Pesticides 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Pesticides have been used, in one way or another, for thousands of years to protect crops against invasive species, fungi and other “pests.”
While there are organic options, chemical pesticides are commonly used, with industrial agriculture relying heavily on it for their crops. However, as many studies and literature over the decades have shown, using these chemicals comes at enormous costs to the environment, wildlife and human health.
But before we get into all the details and solutions, here are some facts.
● ”Pesticide” is the umbrella term that encompasses herbicides, insecticides, nematicides, molluscicides, piscicides, avicides, rodenticides, bactericides, insect repellents, animal repellents, microbicides, fungicides and lampricides.
● Global consumption of pesticides grew 57% from 1990 to 2020, with the amount of usage reaching 2.66 million metric tons in 2020.
● When it comes to which country uses the most pesticides, China is number one with 1.7 million tons, with the U.S. following in second with 407,000 tons.
● Farmworkers in the U.S. are faced with the most chemical-related illnesses of any occupation. 10,000 to 20,000 suffer from pesticide poisoning each year.
● Chemical pesticides don’t necessarily stay where they are applied, and end up in unintended areas due to wind. Called “pesticide drift,” particles can affect nearby soil, groundwater, houses, playgrounds, people and wildlife. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), roughly 70 million pounds of pesticides drift from their intended target every year.
● GMO (genetically modified) crops are engineered to produce their own pesticides or survive applications of them. While agrochemical companies have claimed they reduce the need for pesticides, USDA and EPA reports show a vast rise in usage.
● Biopesticides come from living things or are found in nature, and tend to pose lower risks than chemical pesticides. They are most effective when used as part of Integrative Pest Management.
● Integrative Pest Management is an ecosystem-based strategy focusing on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices and use of resistant varieties.
History of Pesticides
For centuries, Indigenous tribes around the world used companion planting and certain crops’ natural biology for pest control, with the word “pest” being a relative term since many organisms considered pests may also be important sources of food, medicine and rituals.
Historians believe the first recorded use of a pesticide was around 2500 BC, when the ancient Sumerians used sulfur compounds to kill insects. For years after, tobacco, arsenic, herbs, oils and other botanicals — alongside predatory species as biological control — were used to fight insects and fungus to protect crops.
In the 1700s and 1800s, farmers began using crop protection products more widely, with international trade promoting the use of plant- and metal-based insecticides.
The first synthetic chemical pesticides were developed in the 30s and 40s.
DDT and Silent Spring
DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), was discovered by Swiss chemist Paul Müller in 1939 and used during World War II to combat mosquitoes that spread malaria, and louses that carried typhus. It was sprayed on the military, and after the war it was used for the general public to fog neighborhoods and fields. It then became available at stores for backyards and gardens.
DDT was considered a life-saving breakthrough worthy of a Nobel Prize in 1948. The U.S. alone sprayed 1.35 billion tons of DDT on crops, lawns and pets until 1962 when biologist Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring.
Silent Spring gave meticulous descriptions about how DDT affected both humans and animals — how it caused cancer and genetic damage and remained toxic in the environment long after it was diluted from rainwater.
Anticipating a backlash from the chemical industry, Carson compiled 55 pages of notes and a list of experts who read and approved the manuscript. Eminent scientists also rose to her defense. It was the first treatise that brought into public awareness that contamination of the food chain, cancer, genetic damage and the deaths of entire species due to human intervention with nature was not something to be ignored, and that regulation was necessary to protect the environment.
Ten years after the book’s publication, an environmental movement had emerged, and the newly formed EPA banned DDT in the United States. Today, it is still used in countries outside of the U.S. to control malaria.
Defoliants, Agent Orange and the Vietnam War
In the 1940s, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D were developed as herbicides to defoliate big-leafed plants. It was used agriculturally to convert forests into areas for agriculture.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were major components of Agent Orange, which was one of nine tactical herbicides used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War in what was called Operation Ranchhand to expose areas with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, depriving them of food and concealment.
Manufactured by Monsanto and other chemical giants, who at the time had a wartime government contract, the 2,4,5-T component of Agent Orange in particular was found to contain dioxin, which is an extremely toxic byproduct from manufacturing later proven to cause serious health issues — including cancer, birth defects, rashes and severe psychological and neurological problems — among the Vietnamese people as well as among returning U.S. servicemen and their families.
In the late 70s, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed during their service, resulting in chemical companies paying $180 million in compensation. Later in 1991, former president George H.W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law, which mandated certain diseases that were a result of exposure be treated as the result of wartime service.
Vietnamese citizens filed a class-action lawsuit in 2004 claiming that the U.S. violated international law. The country reported 400,000 people were killed or affected because of exposure, and claimed half a million children were born with serious birth defects, with others suffering the same effects as U.S. military veterans. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York.
In 2018, Vietnam demanded Monsanto compensate the victims of Agent Orange again after Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million dollars to a school groundskeeper who claimed their Roundup weedkiller caused his terminal cancer. Subsequent lawsuits have still been rejected.
Monsanto, Glyphosate and Weed Killers
Before being acquired by Bayer in 2016, Monsanto was part of one of the ten largest pesticide companies in the world, alongside Syngenta (Chemchina), Bayer Crop Science, BASF, Dow, FMC, ADAMA, NuFarm, Sumitomo, UPL and Huapont Life Sciences.
Founded in 1901, Monsanto is responsible for producing DDT, highly carcinogenic PCBs found in industrial and consumer products, genetically engineered crop seeds, and formulating the chemical glyphosate for use in their popular Roundup weed killer that was put on the shelf in 1974.
Glyphosate has been linked to autism in babies from maternal exposure, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, depleting amino acids that can contribute to obesity and depression, as well as gluten intolerances.
9.4 million tons of Roundup has been sprayed on fields worldwide and according to an analysis by USGS, an average of 130 pounds of this and other glyphosate herbicides were sprayed per square mile in U.S. counties with high concentrations in the Midwest, Southwest, and Central California.
The FDA has found glyphosate residues on a variety of oats, soybeans, cranberries, grapes, raisins, oranges, apples, almonds, carrots, beets, quinoa, cherries and beans.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and others tested popular food brands to see if any contained glyphosate. Honey Nut Cheerios topped the list along with other General Mills products, as well as several Nature’s Valley products, Mueller’s products, Quaker Oats and Kellogg’s.
In a 2016 report by Food Democracy Now, PepsiCo’s Doritos, Oreos, Goldfish, Ritz crackers and Stacy’s Pita Chips also contained glyphosate. Sanitary products such as Proctor and Gamble’s Tampax tampons and Always pads have also been found to contain glyphosate.
In a bio monitoring study, the Center for Environmental Health found 90% of their tested families had glyphosate in their bodies.
In the 1980s, glyphosate was classified as a Class C Carcinogen, but the EPA walked back that decision, eventually claiming that it was non-carcinogenic to humans. In 2017, when Roundup cancer court cases started to mount, however, internal communications between Monsanto and the EPA were discovered. Records suggested that Monsanto had ghostwritten research and later attributed it to academics, and showed that a senior EPA official worked to stop a review of Roundup’s main ingredient that was to be conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Documents also revealed disagreement within the EPA over its own safety assessment.
In 2018, Monsanto lost the landmark case in which it was ordered to pay over $289 million in total damages to the former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, a California father who has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, caused by Roundup. The amount was reduced on appeal to $78 million.
In 2020, Bayer reached a deal to settle nearly 100,000 pending Roundup suits against their subsidiary for around $10 billion, but failed to win court approval for a $2 billion payout for future claims.
The following year, Bayer said it would stop selling glyphosate-based weedkillers in 2023 to non-professional gardeners, which accounted for most of the lawsuits, but professional farmers who heavily rely on it will still be able to purchase it.
The Rise of Superweeds
For those who had to painstakingly till or hand-weed large fields for years, the invention of glyphosate and Roundup was like a miracle cure, especially since weeds had become resistant to other chemical pesticides. After growing concerns over glyphosate-based herbicides and the risks involved, genetically modified crops emerged as an answer to reduce the usage of sprays.
Weeds, however, were sprayed so much that eventually they evolved to resist the pesticides and have led to the growth of new strains of “superweeds” which continue to siphon nutrients from valuable crops, leading farmers to use more expensive herbicides to control them.
Globally in 2021, 263 species are known to have evolved resistance to herbicides and costs have apparently doubled over the last decade.
A paper on a Palmer amaranth population, which is a type of stubborn pigweed, said: “Weed resistance to herbicides, especially multiple-herbicide resistance, poses a serious threat to global food production.” Other research published in 2016 by the Weed Science Society of America found that uncontrolled weeds could cause tens of billions of dollars of crop losses every year.
One of the solutions to combat superweeds is crop rotation, but this doesn’t work without a market for the crops in rotation. It is said that farmers lack short-term economic incentives to get rid of cash crops in favor of environmentally beneficial ones and it is difficult for many to think about long-term solutions while making them go broke in the short term.
Chemical Pesticides and Wildlife
Bees are one of the largest contributors to the world’s food supply, pollinating a wide range of crops. Bee populations have been declining globally in recent decades due to climate change, habitat loss, air pollution and intensive farming practices, including the use of agrochemicals like pesticides, which poses a threat to our food security.
In 2017, two separate studies found neonicotinoid pesticides found in agricultural areas not only kill bees, but harm their ability to reproduce. The environmental levels of these pesticides, which are derived from nicotine, kill bees in extended periods over time instead of outright, and also threaten queens, which leads to lower reproductive rates in colonies.
A study done by researchers at York University of Toronto found that neonicotinoids can make it into waterways through agricultural runoff, with flowers miles away from a farm absorbing the chemicals, which seeps into every component of the flower including pollen and nectar, making the plant entirely toxic. So the researchers tested for the presence of neonicotinoids on dead bees, forager bees, nurse bees, larvae, pollen and nectar, and found a combination of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides that implicated neonicotinoid chemicals.
This type of chemical has also been shown to cause a decline in birds, butterflies, bats, orcas and freshwater invertebrates. They’ve also caused harm to deer and other mammals.
In June 2022, the EPA released a biological evaluation that confirmed these types of insecticides likely harm three-fourths of all endangered plants and animals, including all 39 species of amphibians protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Neonicotinoids have since been banned in the European Union, but are the most popular insecticides in the United States.
Last November, documents from the EPA also revealed that Bayer’s Seresto Flea Collars have been linked to more than 100,000 reports of harm to pets, and nearly 2700 deaths. 894 reports also came from humans being harmed by the collars after exposure. Reports have been continuously made since 2012.
Currently, the EPA is being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General over possibly violating federal law due to lack of action.
During a lawsuit launched by the Center for Biological Diversity, it was also discovered that there were allegations that some EPA personnel tried to silence staff on their concerns about the collar.
Chemical Pesticides and Farmworkers
In December 2020, four researchers published a review that said that 44% of farmers, farmworkers and pesticide applicators experience at least one incident of acute pesticide poisoning on the job every year, and 11,000 die annually from accidental pesticide poisoning.
Many who come into contact with pesticides can land in a hospital with headaches, rashes, vomiting and nausea, not to mention the potential for serious long-term health consequences like cancer.
According to Farmworker Justice, despite the preventable nature of pesticide exposure, few farmworkers are properly notified of the risks they face on a daily basis and regulations aimed at protecting workers against pesticide exposure have not been updated in more than 20 years.
Undocumented workers are also less inclined to seek medical attention or report issues when exposed to pesticides. Labeling is also a concern, as 62% of farmworkers in the U.S. speak Spanish, but pesticides are only printed in English with large chemical companies like Bayer merely printing one line in Spanish that reads: “If you do not understand the label, find someone to explain it to you in detail.”
Studies show that pesticides can be brought home on clothing from the field and put farmworker families, particularly children, at risk.
A recent Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in the USA study also shows that due to structural racism and class discrimination, people of color, Indigenous, and low-income communities are disproportionately affected. Often low-income communities populated by people of color end up being located near sites that contain toxic pesticide contamination or pesticide manufacturers. Farmworkers, their families and other communities are also often subject to pesticide drift from nearby farms.
Currently, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which is regulated by the EPA, allows pesticides that are not approved or registered for use in the U.S. to be exported by chemical companies to less developed countries. Much of these have been banned domestically because of their detrimental health impacts.
Policy and Regulations
Several chemical pesticides have been banned over the years across the world, while the fight continues for more bans and national policies.
The countries with the most known bans are the EU and the UK (60 banned plus 229 specifically ‘not approved’ hazardous pesticides), followed by Brazil (81), Saudi Arabia (72), Cambodia (58), India (51) and China (47).
The U.S. still lags behind, using 85 toxic pesticides outlawed in the EU, Brazil and China.
The UK, like the U.S., also exports toxic banned pesticides to poorer countries. Loopholes in European law allows chemical companies like Bayer and Syngenta to do so.
In June 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for new regulations to encourage using pesticides through Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as an alternative to chemicals.
IPM is an environmentally sustainable approach that focuses on pest prevention and only using pesticides as needed and has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
In the U.S., FIFRA requires all pesticides sold or distributed in the U.S. to be registered with the EPA after which they are regulated by Resource Conservation and Management.
This past September, the EPA awarded $780,000 from the Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP) to six organizations that will explore the use of IPM in agriculture. In October, the EPA asked a court for federal permission to reapprove use of the highly toxic herbicide paraquat.
Organizations Working on Pesticide-Related Issues
Based in Washington, DC, this nonprofit organization was founded in 1981 to help empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety and access to justice. They work with farmworkers and their organizations throughout the U.S.
Both internationally and in North America, this organization is a network of more than 600 participating nongovernmental organizations, institutions and individuals in more than 90 countries, working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound alternatives.
This DC-based nonprofit has an exhaustive list of programs and resources. They work with allies like other nonprofits, governments and individuals to protect public health and the environment to lead to a world free of toxic pesticides. Beyond Pesticides provides hands-on services to the public and supports local action by identifying and interpreting hazards and designing safe pest management programs.
This nonprofit is the leading public interest and environmental advocacy organization which addresses the impacts of the industrial food production system on human health, animal welfare and the environment. They promote ecological alternatives and transparency in the food system through labeling and other means. With more than one million members nationwide, the organization pursues its goals through litigation, policy programs, grassroots media and campaign efforts.
Founded in 1947, this U.S.-based national conservation organization is dedicated to the protection and restoration of species and their habitats in North America. They use policy analyses, advocacy, litigation, innovative science and technology programs, and field conservation as a means to accomplish their mission.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
This organization combines more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of over 700 scientists, lawyers and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water and the wild. NRDC has filed lawsuits and petitioned the EPA to restrict the use of glyphosate-containing herbicides, which helped lead to the 2021 ban.
This nonprofit public interest environmental law organization uses law and partnerships to protect people’s health, to preserve places and wildlife, to advance clean energy and combat climate change. The organization has waged a number of advocacy campaigns against pesticide usage, also leaning on the EPA for bans and regulations.
This research and certification platform encourages transparency in the food industries, publishing an extensive list of certified glyphosate residue-free products, which can be found here.
Similar lists from other advocacy sites can also be found here and here.
Chemical Pesticide Alternatives
Ecosystem-friendly methods are filed under Integrated Pest Management, some of which have already been practiced for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples. Here are some options for alternatives to synthetic chemicals.
Companion Planting (Polyculture)
This is the practice of grouping certain plants together in a way that supports the health and growth of all of them. The relationship between the plants serves in a way to keep pests out of the garden with one plant naturally repelling garden insects. They also attract beneficial insects that help control non-beneficial ones. You can find a list of 21 good companion plants for pest control here.
This process uses microbial pesticides or beneficial predatory or parasitic insects to control weeds. Microbial pesticides are comprised of microscopic organisms (viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, or nematodes or the toxins produced by these organisms and are applied as sprays, dusts, powders or granules. Organisms used are nontoxic and nonpathogenic to wildlife, humans and other organisms.
According to historians, in between 200AD and 1200 AD, the Chinese were the first to use ants as a natural enemy. They were used to control citrus insect pests.
Other forms of biological control biocides used to control insects are: diatomaceous earth, neem oil, peppermint oil, rosemary and thyme oil, homemade insecticidal soaps and tea tree oil.
Herbicide alternatives include vinegar and boiling water.
This alternative to soil fumigation that puts chemical pesticides in the soil can be used to eliminate, or significantly reduce, fumigation. It combines high temperatures from solar heating with microbial fermentation to create a soil environment lethal to pathogens and weed seeds.
The process, tested by a group of students at UC Davis, involved adding compost and leftover skins and seeds from grape or tomato processing to the soil and then wet it, after which a clear plastic tarp is tightly applied over the entire area to trap the heat from the sun in the soil. The result is that the compost and food processing waste encourage rapid growth of microbes, which produce organic acids from fermentation and are deadly to pests.
They claim it makes good use of food waste, and has the potential to improve profitability since fumigation costs are substantial.
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