Food First Part 7




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977



Chapter 7: The Food versus Poison Trade-off?

Question: You may be right that the numbers of people are not the real threat to the adequacy of food resources – that the real issues are who controls the land and what it is used for. But you have totally neglected one very serious hazard encountered in trying to produce more food. We have all read and seen on television frightening accounts of the dangers of using pesticides and other chemicals to increase food production.

Perhaps we may have to live with these dangers since applying pesticides is one of the big reasons the United States can produce so much food. Perhaps our food surpluses might allow for some cutback in chemicals such as our recent ban on DDT. But what can you say about the underdeveloped countries where every bushel counts for survival? Granted those countries could increase their food production. But to do that, won’t they need to use more pesticides? We feel trapped. Shouldn’t food for starving people take precedence over all else? The choice seems to be between mass starvation and mass poisoning.

Our Response: We understand exactly the feeling of being trapped. Take, for example, the DDT issue. For us the campaign to ban DDT in the 1960s was a modest first victory for the burgeoning ecology movement. But what has the ban really amounted to? Despite the ban in most industrial countries, more DDT (over 150,000 metric tons) is annually deposited in the environment now than ten years ago. One reason is that representatives of chemical corporations have succeeded in persuading Congress to exempt exports from every limitation or ban on the domestic use of DDT and other pesticides. In 1974, for example, one chemical corporation managed to have (at taxpayers’ expense, of course) the Agency for International Development (AID) ship the insecticide Phosvel to Indonesia, even though it had been linked with massive damage to water buffalos in Egypt in 1972. Phosvel is not registered in the United States.

Maybe, as the pesticide companies argue, the underdeveloped countries in their urgent struggle to produce enough food for their growing populations cannot afford to be concerned about the environmental consequences of pesticides. But what must be weighed in making such a judgment?

The decision on whether to favor such a desperate choice for the underdeveloped countries must first take into account the consequences for everyone. We, in this country, cannot escape the damage to our health and our environment from the poisons injected into the environment abroad. Our planet’s ecosystem does not allow for the inconvenient quarantining of the underdeveloped countries. DDT, like all pesticides, just does not stay where it is put. Once applied to crops it works its way into lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans. Over one fourth of all DDT ever produced has wound up in our oceans. Fish are now universally contaminated. DDT applied to cotton in Nicaragua showed up in the beef carcasses imported through Miami. Pesticides easily enter into the food chain and wind up in human tissue. Each young American adult already carries at least .003 of an ounce of pesticides permanently in his or her body fat. In Guatemala DDT applied to cotton fields was detected at dangerous levels in nursing mothers’ milk. In Egypt in1972 six persons developed symptoms of neurotoxic poisoning several months after the pesticide Phosvel had been used on cotton fields miles away.

  • The smallest amounts of pesticides can have devastating effects. As little as one part in 10 billion of DDT in water severely cuts the growth rate of oysters, and 2 parts in 10 billion can kill commercial species of shrimp and crabs. 8 parts per million of DDT in an estuary off Texas prevents sea trout from spawning.


Are pesticides necessary?

  • A great deal of pesticides are used in this country – about 1.2 billion pounds annually – six pounds of toxic chemicals for every American and over 30% of the world’s total consumption.
  • Pesticide safety regulations are much more lenient than those of most other industrial countries, largely due to pressures exerted by the powerful chemical corporations.

Fact one: Nearly half the pesticides used in the United States goes not to farmland but to golf courses, parks and lawns.

Fact two: Only 5% of the nation’s crop and pasture land is treated with insecticides, 15% with weedkillers, and 0.5% with fungicides.

Fact three: Nonfood crops account for over half of all insecticide used in the United States agriculture. Cotton alone receives almost half (47%) of all insecticides used. It should be noted that even then half of the total cotton acreage receives no insecticides treatment at all.

Fact four: The EPA estimates that 30 years ago American farmers used 50 million pounds of pesticides and lost 7% of their crop before harvest. Today, farmers use 12 times more pesticide yet the percentage of the crop lost before harvest has almost doubled.

Fact five: Even if all pesticide were eliminated, crop loss due to pests (insects, pathogens, weeds, mammals, and birds) would rise only about 7% from 33.6% to 40.7%

Fact six: Several recent studies indicate the needless use of pesticides in agriculture. The EPA has shown that the waste on corn, sorghum, and apples alone is on the order of 16 million pounds annually.

Do pesticides help the hungry to produce food?

  • Annually 800 million pounds of pesticides are used in underdeveloped countries. The vast majority are for export crops, principally cotton and to a lesser extent fruits and vegetables grown under plantation conditions for export.
  • Pesticides lead to an agricultural environment requiring more pesticides. The diminishing financial returns per acre that result often step up the pressure to devote even more land to export crops. The entire process bypasses the need of local people for food.

Pesticides in underdeveloped countries are concentrated in little export-oriented enclaves that functionally are mere extensions of the agricultural systems of the industrial countries. In these enclaves pesticides are often so intensively applied that environmental scientists have the “opportunity” to study the effects of extreme chemical farming. Such an opportunity came with the introduction of pesticides into the cotton fields of the Cañete Valley of Peru after World War II. By 1956 pests so overran the fields that production had to be suspended. Dr. Boza Barducci, the director of the region’s agricultural experimental station notes, “In 1956 we concluded that it was nearly impossible, in practice, to obtain successful control of cotton pests by chemical methods, including the most efficient pesticides presently known.” He further comments, “Such drastic losses as in the Cañete Valley disprove the worldwide belief in the theoretical efficiency of chemical products, an illusion created by the chemical industry.” 

In Nicaragua cotton acreage was increased tenfold between 1950 and 1964. By the late 1950s the large growers acting on advice of United States AID technicians scheduled insecticide applications an average of eight times per season as well as liberal fertilizer treatments. Yields increased. But by 1966 the growers found it necessary to apply insecticides 28 to 30 times per season. Even then cotton yields began to drop: from 821 pounds per acre in 1965 to 621 pounds in 1968. Along the fertile Pacific coastal plain of Central America large cotton estates by the late 1960s had to schedule so many (45 to 50 a season) aerial prays of a “cocktail” of pesticides (including DDT) that cotton production ceased to be profitable. By1968 Nicaragua had the dubious distinction of holding the world’s record for the number of applications of insecticides on a single crop.

In spite of (or because of?) such heavy pesticide doses, food crops such as corn and beans, not themselves sprayed but merely located near the cotton fields, were for the first time heavily damaged by insects. Very little food could be harvested, according to an AID report.

  • In regions where pesticides have been intensively used mosquitoes have developed resistance and malaria, once thought to have been “eradicated” by DDT, has broken out again in Central America and South Asia.

What is happening? Why has everything seemingly gone wrong? In country after country there is a regular progression of events. For the first few years insects are controlled at reasonable cost and yields are higher than ever before. The growers, seeing the bugs literally drop from the plants, feel the pesticides give them power over forces that have always been beyond their control. Gradually, however, the pest species develop resistant strains through a survival of the fittest selection.

A field is not just a battleground of pest versus plant. A closer look reveals a highly complex, interacting system of hundreds of different species of insects and other organisms occupying diverse ecological niches. It is not true that the only good bug is a dead bug. Some insects eat only very restricted parts of the crop plant, some are parasites or flesh-eating predators that live off selected insect species. The plant-eating species do eat the crop plants. But studies show that the vast majority of species never cause sufficient damage to justify the cost of an insecticide treatment. Their numbers are restricted below economic injury levels by their action of parasites and predators. But when these natural controls re overthrown by the introduction of an insecticide that does not distinguish friend from foe, many ordinarily insignificant insects are able to multiply faster than their predators.

  • As the few resistant pests gradually multiply, every application of the insecticide will kill more predators and fewer pests, thus compounding the damage to the crops.
  • By 1971 fifteen pest species had developed resistance to the insecticides applied. The time taken to overcome susceptibility to an insecticide has ranged from 4 to 14 years.
  • The more effective an insecticide is in killing susceptible individuals of a pest population, the faster resistant individuals will evolve.
  • There is the alarming possibility that the present pest control strategy in Central America may be leading to resistant populations of pests on a hemispheric scale.

Only twenty-five years ago the spider mite was a minor pest. Repeated use of pesticides supposedly aimed at other pests have decimated the natural enemies and competitors of the mite. Today the mite is the pest most seriously threatening agriculture worldwide. On Kenya’s coffee plantations no one had ever paid much heed to the giant looper, not until, that is, someone started spraying insecticides to wipe out another relatively insignificant pest. They succeeded in wiping out that pest – but along with it the natural predator of the looper. Free at last of their enemy, giant loopers took over the plantation.

The human toll

Leave a Comment