By Donella Meadows
–September 25, 1986–
Every year American farmers apply 1.3 million tons of pesticides to their fields.
When pesticides are sprayed by airplane — and 65% of them are — less than half the chemical hits the target field. The rest disintegrates in the air or falls somewhere else. Of the pesticide that does reach the field, far less than one percent makes contact with a harmful insect or weed.
American farmers pay $4.1 billion a year for these chemicals, 99% of which do not hit home. For most farmers that investment is sound, in the short term, looking only at their own balance sheets.
But if we could trace where those millions of tons of chemicals go and count up all the costs of their presence, we would not be impressed with the economics of pesticides.
Some pesticides end up in groundwater. Citizens of the Central Valley of California, surrounded by some of the most heavily-sprayed fields in the country, are finding their water seriously contaminated. Wells on Long Island, polluted with the insecticide Temik, will probably not become safe for drinking for 100 years. The costs can be counted in the importation of bottled water, in the latent cancers in children, and in the shattered peace of mind of whole townships.
Some pesticides kill species that are not pests, creating various kinds of ecological havoc. A Nebraska farmer told me that the songbirds disappeared from his farm, and also the bullsnake, which kept the mouse population in check. He stopped using pesticides, and gradually the wildlife came back.
Sometimes pesticides actually create pests by wiping out the wrong species. Cotton farmers used to apply DDT and dieldrin to control the boll weevil. The pesticides killed off the natural predators of two other insects — the tobacco budworm and the bollworm — which until then had never been a problem. Without their predators they multiplied and became major cotton pests.
The creature most in danger of being accidentally zapped by pesticides is the farmer. A recent study of Kansas farm families has revealed cancer rates far above the national average. The cancers are correlated with use of the herbicide 2,4-D.
California registers 200-300 serious pesticide poisonings of farmworkers every year, and the California Health Department estimates that only 1 or 2 percent of poisonings are ever reported. These incidents are acute toxic exposures only; the slow accumulation of cancers and birth defects is hard to follow, especially since in California many of the workers are migrants.
Epidemiologists guess that over 300,000 farmworkers in the U.S. suffer pesticide-induced illnesses every year. There is no federal protection guaranteeing farmworkers a safe working place, as there is for industrial workers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
Even the pesticides that strike home and eliminate the intended pest can cause problems. A few genetically-resistant individuals may survive. They are the ones that go on to produce the next generation, which inherits the resistance. The pests and the pesticide industry are in a race to see whether new pesticides can be invented faster than the pests become resistant to the old ones.
After the boll weevil became DDT-resistant, farmers switched to methyl parathion, continuing the DDT to control budworm. By 1965 the budworm was resistant to DDT, to other chlorinated hydrocarbons, and to the new carbamate pesticides. A few years later it was also resistant to methyl parathion. Farmers were spraying all sorts of chemical combinations in increasing quantities 10-20 times per season, but still were losing their crops.
More than 400 insects and mites have become resistant to pesticides in this country. Over 150 microbial pathogens are resistant to fungicides, and at least 50 weeds are showing herbicide resistance. The more the chemical tools are used, the sooner they generate the resistance that ends their own effectiveness.
The manufacturing plants that make pesticides can be deadly neighbors, as was demonstrated in Bhopal. Even when they don’t malfunction, they are a major source of toxic waste.
In short, the $4.1 billion tab to the farmers is only the beginning of the real cost of pesticides.
But then there are the benefits. The billions of dollars of income and the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the agrichemicals industry. The ability to produce food in abundance. And for the farmer, an arsenal of tools against the invading hordes that threaten to munch away his crops and his livelihood.
The weighing of the costs and the benefits is not easy, which is why we still have pesticides and still go on arguing about them. But looking at the whole picture, one has to wonder whether there isn’t more intelligent, less expensive and clumsy way of coping with pests than spraying the whole countryside with poisons.
Next week I’ll look at the regulatory mechanisms that attempt to keep pesticides out of our food. The following week I’ll present the point of view of a farmer, caught in the middle. And finally I’ll get to those more intelligent alternatives.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011