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  • Writer's pictureThink Upstream

Think upstream on pesticides

The wider environment is critical to human health. What are we putting into it?
A wheat field on a sunny day.

Tanya Dahms

Downstream thinking has led to the wide-scale use of chemical pesticides. These are chemical agents designed to repel, incapacitate, or kill weeds and pests in agriculture, or for cosmetic uses on lawns, gardens, parks and golf courses. But chemical pesticides have unintended impacts by inundating our environment, contaminating wildlife, our food, waterways, drinking water, and even finding their way into our bloodstream and breast milk.

Despite a recent UN report declaring that pesticides do not feed the world, mergers between Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-DuPont and Syngenta-ChemChina have been approved, allowing only three companies to control 59 and 64 per cent of our global seed and pesticide markets. The UN report outlines how pesticides adversely impact our human rights to health and a healthy environment, explaining that national and international legislation fails to “to protect humans and the environment from hazardous pesticides… and to effectively apply the precautionary principle” (resisting the introduction of new products with disputed or unknown ultimate consequences). The many useful upstream recommendations in the UN report, to protect human health and the environment, are actively being stifled by pressure from the chemical pesticide industry.

"Our health, and the health of our communities, are on the line here."

Certain pesticides endanger our food supply, for example, neonicotinoids (neonics). Neonics are thought to be disabling our bee population and therefore wiping out the pollinators crucial for our food production. In China, farmers without local bee populations have had to resort to hand-pollinating their fruit trees – can you imagine pollinating every single flower by hand with a Q-tip?!

Our farmers are currently faced with a "superweed" crisis (weeds that are resistant to pesticides), ironically brought on by the use of glyphosate pesticides. The so-called “Xtend” crops designed to address this problem use a partner pesticide, Dicamba, that is particularly volatile and so drifts into nearby fields causing debilitating crop damage, now called the 'drift crisis'. So even if you are a farmer who has not sprayed your field, your crop can be killed by drift from your next-door neighbour.

In addition to incapacitating agriculture by putting it in the controlling hands of the for-profit industry, recent research shows that pesticides residues are found in most non-organic foods, from our cereals to nutraceuticals and baby foods. So imagine your newborn baby, who is far more sensitive to pesticides, ingesting them in their first meal from their mother’s breast milk, and soon after in their baby food. What’s meant to nurture us and our children is now commonly contaminated with pesticide residues, many of which have been linked to human disease. Since pesticide legislation has been identified as the major challenge in striving towards global health, food safety and security, we need to start alerting our local, provincial and federal governments of these dangers.

Our health, and the health of our communities, are on the line here. Exposure to avoidable environmental pollutants, including pesticides, can cause oxidative stress in cells that hamper fetal development and make our children more prone to disease. Children interact with their physical environment in a very different manner than adults, and so are uniquely susceptible to environmental toxicants. I have watched my toddler rip out grass, pop it in his mouth, or even taste a tree or plant, underscoring at the very least the need for proper signage during pesticide use, and elimination of sprays which can drift anywhere with the wind.

"It’s not just disease that threatens our health — we also need food, water and air to stay alive."

But it’s not just our little ones — we adults are far from immune. In your daily life, it is likely that you are unwittingly exposed to numerous harmful pesticides.

One recent study describes how environmental toxins, including pesticides, can short circuit our stress response pathways and lead to psychological disorders, which should be especially disturbing in the midst of multiple Canadian mental health crises. Organochlorinated pesticides (DDT, methoxychlor, dieldrin, chlordane, toxaphene, mirex, kepone, lindane, and benzene hexachloride) have been linked to insulin-resistant metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Organochlorinated and organophosphate (glyphosate - Roundup) pesticides act as endocrine disruptors, causing oxidative stress to our cells that can lead to disrupted metabolism, breast cancer, ovarian problems, cancer of the testes, thyroid eruptions, Alzheimer disease,

schizophrenia, and nerve damage. Exposure to pesticides further increases the risk of multiple myeloma, cancer of the white blood cells, blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow, ageing of stem cells that are needed to regenerate our organs, and Parkinson’s disease thought to be partially brought on by oxidative stress.

Remember, it’s not just disease that threatens our health — we also need food, water and air to stay alive. The ecological impact on our environment is enormous, which underscores the need to keep our environment clean and consider alternatives to chemical pesticides.

There are lots of alternatives without such harmful impacts, like using bacteria that combat insects. The practice of bacterial pesticides in agriculture was first used by ancient Egyptians and Chinese, ultimately leading to the development of our 20th century genetically modified Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) pesticide. 

China has recently adopted Bt rice to reduce chemical pesticide use. The use of phytochemicals (biologically active compounds from plants) and essential oils also originated in ancient times, with renewed contemporary interest focused on their antibacterial, antifungal and pest deterrent properties for air quality, agricultural food preservation, pesticides and insecticides.  Many of these alternatives, including the precautionary principle, are clearly outlined in the UN report. These options are usually inexpensive and accessible — we only need the political will to enact them.

Safer pesticides really do make dollars and sense. Toxic chemicals are tied to almost 340 billion in annual US spending, for costs to the health system and lost wages — almost double that of the European Union which better limits exposure through more stringent regulations. So armed with all of this information, why are we not protecting our environment for future generations, ensuring our health legacy and our provincial financial stability by eliminating or reducing chemical pesticide use? We need to be thinking upstream, using the precautionary principle before releasing pesticides into the environment and limiting the use of pesticides.

There’s a lot you can do in your life to reduce chemical pesticide exposure, like alternative methods for lawn and garden care, voting with your dollars and buying foods that are farmed organically or with less harmful pesticides, pressuring your school system, city and province to ban or limit pesticide use. Do you have time to meet with your member of parliament, write a letter to the province, start a petition for a city pesticide ban or even just sign a petition? If we work together, we can all safety swim upstream.

Tanya Dahms is a biochemistry professor at the University of Regina.


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