticides. Then we realize, that even if their
residues on our food were good for us, we wouldn't want to use pesticides.
Pesticide residues didn't just appear on that broccoli or in those strawberries.
The pesticides had to be made somewhere, like in Naugatuck, Wallingford or North
Haven, for example, where large piles of toxic wastes are enduring monuments to
pesticide manufacture there. These toxic landfills pollute surface, ground and
drinking water. They are very expensive to clean up. (And, I doubt that those
factories were ever very healthy places to work.)
Once manufactured, the pesticides need to be sprayed on the crops to be useful.
(Food crops may be treated with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and soil
sterilizers while they are growing, as well as with post harvest fungicides
before they go to market.)
Less than one percent of the pesticides applied actually reaches the intended
pests. The toxic chemicals fall on the ground and on the parts of the plants
which are left in the field. Pesticides are blown around by the wind and
carried away in the water. They even pollute the rain. Agricultural chemicals
applied to crops have polluted wells in Connecticut, on Long Island and around
Methyl bromide, used in large quantities in California to sterilize the soil for
strawberries, carrots and grapes, may not appear on the food, but it rises up to
destroy the ozone layer, fostering our children's skin cancer.
Most of the pesticides kill more useful or harmless organisms than harmful ones.
They leave behind a greatly diminished ecosystem with just a few species which
become resistant to the chemicals which have been used.
Farm workers are the people most seriously affected by toxic-chemical use.
Their workplace exposure causes many serious health problems.
Looking at the big picture, our concern with pesticide residues in our food
seems trivial. The damage pesticides cause is much more serious and
long-lasting than any cancer we could get. And, the primary result of all that
pesticide use is the enormous quantities of cheap food which make it very easy
for Americans to get cancer from eating too many calories and too much fat.
Fortunately, the problems with farm chemicals, the advantages of using natures'
methods, and peoples' desires for organic food, are causing big changes in
Farmers, gardeners and researchers are learning how to work with nature to build
healthy agricultural ecosystems with predators in balance with pests and
diseases resisted by the healthy plants growing in fertile soil.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Living on the Earth airs Friday mornings on WSHU, FM, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. A collection of these essays "Living on the Earth:Eclectic
Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future" is available for $14 postpaid from
Bill Duesing at the above address.
New essays are available weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing.