Advocates have been warning about the dangers of pesticide overuse since the 1990s, and as yet, the agriculture industry shows no signs of adjusting its practices to address these concerns, protect the environment, and create a safer place for workers. The pressures on farmers to use pesticides are considerable, but the costs of continuing down the path industrial agriculture is taking are also very high. Something has to give, and it’s not going to be the bugs, which show signs of gaining, rather than losing, ground under current practices, much though the industry might attempt to deny it.
The primary contributor to pesticide overuse is agriculture intensification. As farms push to produce more food, they need to enact tighter controls to address potential threats to the crop. Not just insect pests, but also small animals and weeds, in addition to the usual gamut of weather and situations outside the farmer’s control, like the risk that the crop might lose all value by the time it gets to market. Intensification means more pesticides and herbicides, it means less crop rotation, it means exhausted soil, heavy water use, and an increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers, because these are the only things that will support this level of production.
Resistance is the obvious consequence of pesticide overuse. Farmers applying heavy pesticides to their crops are encouraging the development of organisms that will be able to survive them. Those organisms survive multiple applications and spread, threatening other farms. As pest control methods become inadequate, farmers may switch and mix up their chemicals in an attempt to stay one step ahead, but they will always trail behind the bugs. Pesticide application is defended because of the devastating effects of insects on crops, but part of the reason they’re so devastating is because of close cropping, failure to use cover crops, and other changes to farming practices. Adjustments to how people farm would make a significant difference in how pests affect farms.
For workers, pesticide overuse has serious consequences. The workers tasked with applying pesticides are often provided with inadequate protection from the harsh chemicals they handle, which means they’re coming into direct skin contact with and inhaling pesticides. Sprays from planes endanger people living around farms, like migrant workers who live in temporary housing or trailers. Farmeworkers are widely treated as disposable commodities, not human beings, which means that this human cost is often minimized in debates about pesticide use and the responsible handling of agricultural chemicals.
People may not care about farmworkers, but they should be concerned about the costs associated with sick farmworkers. Crops can’t be harvested if the workforce is sick, and sick people end up in hospitals and public clinics, where they need services. Many don’t have health insurance or other benefits and rely heavily on public assistance; effectively, the government is subsidizing irresponsible farming practices by paying to treat sick workers. That’s only the workers willing to seek treatment, of course, which can be risky when you’re undocumented, which many farmworkers are. Some may be sick and in need of treatment but too afraid of deportation.
Consumers are also under threat from excessive pesticides. Chemicals on fruits and vegetables people consume can make them sick, and in farming communities, this can be a double problem. Not only are people ingesting chemicals at every meal, they’re also drinking them, because pesticides leach into groundwater and other sources of water. This is a concern in California, where carcinogenic fumigants have been approved for use on crops like strawberries, with very real public health consequences. In their haste to meet perceived consumer demand, farmers are making their customers sick with the pesticides they use in an attempt to keep yields high. These unintended consequences are dismissed by the industry, of course, but should be an important consideration for consumers preparing to support an industry that is willing to kill them for profits.
The environment loses when farmers apply heavy pesticides to the fields. The same leaching problem affects animals in the environment, particularly fish, which can be extremely vulnerable to contaminants in the water supply. Some research suggests that fish kills and other peculiar animal dieoffs may actually be traceable to industrial agriculture, raising a grim reminder of discoveries about DDT documented in Silent Spring. Despite the fact that DDT was a known problem by the 1960s, it wasn’t banned in the US until 1972.
Similar problems are being associated with pesticides in common use right now, raising the question of whether the government is planning to spend a decade debating whether to ban them, with pressure from industry lobbyists to keep them legal or issue dispensations that effectively make them easy to access even if they’re formally banned. The placement of the interests of industry over people, especially over public health, is a pressing issue in the United States that appears to be on the rise, and unchecked. Even as the country struggles with the public health crisis created by a totally dysfunctional health care system, it encourages companies to engage in exploitative and abusive behaviours that harm the general public. The companies that manufacture and promote pesticides are well aware that the consequences for their actions will be minimal.
Fighting pesticide overuse requires a total shift in the farming system and a push towards more functional, holistic farming practices where the bottom line isn’t the most important thing. As long as profits continue to be placed over workers, consumers, and the environment, there’s going to be an incentive to slop chemicals all over US farms, because the alternative is unprofitable crops that can’t yield enough to keep a farm operational. We’re all trapped in this together.