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It has become nearly impossible to drive through a town and not come across an organic food store. Stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Fresh Market dot the landscape in many towns. There are even sections of whole grocery stores dedicated to organic products now, and it seems that many people are eating organically grown produce. According to Catherine Greene, Edward Slattery, and William McBride at the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States increased its organic farm space by approximately 150% from 2000 to 2008, and the number keeps increasing. In 1997, organic foods brought in $3.6 billion, however by 2008 organic food sales reached over $20 billion (Greene, Slattery, McBride). These trends are expected to increase, however there are still many skeptics because many believe that organic food cannot support the world’s population and that organic food is too expensive for most Americans to buy on a regular basis. Eating organic foods is often considered a fad that will die out. Many people claim that eating organic has no benefits associated with it, and is simply a scam to have consumers pay more money for essentially the same product. However, eating organically does actually have several benefits. A major debate exists among supporters of organic food and skeptics whether there is an additional nutritional value to organic foods over foods grown by traditional methods that involve chemicals and fertilizers. Many skeptics doubt whether organic foods are actually healthier. However, numerous studies have found that organic foods contain more essential
2 vitamins and minerals than their non-organic counterparts. As Maria Rodale notes, a study conducted at The University of California at Davis found that “organic kiwi contained more antioxidants, including Vitamin C, than the conventionally grown ones” (Rodale). Studies such as these seem to give sufficient evidence that organically grown foods can have more nutrients and be healthier for a person. However, many skeptics still deny this claim. Increased nutrient content however, is not the only benefit that organic foods offer. Also, organic foods are grown without pesticides, unlike regular produce. Pesticides are applied to non-organic crops to prevent bugs from eating the plants. Rebecca Clarren notes in her article “Fields Of Poison” that in 1939, fewer than 50 pesticides were used in the United States, the number has grown exponentially since, and by 2010 the number had reached over 20,000 (Clarren). Although these pesticides have great benefits in that fewer crops are lost to bug infestation, pesticides are hazardous to human health and have great environmental impacts. Eating organic foods reduces the use of pesticides, which has both human health and environmental benefits.
Organic foods are pesticide free, something that many organic food skeptics overlook. Pesticides can harm humans if they come into contact with them. Eating and growing nonorganic foods is a common way that humans come into contact with this type of poison. Traces of the extremely dangerous pesticide DDT (which almost caused the total extinction of the bald eagle by thinning their egg shells so that the eggs broke when the eagles sat on them) can still be found in the breast milk of women today. In her article “Pick Your Poison", Nikki van der Gaag asserts that pesticides can cause fetal developmental problems, which can lead to birth defects (van der Gaag). Children are especially at risk to be poisoned by pesticides. Specific types of pesticides, called organophosphates, have been reported to cause problems in
3 the development of children’s nervous systems. Ben Harder cites a study by Chensheng Lu provided evidence that eating organic foods lowers the amount of these pesticides in children’s bodies; however it does not completely eliminate it because home insecticides contain the same chemicals (Harder). Organic foods do not contain these harsh chemicals because they are not treated with pesticides; therefore eating organic foods can greatly reduce exposure to pesticides and reduce the health complications they cause. Not only are the people who eat produce treated with pesticides at risk for developing health complications from ingestion, but the farmers who work in the fields where the non-organic produce are grown are also at a great risk from exposure. According to Clarren, the workers in California that work in the fields where plants are treated with pesticides have higher levels of leukemia and other cancers than the general population, although this has not been directly linked to pesticides, it suggests a relationship (Clarren). Therefore eating non-organic foods is not the only way that one can increase his chance of pesticide related illness, but being around it day in and day out will also increase the risk for developing serious ailments. As Clarren notes, “pesticides are the only things besides war gases that we intentionally put into the environment to harm things--but because of regulatory failures, exposure continues unabated.” Obviously this needs to be changed. Pesticides can be lethal in even very small doses. In van der Gaag’s article, she details that it takes only 3 drops of the pesticide Parathion to kill a male adult. She then chronicles one such case in which a dosage of pesticides was mixed in with milk given to school children. Most children that drank the milk were dead shortly after drinking it. Even if one does not directly ingest an insecticide, it can still cause lasting effects. The very nature of pesticides is why they are so dangerous to humans. Pesticides were developed by noting what destroyed the human nervous system, and then applying this to bugs. This means that pesticides are actually human
4 poison too (van der Gaag). Further evidence from Rodale and Nation’s Health article “Group B” suggests that pesticides can also cause brain diseases, hormonal imbalances, cancer, and other biological problems that can have severe health impacts for humans (Rodale, “Group”). Forgetting to wash produce that was treated with insecticides, working in a field that uses insecticides or any other exposure to insecticides can be hazardous to one’s health. Eliminating pesticides by eating organically will be a very difficult task because there is much opposition towards the movement. Many critics argue that buying organic produce is too expensive to be practical. Susan McClelland notes that the price of organic food can cost upwards of twice the price of non-organic products (McClelland). It is impractical to say that price does not play a role in what people chose to buy. However, with the overwhelming evidence that pesticides are not healthy for humans, it is not unreasonable to suggest that people buy organic when they can afford to do so. Reducing pesticide intake and input into the environment will provide strides in a positive direction. Other opposition states that “[t]he corporations defend their position by saying that only by using pesticides can we feed a hungry world” (van der Gaag), however van der Gaag states that there is not actually a food shortage, but rather there is a flawed system of giving food to those who need it, so much of it goes to waste. She suggests that planting organic food would not prevent enough food from being grown. Arguments for continuing the use of pesticides are extremely flawed and only look to a few issues, while ignoring the major benefits of eating organically.
Beyond human health concerns about pesticides, there is also reason to be concerned for the environment. The pesticides used while growing non-organic produce are not simply used to treat crops for insects and then disappear. These pesticides end up polluting the environment.
5 The direct effects of pesticides on the environment are severe. In perhaps the most famous example, Bald Eagles were nearly exterminated from the earth due to the use of DDT (van der Gaag). Predators, such as the Bald Eagle, are especially at risk because toxins such as pesticides “bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chains” (Rodale) which simply means because top predators eat lesser predators who have eaten herbivores and producers, the amount of the toxin in their bodies is much higher than in the bodies of lower level organisms. The textbook Life: The Science of Biology by David Sadava explains that when a top predator such as the bald eagle is nearly exterminated, a bottom-down cascade effect is implemented. A bald eagle is a tertiary predator, so decreasing numbers of bald eagles would lead to an increase in secondary consumers, therefore a decrease in primary consumers, and an increase in the producers. However, the secondary consumers would eventually run out of their prey, and the whole ecosystem would collapse (Sadava 1205-1206). Ecosystem collapse would signify the loss of many ecosystem “goods and services” to humans; therefore the secondary effects of pesticides on the environment are just as detrimental as the primary effects. Some such goods and services that will be lost by the collapse of ecosystems “include food, clean water, clean air…flood control, soil stabilization, pollination” (Sadava 1237-1238). Some people may not see the importance of these goods and services, but they are priceless. For example, the natural flood barriers to New Orleans were destroyed by human disturbance, and the man-made flood barriers failed during Hurricane Katrina (Sadava 1238). Although this example was not caused by pesticides, a decrease in a secondary consumer on account of pesticides would lead to a decrease in plant vegetation, which can act as a natural flood barrier. Both cultivated plants and wild plants are susceptible to impact from pesticides, which can cause secondary effects. In her article Rodale mentions the effects pesticides have on soil.
6 She cites a study that demonstrated that organic products grown without the use of pesticides allowed for better soil quality, which means that crops can again be grown in the field the next season, without the excessive use of crop rotation and fertilizers (Rodale). They penetrate into the soil, and rain brings them into streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes and eventually the ocean, where they can have detrimental effects on those ecosystems. Fertilizers cause another problem for the environment: eutrophication of water. Eutrophication is caused by too many nutrients entering a water system, often from fertilizers. Fertilizers have been shown to cause what is termed “a dead zone” where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This dead zone lacks oxygen and results in deaths of many marine animals, which is detrimental to both the ecosystem and humans (Sadava 1233-1234). It alters the food web, but the lack of fish also could negatively impact the fishing industry. Rodale also mentions that the symbiotic relationships plants share with a fungus, called mycorrhizae, in which the fungus gives the plant water while the plant gives the fungus nutrients (Sadava 634), is in danger from the use of pesticides (Rodale). Many plants cannot grow without these mycorrhizae, so destroying it through human means will be catastrophic for the plants and humans. These cases show that pesticides are not simply a case of human exposure, but rather the effects of pesticides are seen in organisms that are not directly exposed. The impacts of pesticides have reached places far from the farms where the pesticides are applied. As demonstrated by the Mississippi River/ Gulf of Mexico example, pesticides have caused environmental disturbances far from land. In 2007, Earth Island Journal ran an article about the effects farm chemicals (such as pesticides) is having on the Great Barrier Reef near Australia. The article details that only small quantities of pesticides, much like the minute amounts required to kill or sicken humans, can kill the coral. Specifically, pesticides can
7 “prevent coral spawning, and consequently harm the reef's ability to regenerate and protect itself” (“OCEANIA”). Pesticides contain carbon, which is often converted to CO2, which enters the ocean, making the ocean more acidic (Sadava 1231), killing coral reefs. Combined with the effects of global warming, coral reefs may be totally destroyed in the near future (“OCEANIA”). Coral reefs are very productive ecosystems, and a loss of these ecosystems would mean a loss of habitat for many fish and other marine species. Many people do not understand why people should care about the coral reefs, as they make up only a small portion of the marine landscape. Not only would the loss of the coral reefs be devastating for animals, but also for humans, as the coral reef draws much tourism each year, which brings money to the region (called Ecotourism (Sadava 1255)). Doubt over the importance of the coral reefs is not the only skepticism some people hold about saving the environment from the toxic use of pesticides. However, much like the coral reef, all of the earth has vital roles for the ecosystem and for humans. The claim that what is going on in nature does not affect humans is a completely ridiculous claim. The ecosystems provide us with food, protection, energy, and many other goods that we cannot get without it. We need these goods and services to survive, so destroying the very thing that gives them to us is absurd. Other people claim that it is not possible to rid the world of pesticides. This claim is much more difficult to combat. The elimination of pesticides immediately would cause chaos; however setting regulations to end pesticide use little by little is much more practical. Steps have already been taken to usher the world into a new era with less pesticides such as the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which set regulations for the amount of pesticides allowed to be found in foods (“Group”). Responsible legislatures can develop further laws to regulate the use of pesticides until it is practical to quite using them all-together.
8 Pesticides are not merely a tool used to grow crops without the interference of insects and other pests; pesticides are poisonous to humans and other organisms in the environment. They are capable of causing long-term health problems in humans, such as cancers. Pesticides do not only build up in the tissues of humans, but they also build up in the tissues of organisms that are not directly targeted by pesticides. Because of the connected design of the world, pesticides have led to chain reactions in the environment that lead to environmental disasters. These environmental disasters do not simply remain contained as many claim—they affect humans as well. The very livelihood of humanity is connected with the state of the environment, so destroying it would leave humanity in a destitute condition. The best way to prevent further damage and hopefully reinvigorate the world is to stop using pesticides little by little. Contrary to skepticism, evidence points to the ability of organic foods to support the population of the world if distribution of the resources is improved. Buying whatever one can organically will increase the amount of organic food grown, which will reduce pesticides used, which means a reduction in the health and environmental hazards caused by pesticides.
9 Works Cited
Clarren, Rebecca. "Fields Of Poison." Nation 277.22 (2003): 23. TOPICsearch. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. Greene, Catherine, Edward Slattery, and William McBride. "America’s Organic Farmers Face Issues and Opportunities." America’s Organic Farmers Face Issues and Opportunities, Amber Waves, June 2010, Feature. June 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2012. http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/june10/Features/AmericasOrganicFarmers.htm “Group B." Nation's Health 30.8 (2000): 28. TOPICsearch. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. Harder, Ben. "Organic Choice." Science News 168.13 (2005): 197. TOPICsearch. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. McClelland, Susan. "It's Growing, Naturally." Maclean's 113.6 (2000): 44. TOPICsearch. Web. 21 Mar. 2012.
"OCEANIA: Runoff Ruining Reef." Earth Island Journal 22.1 (2007): 13. TOPICsearch. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. Rodale, Maria."15 WAYS TO CHANGE THE WORLD (And Your Life)... ONE APPLE AT A TIME." Men's Health (10544836) 25.3 (2010): 113. TOPICsearch. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. Sadava, David E. Life: The Science of Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2011. Print. van der Gaag, Nikki. "Pick Your Poison." New Internationalist 323 (2000): 9. TOPICsearch. Web. 21 Mar. 2012.
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