As I am suffering from a disease, I apologize for the time it took me to get this extremely critical article published. I really wanted to churn it out in my usual style. I tried starting this post with some funny lines. They all sucked. Then I moved on to analogies. They didn’t make sense. Then I tried a newsflash of sorts. That just sounded lame. So I’m just going to start with some basics and gradually move on to the crux of the issue. Sorry, but the disease is a downer! Writers block… you need to have had to relate!
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What are pesticides anyway?
Pesticides (including insecticides) are substances or mixtures of substances intended to protect against pests where the pesticide may be a chemical or a biological agent or device and the pest may be anything from insects to plant pathogens to worms to mammals that spread disease or cause any kind of nuisance.
Pesticide use, like most things we have today, was invented a long time back and, obviously, for a reason. This might be news to you but, for a while now, we humans have been using chemicals on our crops to save them from pests. What started off as dusting of elemental sulphur (in ancient Mesopotamia about 4500 years) got transformed into the use of…
- toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and lead by the 15th century,
- nicotine sulphate based insecticides in the 17th century, and
- natural pesticides derived from chrysanthemum and roots of tropical vegetables in the 19th century.
It was in the 1950s that things started to get ugly when synthetic pesticides and insecticides (like DDT) were starting to become the preferred choice. Pesticide manufacturers started manufacturing too much synthetic pesticides and their use became widespread. Between 1950 and now, pesticide use has has increased 50-fold and per this article we are now looking at the following ungodly numbers…
World pesticide amount used exceeded 5.0 billion pounds in 2000 and 2001. Herbicides accounted for the largest portion of total use, followed by other pesticide use, and fungicide use. Total world pesticide amount used decreased in 2001 for all pesticide types.
There’s got to be something good about it!
If we have been using pesticides for thousands of years and if the government regulates it’s use, there should be some good to pesticide usage right? OK, the government regulation means nothing, but you know what I mean – pesticides didn’t come into existence for no reason. So what are the pros associated with pesticides?
- Better yield: Pesticide use helps in controlling pests and plant diseases and hence results in improved yield.
- Protection against infection: Using pesticide to ward off pests has saved many (human and animal) lives from insect born infectious diseases like malaria, typhoid, black plague etc.
- More revenue: By improving yields, pesticide use helps agrobusinesses generate more revenue. As a matter of fact, for every $1 spent on pesticides, $4 worth of crops are saved.
- Variety & availability: A variety of crops are made available year round removing ‘seasonal’ from the equation.
And of course there is the bad!
As expected though, as we started using pesticides and as demand and ‘food manufacturing’ increased, their usage has also increased drastically. And what is the easiest way to meet demand? Yep! Dump the natural and move completely to artificial. And since synthetic pesticides can be produced in large quantities with ease, that is exactly what we did.
So when we realized we are using too much chemical on our food, we started looking into the possible ill effects of pesticide use and came back with an impressive list.
Acute & chronic effects
Pesticide exposure can cause a variety of adverse health effects. These effects can range from simple irritation of the skin and eyes to more severe effects such as affecting the nervous system, mimicking hormones causing reproductive problems, and also causing cancer.
Acute poisoning from a single or short-term exposure can result in death. Chronic impacts of long-term exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues in food, could also result in death.
Fifteen studies from 9 countriesexamined associations between pesticides and birth defects. The studies consistently showed increased risk with pesticide exposure. Specific defects included limb reductions,urogenital anomalies,central nervous system defects,orofacial clefts,heart defects,and eye anomalies. The rate of any birth defect was also increased by parental exposure to pesticides.
Fetal death includes spontaneous abortion, fetal death, stillbirth, and neonatal death. Results were consistent across several study designs; 9 of 11 studiesfound positive associations with pesticide exposure.
Pesticide exposure doubled the frequency of chromosome aberrations. In clinical practice, these aberrations could present as spontaneous abortion, birth defects, sperm abnormalities, or cancer risk.
And here is some literature about pesticide exposure causing asthma, neurological defects and cancer.
But the government has it under control, right?
Yes, the government set limits!
But wait! No one cares about limits! Its all about making a buck isn’t it? This is a world where people will do anything to shine some greeen… and that includes killing you. I’m not kidding one bit here.
While developed countries have good control of food production (and manufacturing), developing and under-developed countries struggle with quality and control. As is the case with adulteration, control over agricultural produce – the seeds, the methods, the pesticides, the quantities – is very weak. And the reason for this?
- Farmers are uneducated and don’t posses the capability to understand the risks involved with excessive pesticide use.
- Greedy farmers and food manufacturers use WAY more pesticide than their supposed to in an effort to improve their yields.
- And of course, corruption in its many forms.
So what happens when people don’t care about limits? Well, things get ugly… real ugly!
When bad becomes worse and worse becomes WTF!
OK, so pesticides are being used and the government can’t and won’t do crap about it. This isn’t any different from robbery or bribery or prostitution right? Wrong. The difference is that this particular issue could harm you in ways you wouldn’t imagine and that isn’t because pesticides are being used in produce but because…
- Pesticides are being used in astronomical quantities in India (and other developing countries)
- Pesticides that have been banned due to their extremely toxic nature are still being used in India (and other developing countries)
Here is some evidence explaining why the situation is worse than you think it is.
This 2005 article from India Together says…
Pesticide use in India has jumped hundred folds from 154 million tones in 1954 to 88,000 million tones in 2001 [Thats 571-fold in under 50 years!]. Punjab is one of the largest users of pesticides: 6,972 million tones a year.
This Nov 2010 article from India Today says…
The NGO picked up 193 samples of 35 different vegetables from markets in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. These were then tested for 106 pesticides and the results were alarming as four of the five banned chemicals were found in these samples.
Banned substances like chlordane, heptachlor, endrin and ethyl parathion were found in almost all samples of bitter gourd. Pesticide residue was also recovered from vegetables like cauliflower, tomato, ladyfinger, brinjal, cucumber, cabbage, potatoes and onions.
According to the findings, the pesticides used in India are 750 times higher than the European standards. These chemicals can cause brain cancer, blood cancer, kidney or lung damage and neurological problems. It can also disrupt liver and hormone functions and can cause several skin disorders.
The pesticide residue limit in India has not been reviewed for the past 30 years. Experts agree that strict monitoring from state agencies is an absolute imperative.
This post on Living Farms says…
The chemical came into spotlight in India when at Kasargad in Kerala it was sprayed aerially and the local population of many villages was exposed to it. What followed was very shocking. It led to physical and mental defects in poor farmers and their families. Studies have shown endosulfan to accumulate in a mother’s breast milk and it has been linked to appalling birth deformities, the like of which are still being observed at Kasargad, “Kerala’s Bhopal”.
Such events have occurred across the Globe and 62 countries all over the world have either banned it or restricted its use. Unfortunately India has done nothing to stem the use of this endocrine disruptor which can cause changes at the genetic level.
This very recent article on toxiclinks says…
However, studies over the years have shown that a little over 200 grams of vegetables that an average Indian statistically gets on a daily basis, is a recipe of a toxic blend of over 40 deadly chemical pesticides….
The year 2008 document of AVRDC ‘The World Vegetable Center’, thus rightly suggests India’s pesticide use on vegetables as alarmingly high.
This, also very recent, article from The Times Of India says…
Rampant use of banned pesticides in fruits and vegetables continues to put at risk the life of the common man. Farmers apply pesticides such as chlordane, endrin and heptachor that can cause serious neurological problems, kidney damage and skin diseases. A study cond`ucted by Delhi-based NGO Consumer-Voice reveals that the amount of pesticides used in eatables in India is as much as 750 times the European standards. The survey collected sample data from various wholesale and retail shops in Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata.
“Out of five internationally-banned pesticides, four were found to be common in vegetables sold in the Indian markets. Banned pesticides were found in bitter gourd and spinach,” said Sisir Ghosh, head of Consumer-Voice. The banned chemicals included chlordane, a potent central nervous system toxin, endrin, which can cause headache nausea and dizziness, and heptachor that can damage the liver and decrease fertility.
And make no mistake, this absolutely is the case in pretty much all developing nations as explained here, here and here.
And guess what? Most of these risks seem to affect folks who make ‘healthy food choices’ more than their non-caring/unhealthy counterparts as these are the folks who tend to include more vegetables and fruit in their diet! And this, my friend, is how worse becomes WTF!
Pardon my french but, from this and the other literature I have read on the subject, I have to say…
Les pesticides seront vas te faire encule jusqu’à
Alright Raj. Thats enough! Less scary, more healthy! Is there a solution?
If you do live in a developed country, this might not be that big a deal since controls are in place holding pesticide content within acceptable limits and worrying too much about this might be considered obsessive. But if you do live in a developing country, eating organic food ranks right up in the list of things you’d need to do to live a basic safe life. In other words, eating pesticide free food (in developing countries) is comparable to looking for vehicles on the road before crossing.
So, safely assuming all the vegetables and fruits you buy (in your developing nation) from your local grocer or grocery chain or street vendor is loaded with (accepted AND banned) pesticides (way beyond the upper limit), what do you do to keep your risk of pesticide poisoning low?
The best option to safety, taste and health – eat organic food!
Yes, finding organic food is hard and yes it is a bit more (10-20%) expensive. But wouldn’t you rather eat truly healthy produce and support organic farming than to eat chemical laden make-believe healthy produce and fall prey to greedy food manufacturers/distributors?
If organic food isn’t available for any reason,
- Eat ONLY seasonal vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits that are in season need lesser pesticides than others.
- Wash vegetables and fruits thoroughly using soap! Yep. You read that right. Use any detergent you use to wash your hands but be sure to wash off all the soap before eating/cooking.
- Eat food that has worms in it. Pick fruits and vegetables that have worms in them. Clean them free of worms. Eat! If the reasoning isn’t obvious, if the worm wasn’t killed, you probably are safe too.
- Any fruit, be it a banana or an apple or a fig, peel it before you deal it.
- If you’re at a restaurant or someone’s house and are unsure about the produce you are being served, reduce your risk by eating less of what you’re skeptical about.
Think about it this way – You don’t eat food that has dirt/crap on it. Why would you eat food with (real) poison? You wouldn’t eat at a place that is known to cause food poisoning. Why would you eat pesticide laden food that you know could food poison and poison you and your family?
Eat organic food folks! A few bucks here and there isn’t worth the risk of chronic pesticide poisoning leading to possible neurodevelopmental disorders and cancers and acute poisoning resulting in anything from skin problems to possible death.
And remember – awareness precedes action! If you live in a developing country, consider this an eye-opener and make the necessary changes immediately. If you live in a developed country, please make an effort to forward this on to your friends and family who live in developing nations. Take a moment and make a difference. Please share this post on your wall or whatever else you share stuff on and spread the word.
In the next post, I will write in detail about some organic food stores in Chennai (India) that supply safe, delicious and pesticide free produce at reasonable prices. Stay tuned.