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by Jean English
Copyright 2008

When I was associated with Land Grant universities and expressed my interest in organic farming and gardening, I was told over and over by many (not all) professors that pesticides are safe as long as they’re used according to label directions. Sadly, science was not on their side. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits pesticide manufacturers from saying that pesticides are safe, harmless or nontoxic, even if the manufacturers say “when used as directed” on the label.

What’s the real deal with pesticides? Sharon Tisher reviews the many problems with EPA’s data collection and pesticide registration processes in her “Pesticides Quiz." Here, I summarize some of the answers she gives to her quiz and add a few comments of my own.

When the EPA considers registering a pesticide for use, it looks not only at data about health and environmental effects of the product, but also at economic and social data. A pesticide may be a known health hazard, but the EPA will allow its use because it will save farmers time and/or money. So, for example, the EPA allows blueberry growers in Maine to use the insecticide Guthion (Azinphos-methyl), even though the EPA lists this organophosphate chemical as being highly acutely toxic to the nervous system and having very serious risks to farm workers, birds, aquatic invertebrates, fish and terrestrial mammals. The EPA says it will phase out all uses of this insecticide in the next four years—further evidence that the agency permits pesticides to remain on the market even when evidence of their unacceptable toxicity is known.

Likewise, the EPA ranks almost half of the 26 most used pesticides in the United States as possible or probable carcinogens, based on studies on animals; and epidemiological studies of humans link four commonly used pesticides with cancer. Others, such as the herbicide Atrazine (and eight other of the most commonly used pesticides in the United States), disrupt hormonal systems, affecting the development and functioning of sex organs—sometimes reducing sperm production, for example. Atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in our country, and some of it washes off agricultural fields during rains or with irrigation water and goes into public waters.

The EPA itself does not test pesticides, nor does it require independent testing for its information. Instead, those who manufacture and sell pesticides supply these data—which seems like a blatant conflict of interest… These tests rarely consider toxicity to fetuses, infants and adolescents; the toxicity of combinations of pesticides (conventional growers often mix pesticides to control more than one pest at a time); or dose-response toxicity. Sometimes, especially with chemicals that affect hormones, a low or very low dose is more toxic than a higher dose.

The misnamed “inert” ingredients that are combined with pesticides to make them dissolve or spread better, or to otherwise increases their efficacy, may be harmful, too. Who knows? The EPA doesn’t.

These pesticides and “inert” ingredients often remain, alone or in various combinations, on food after it’s harvested—even after it’s washed, peeled, cored, cooked or otherwise prepared.

That’s a small part of the pesticide side of the “Why Organic” story. Synthetic chemical fertilizers have their own problems (next column), but organic farming and gardening do a lot more than avoid toxic substances. Organic methods can promote healthy ecosystems; help mitigate excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and increase the nutrient composition and healthfulness of fruits, vegetables, meats--even seeds (which we eat as grains). More about that in the next, next column.

This article is provided by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), PO Box 170, Unity, ME 04988; 207-568-4142; mofga@mofga.org; www.mofga.org. Joining MOFGA helps support and promote organic farming and gardening in Maine and helps Maine consumers enjoy more healthful, Maine-grown food. Copyright 2008. Please let us know if you reprint this article. Thanks!


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