SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Trump administration says it won’t approve warning labels for products that contain glyphosate, a move aimed at California as it fights one of the world’s largest agriculture companies about the potentially cancer-causing chemical.
It’s really very sad the EPA is the biggest cheerleader and defender of glyphosate. It’s the Environmental Protection Agency, not the pesticide protection agency.
Humans have been farming for 10,000 years. It was just about 60 years ago that we started industrializing agriculture in the U.S. and around the world. After World War II, chemical companies needed a market for wartime inventions and pesticides were put to work in the fields. In the decades that followed, trade and development policy — coupled with savvy marketing by chemical companies — effectively developed an entire model of industrial agriculture.
Today, pesticides touch every aspect of our lives, from residues on our produce to increased chronic disease to biodiversity loss. It’s time for a dramatic shift in our food and farming system.
Our regulatory system is not doing its job. More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied every year on U.S. farms, forests, golf courses and lawns. Farmworkers and rural communities suffer illness throughout the spray season and beyond, and infants around the world are born with a mixture of pesticides and other chemicals in their bodies.
The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. Instead of requiring industry to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful.
Each year, an estimated one billion pounds of pesticides are applied to U.S. farms, forests, lawns and golf courses. More than 17,000 pesticide products are currently on the market — with many of them approved through “conditional registration,” a regulatory loophole that allows products on the market quickly without thorough review.
When researchers at the Centers for Disease Control sampled Americans for metabolites of the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos, it showed up in 93 percent of the those tested.
Americans are routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals that have long been banned in countries such as the UK, Germany and France. Of the 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the EPA, only one percent have been tested for human safety.
If you’ve been following the recent big news about Monsanto’s infamous weedkiller RoundUp and cancer, you’ll have heard that industry’s “dirty little secret” just got dirtier.
In case you missed it: the international scientific community sent us two very loud wake-up calls last month. First, the UN World Health Organization’s prestigious International Agency for Research on Cancer released a consensus report that glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, is a “probable carcinogen.” A few days later, a team of international scientists based in New Zealand reported that widely available commercial formulations of RoundUp, 2,4-D and dicamba can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance in common disease-causing bacteria.
In addition to these findings, there’s a growing body of evidence on health impacts associated with exposure to glyphosate or RoundUp, such as endocrine disruption, organ damage and birth defects.
Who should be concerned? Every single one of us. For one thing, exposure to this probable carcinogen is virtually unavoidable at this point. Since Monsanto introduced its RoundUp-Ready seeds engineered to be resistant to its top-selling herbicide 20 year ago, herbicide use in this country has skyrocketed. More than 500 million additional pounds — most of it RoundUp — have been applied since then. Not surprisingly, the US Geological Survey has found RoundUp in our air, rain, streams and surface water.
And it’s showing up in our food, reports Reuters: in honey, soy sauce, flour and breast milk, for starters. The fact that we don’t even know what other foods are contaminated or how much glyphosate we carry in our bodies is simply because we’re not looking for it, explains Consumer Reports.
It’s our food and farming system that’s at stake — not Monsanto’s.
But it’s not just about RoundUp. Many other pesticides commonly used in U.S. agriculture have been linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, neurological and developmental damage and other harmful health and environmental effects. Atrazine, for example — the 2nd most widely used pesticide in the U.S. — is a possible carcinogen, endocrine disruptor and groundwater contaminant.
And 2,4-D (the ingredient which, along with glyphosate, is in Dow’s Enlist Duo weedkiller) is a reproductive and developmental toxicant, suspected endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen, with links to non-Hodgkins lymphoma and birth defects of the heart and circulatory and respiratory systems.
I say “every one of us” should be concerned for another reason as well: it’s our food and farming system that’s at stake. It belongs to us — to ordinary rural and urban families, farmworkers and communities across the U.S., not to Monsanto. The ubiquitous presence of hazardous pesticides — in our food and on our farms, in the air we breathe and water we drink, in our children’s bodies — is not something that any of us ever asked for.
In point of fact, pesticide-intensive agriculture is not even working for farmers. RoundUp resistance and the epidemic of “superweeds” infesting over 60 million acres of American farmland is but one indicator of the utter failure of this model to provide food, jobs or livelihoods in an ecologically sustainable, economical or equitable way.
Most importantly, this disaster is definitely not something we have to put up with.
No farmer should have to choose between cancer striking his or her family and making a decent living. But apparently EPA and USDA consider this a reasonable choice. I consider it obscene, and I hold our public agencies responsible for the disastrous predicament that American farming is in.
In reality, this is a false choice. It is possible to grow corn, soybeans, small grains and all manner of fruit and vegetable crops in biologically based, diversified farming systems. Agroecological practices such as ecological weed and insect pest management, combined with smart soil and water conservation practices are being employed by innovative farmers all over the U.S.
The problem we’re facing, however, is not about lack of sustainable solutions. The problem is that Big 6 pesticide companies like Monsanto — supported by USDA and backed by the U.S. government’s export-driven trade agenda — have built up an agricultural economic system that puts multinational corporations’ profits above people’s well-being, and locks farmers into these unsustainable practices.
As Iowa corn and soybean farmer George Naylor explains:
“Farmers are trapped in an economic system that forces them to keep producing corn and soybean in very destructive ways. It’s all about converting bushels of corn and soybean into pounds of oil, carbs or protein for agrofuels and livestock feed. This system of all-out production at any cost will only change if sensible people demand different policies and create new markets.”
EPA will decide whether or not to re-register glyphosate later this year; the two recent scientific reports on the direct and indirect health harms associated with glyphosate raise the stakes of this decision dramatically. PAN is calling on EPA to fulfill its obligation to protect public health and produce an action plan within the next 45 days, with an expedited timeline to phase out our farmers’ dependence on and exposure to glyphosate. The agency must also, as a matter of highest priority, immediately cancel its recent approvals of Dow’s new 2,4-D and glyphosate-containing product, Enlist Duo, and deny Monsanto’s application for dicamba use in GE cotton and soybean production.
EPA & USDA: Fix your broken systems
USDA and EPA are putting corporate interests above farmers and public health.
Tell them to stop.
Meanwhile, USDA must stop greenlighting Monsanto and Dow’s products, and instead develop its own action plan — complete with timeline and benchmarks — for how the agency will spearhead a country-wide transition to least-toxic ecological weed management. The new plan must break the cycle of weed resistance that keeps farmers on a pesticide treadmill, and phase out reliance on health-harming herbicides like glyphosate, atrazine and 2,4-D.
Now more than ever, American farmers need support in shifting from today’s toxic, ineffective and unsustainable model of agriculture into one that is productive, ecologically resilient, healthy and safe. Such system-wide changes cannot happen overnight. But getting this urgently needed process started is essential, and requires leadership and a serious commitment at the highest level.
People’s Party: State of the Union response
2019 People’s Party: State of the Union response
Myths about pesticides are a testimony to the power of advertising, marketing and lobbying. Pesticide corporations, like big tobacco and the oil industry, have systematically manufactured doubt about the science behind pesticides, and fostered the myth that their products are essential to life as we know it — and harmless if “used as directed.”
The book Merchants of Doubt calls it the Tobacco Strategy: orchestrated PR and legal campaigns to deny the evidence, often using rogue scientists to invent controversy around so-called “junk science” to deny everything — from second-hand smoke causing cancer to global warming to the hazards of DDT.
DowDuPont, Bayer (now merged with Monsanto), Syngenta and other pesticide producers have marketed their products as necessary to feed the world. Yet as insecticide use increased in the U.S. by a factor of 10 in the 50 years following World War II, crop losses almost doubled. Corn is illustrative: in place of crop rotations, most acreage was planted year after year only with corn. Despite more than a 1,000-fold increase in use of organophosphate insecticides, crop losses to insects has risen from 3.5% to 12% (D. Pimental and M. Pimental, 2008).
Bayer (Monsanto), the world leader in patented engineered seed, would have us believe that its GMOs will increase yields, reduce environmental impact and mitigate climate change — and that farmers use fewer pesticides when they plant the corporation’s seeds. None of this is true.
Genetically modified organisms are driving up pesticide use, and no surprise: the biggest GMO seed sellers are the pesticide corporations themselves. The goal of introducing GMO seed is simple: increase corporate control of global agriculture. More than 80 percent of the GMO crops grown worldwide are designed to tolerate increased herbicide use, not reduce pesticide use.
As “superbugs” and “superweeds” develop in response to widespread and continous use of chemicals, a farmer will spend more on pesticides each year just to keep crop losses at a standard rate.
Overall, pesticide resistance is increasing. In the 1940s, U.S. farmers lost seven percent of their crops to pests. Since the 1980s, loss has increased to 13 percent, even though more pesticides are being used. Between 500 and 1,000 insect and weed species have developed pesticide resistance since 1945.
Insecticides (bug killers), herbicides (weed killers), and fungicides (fungus killers) are all pesticides; so are rodenticides and antimicrobials. Pesticides come in spray cans and crop dusters, in household cleaners, hand soaps and swimming pools.
Insecticides are generally the most acutely (immediately) toxic. Many are designed to attack an insect’s brain and nervous system, which can mean they have neurotoxic effects in humans as well. Herbicides are more widely used (RoundUp and atrazine are the two most used pesticides in the world) and present chronic risks. This means ongoing, low-level exposures can increase the risk of diseases or disorders such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease or infertility and other reproductive harms. Fungicides are also used in large amounts; some are more benign, some are not.
We’re all exposed to a cocktail of pesticides in our air, water, food and on the surfaces we touch. The combination of these chemicals can be more toxic than any one of them acting alone. Many pesticides are endocrine disruptors — and even extremely low doses can interfere with the delicate human hormone system and cause lifechanging damage.
Reality: Pesticides are dangerous by design. They are engineered to cause death. And harms to human health are very well documented, with children especially at risk. Here are a few recent examples from the news:
An entire class of pesticides (organophosphates) has been linked to higher rates of ADHD in children.
The herbicide atrazine, found in 94% of our water supply, has been linked to birth defects, infertility and cancer.
- Women exposed to the pesticide endosulfan during pregnancy are more likely to have autistic children.
- Girls exposed to DDT before puberty are five times more likely to develop breast cancer.
- The World Health Organization recently designated the key ingredient in the widely used herbicide RoundUp a “probable human carcinogen.”
- 54 different pesticides were found on spinach, including five that are linked to cancer;
- Peaches and pears have the most pesticides found among the baby foods sampled (22 and 26, respectively); and
- 47 residues were found on apples, including 16 suspected hormone disruptors.
Unfortunately, washing your fruits and veggies (while important!) isn’t much help when it comes to pesticides. Many of the pesticides used today are “systemic,” meaning they are taken up by roots and distributed throughout the plant — so no amount of washing will remove them.
Fumigant pesticides, for example, are applied before planting crops like strawberries, sweet potatoes and grapes to clear the soil of weeds, insects and fungi. These very volatile chemicals are injected into the soil, which is then covered with a tarp for several days.
We all want to believe that government agencies are protecting us and our food supply from chemical contaminants, but unfortunately, they’re not. Quite simply, they do not have the regulatory framework — or, apparently, the political will — to do so.
In contrast to Europe’s health-protective approach, U.S. policy treats pesticides as “innocent until proven guilty” — and it can take decades to reach a guilty verdict. Since these chemicals are regulated one at a time, our rules overlook many risks.
- Chemical cocktails: EPA sets limits on the amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, but there’s no limit to the number of different pesticides that can be on your food.
- Accumulation: Pesticides can have a “toxic loading” effect both in the immediate and long term. Each person accumulates and responds to chemicals in a unique way.
- Tragic timing: What happens to a child who was exposed to a mixture of pesticides in the womb? She faces increased risks of neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism, and higher chances of birth defects and cancer.
We need stronger rules to address these real-world risks. The good news is that we don’t need to rely on pesticides to grow our food or to feed the world. Organic farmers in the U.S. produced more than $30 billion worth of pesticide-free food in 2014, and with steady growth in consumer demand, organics continue to be the fastest growing agricultural sector.
We make food choices every day that not only affect our health and the health of our families, but also — in a very real way — help to shape our food system.
What happens when we view people as citizens rather than consumers, and treat food as a human right? Food democracy.
“Food democracy” may sound lofty, but it’s a very practical idea that’s gaining momentum in communities across the country and around the world. Simply put, food democracy emphasizes fulfillment of the human right to safe, nutritious food that’s been justly produced. It means ordinary people getting together to establish rules that encourage safeguarding the soil, water and ecosystems that, in the end, we all depend on.
It’s also pragmatic politics built on the lesson that our food system is too important to leave to market forces, and that we all have a right — and responsibility — to participate in decisions that determine our access to safe, nutritious food.
In all but seven states, local communities cannot put rules into place that are stricter than state-level regulations — the state rules “preempt” local control. It didn’t used to be this way, and communities across the country are now standing up to bring power back to the local level.
In March 2017, EPA scrapped plans to ban almost all uses of the insecticide chlorpyrifos nationwide — at the behest of Dow Chemical (now Corteva) and against the advice of agency scientists.
Since this EPA refuses to protect our children from pesticides, it’s time for Congress to act. Urge your Representative to co-sponsor HR230, the “Ban Toxic Pesticides Act of 2019,” today!
But truly protecting our children requires getting child-harming pesticides out of agriculture, off our food and out of the places kids live, learn and play — which means major shifts in farming, food and pest control policies across the country.
Here are some of the most common ways kids are exposed to pesticides:
In the womb: When a fetus is exposed at particular times — when the architecture of the brain is under construction, or the reproductive organs are taking shape — the normal process of development can be derailed, sometimes with irreversible effects.
Home & daycare: If pesticides are used in homes, lawns or gardens where an infant or toddler is exploring the world, exposure is a near certainty. Eating foods coated with pesticides — even when residues are scant — has been linked to lower IQs and neurodevelopmental delays.
Schools & playgrounds: Use of toxic chemicals to control pests in schools and on playing fields make the school environment less safe for growing bodies and developing minds. In rural areas children face additional risk, as pesticides may drift onto school grounds and seep into water supplies from nearby fields.
Way back in 1993, scientists at the National Research Council made the urgent case that children’s small and growing bodies need special protection from pesticide exposure.
More than 20 years later, childhood diseases linked to pesticides are still climbing. The American Academy of Pediatrics spoke out in 2012, urging policymakers to do more now to protect children from pesticides and promote safer pest control alternatives.
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