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Starvation is a serious issue, but is using pesticides to grow crops really an answer?

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What’s the Panic About Pesticides?

“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 805 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2012-2014.” (“The State of Food”) Starvation and diseases are major concerns in today’s world, especially in poor, undeveloped countries. The population is increasing substantially, making world hunger harder and harder to eradicate. It is one of the main problems we face today as a society.

Many people today are eating organic food just because they think it is healthier or tastes better, and though it may be, there are much more important issues at hand. Organic farming decreases crop yields and requires more resources to produce less food. The reason for many choosing this option is pesticides. Pesticides are now believed to be by many very dangerous and unhealthy, and thus they choose to eat organic. I believe, however, that the benefits pesticides provide for us are substantial and it is not necessary to choose organic.

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Many people have heard that pesticides are harmful and bad for your health if you eat produce that has been sprayed with pesticides. There are some studies out there linking pesticide use to a number of health defects, so that concern is warranted. The fact is though, that pesticides are used for a reason and that reason is to protect crops against pests and diseases. The great hunger plight we face on Earth today is the main reason why pesticides are advantageous. Pesticides ensure that crop yields will be more predictable (“What are Pesticides”). Without pesticides, half of a farmer’s crops could be wiped out in an instant by disease or a bug infestation. With these chemicals being sprayed on our produce it is much less likely for a large amount of crops to be lost. The European Crop Protection Association estimates that between 30% and 50% of a crop will usually be lost due to insects or diseases. Without pesticides, the amount lost would be close to the 50% range most of the time, possibly even higher. With the use of pesticides, however, that number will always be closer to the 30% range (“What are Pesticides?”).

When you are talking about millions and millions of crops being grown worldwide, a 20% difference in crop yield is huge. That means 20% more food that we would have available to help combat starvation. We can’t let the resources we have go towards nothing simply because some people prefer to buy produce that has not been sprayed with pesticides.

Another huge problem in many undeveloped countries is disease, and pesticides are very helpful in eradicating diseases from the food we eat. In 2013, there were nearly 200 million cases of malaria around the globe, with over 500,000 resulting deaths (Georgiev 34). Most cases occur in poor countries as 90% of the deaths from malaria in 2013 occurred in Africa and surrounding countries. We’re in luck though because pesticides can severely reduce the risk of contracting malaria (“10 Facts on Malaria”). Pesticides have been proven to kill over 90% of insects, mosquitoes in this is case, which is a great help when it comes to preventing the spread of diseases.

Mosquitos are just one among many disease-carrying insects though. Ticks, rodents, roaches, beetles; All of these pests can carry disease and are very often found destroying the crops of farmers around the world. Ticks are well-known as a carrier for Lyme disease. Lyme disease affects 300,000 people in the U.S. every year. Rabies and West Nile virus are also prominent diseases that affect millions worldwide and are causes by these same pests that pesticides are proven to eradicate. Without pesticides, it is very likely these diseases would be more widespread and would lead to an increase in deaths by insect-related diseases around the world.

The arguments given by many scientists seem to suggest that pesticides are indeed beneficial to us in many ways. Dr. Gossett from the Salem Press Encyclopedia says this about the benefits of pesticides:

“The use of pesticides has had a beneficial impact on the lives of humans by increasing food production and reducing food costs. Even with pesticides, insects and other pests reduce the world’s potential food supply by more than 50 percent. Without pesticides, the losses would be much higher, resulting in increased starvation and higher food costs” (Gossett Par. 4).

The facts are there, pesticides improve food production which in turn lowers food costs. The amount of money and resources it saves is staggering.

On the other hand, there are strong, significant arguments against the use of pesticides. You can’t deny the fact that pesticides are not good for you in a nutritional way, and that they won’t make you a healthier person. It is simply the purposes that pesticides do serve that make them a positive thing for our society, such as the previously mentioned disease and crop loss prevention. So aside from those significant benefits, it could be said that pesticides can be harmful. It has been shown that when you are eating an industrially produced apple, you are also usually consuming over 30 different kinds of pesticides. Even by washing it off you will not be able to remove all of the pesticides because they eventually begin to seep into the produce. It is because of that reason that so many people think pesticides lead to negative health effects. There have been studies that link pesticides to many chronic illnesses, these including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even birth defects if a pregnant woman reaches high enough toxin levels (Jakuboski).

These chemicals are definitely dangerous, as are most chemicals, and cases of diseases like cancer occurring in those exposed to them has been shown. However, there has not been a single study linking cancer to someone who simply consumes produce that has been treated with pesticides. All of these cases occurred in farmers who are actually handling and spraying the pesticides, which obviously exposes them to a much higher level of the chemicals (Stewart 183). These farmers are putting themselves in danger by doing this, but again, it is their choice to use pesticides or not. They are choosing to spray their crops with pesticides in order to yield a higher crop ratio, and also shield us from many illnesses caused by pests.

Another main point that many scientists, environmentalists, and food-eating citizens around the globe bring up is that pesticides can harm the environment. Studies have shown that the continuous application of pesticides on produce around the world can lead to the chemicals lingering in the air, affecting the ozone, and polluting waterways. The Agricultural MU Guide, Pesticides and the Environment, explains that “For certain pesticides to be effective, they must move within the soil…too much movement can transfer a pesticide away from the target pest. This can lead to reduced pest control, contamination of surface water and groundwater and injury of non-target species, including humans” (Why Organic) So what this means is that when pesticides are sprayed they do not just land on the exposed part of the produce and do their job, they must sink into the soil and move around to all of the roots in order to be effective. When this occurs these chemicals stay in the soil and eventually find their way into the water and air.

These claims can be countered by many facts and studies that show that health defects related to pesticide exposure are few and far between. Not only are they rare, but often it is unclear whether these illnesses were even mainly caused by the pesticides. It is hard to pinpoint causes of diseases like cancer and ADHD. In 2011, two University of California-Davis food scientists conducted a study on the dangers of pesticide exposure.

What they found is that extremely uncommon for pesticides to put your health in danger, and that swapping normal produce for organic produce would not benefit your health. The study stated: “Our findings do not indicate that substituting organic forms of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ commodities for conventional forms will lead to any measurable consumer health benefit” (Hamilton). So as I said before, pesticides don’t help you in a health-conscious kind of way, but they are not bad for you. Take coffee for example; One cup can contain ten milligrams of known natural rodent carcinogens, and this is about equal to the amount of synthetic pesticides a normal person would consume in an entire year (Peto).

As far as the environmental impact goes, pesticides are simply just a necessary evil. Yes, pesticides do release toxins in our environment, but compared to other environmental hazards the amount is minimal. Radiation is a big issue in our society today. Toxins from nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons testing, and jet flights, all the way down to x-rays are abundant in our world. Radiation is also extremely bad for your health. This is because:

Radioactive materials that decay spontaneously produce ionizing radiation, which has sufficient energy to strip away electrons from atoms (creating two charged ions) or to break some chemical bonds. Any living tissue in the human body can be damaged by ionizing radiation in a unique manner. The body attempts to repair the damage, but sometimes the damage is of a nature that cannot be repaired or it is too severe or widespread to be repaired” (Health Effects).

People who live close to nuclear plants and those who have received many x-rays are at a serious risk of contracting diseases, mainly cancer. It’s been shown in studies that jet pilots and flight attendants are at a higher risk for cancer then those who do not frequently fly on planes. This is a very real danger and compared to the harm that pesticides have been shown to cause, pesticides look like the environment’s best friend (Kaur).

Now there are also ways that farmers can cut down on the toll pesticides take on the environment. Pesticides are still a chemical though, thus making it impossible to not cause some sort of harm to the water, soil, and air on Earth, but with the proper care we can reduce the risk. It begins with simply implementing a variety of water protection methods for use against pesticides. There is a set of drinking water standards set up by the European Commission called the Drinking Water Detective (DWD) that many farmers are now trying to meet. There is a range of new catchment sensitive farming techniques and these will help lower the possibility of pesticides leaking into surrounding waterways and polluting them (“Water Quality”).

There are also many other ways to cut down on the harm done to the environment. Many farmers have enough work on their hands to do for most of the day, but one thing they can do is just take a small amount of time to manually remove excess pesticides from the soil. Removing weeds that grow near the plants that are intended to be sprayed with pesticides can help significantly. Very often when the pesticides are sprayed onto the crops it is also sprayed onto surrounding weeds and other foliage. These weeds absorb the pesticides and it spreads through their roots and into the soil. Although this is also what occurs with the crops, eliminating plants that will not be used will help to lower the amount of pesticides in soil.

Though there is less than can be done to eliminate pests like flies, mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects without using pesticides, large pests such as rodents and reptiles can be done away with in a variety of different ways. Farmers can simply set up traps around their crops to help catch things like rats and snakes. Certain invasive species have prominent, easily found breeding sites. These breeding sites can be removed and that certain species would not be seen for a long time, this is the case with ants or beetles. When an anthill is found, it can be removed and the vast majority of ants inside would be killed. By doing things like using traps and utilizing non-chemical removal of breeding sites, the amount of pesticides used and thus absorbed into the soil would drastically decrease.

In my opinion, it is simply purposeless to choose organic because it’s believed to be a tad bit healthier for you. Even if this is true, the positives that come out of eating non-organic produce are tremendous. We waste resources on producing organic food, something we cannot afford when there are nearly one billion people on our planet that are starving. By trying to go organic we lose copious amounts of food every year to pests and diseases, and we could cut the number of malnourished people significantly if we stopped this. If your food is sprayed with pesticides you can also be sure that your risk of contracting diseases is lowered, as they were made to kill such diseases.

The belief that the consumption of an apple will lead to the development of a chronic disease is just preposterous, as a pesticide-sprayed apple is no more dangerous than eating this food, drinking this drink, or doing this activity. Any cases of cancer resulting from pesticide exposure usually come from farmers or other workers that handle pesticides and in doing so expose themselves to extremely large amounts of the chemicals. These farmers, however, are putting themselves in harm’s way in order for you, the consumer, to be able to eat safer produce.

Eat what you want to eat, and know that there is no need to panic simply because your produce isn’t organic.

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