A case for responsible pesticide use

Most people probably believe that organically grown foods are better for you than non-organically grown foods. This is because the perception is that organically grown foods are grown "naturally", without the use of any synthetic substances such as insecticides, fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides. The reality is not quite so simple.


Most people probably believe that organically grown foods are better for you than non-organically grown foods. This is because the perception is that organically grown foods are grown "naturally", without the use of any synthetic substances such as insecticides, fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides. The reality is not quite so simple.

In fact, organically grown foods pose their own set of risks which many people are not aware of.

First, it is important to clear up the misperception that organically grown foods are "pesticide free". Organically grown foods do use pesticides, ones that are obtained from "natural substances" such as plants, insects or mineral ores. Despite their natural origins, many of these pesticides are toxic and some more toxic than pesticides used to produce non-organically grown food.

In a paper titled 'Nature's Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming' by Alex A. Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues, it is stated that "some organic pesticides have mammalian toxicities that are far higher than many synthetic pesticides". Further its states "many organic pesticides are used more intensely per acre than non-organic pesticides".

Another problem with many organic foods is that they are grown with "organic" animal manure. That increases the risk that consumers of organically grown food will ingest E coli bacteria which has been proven fatal.

A recent article in USA Today (magazine) states: "There is strong evidence that organic and 'natural' foods themselves pose a particular health threat to consumers which conventionally grown foods do not." It reads further that although organically-grown foods represent about one percent of the total in the US, eight percent of confirmed E coli cases have been traced to the ingestion of organic and natural foods.

It is true that many farmers who use animal manure as fertiliser compost the material, but again studies have shown that E coli can survive for long periods of time and at temperatures far above what is seen in most compost piles. Compounding the problem is the reluctance of organic and natural food producers to use anti-microbial preservatives, chemical washes, or pasteurisation.

In Bermuda no such studies have been done. However, it is important to note that most of Bermuda's organic animal fertiliser comes from horses and is scooped from bedding consisting of sawdust. More and more lumber is pressure treated to prevent rot, and the major ingredient in this treatment is arsenic!

The use of natural fungicides in organic farming can also be problematic. In order to be effective these fungicides - such as sulphur and copper - have to be used at a much higher level than synthetic fungicides. Sulphur and copper, although natural, have "much more persistent environment toxicity than their synthetic counterparts, which raises further questions about their increased use" ('Nature's Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming', by Alex A. Avery, Center for Global Food Issues).

The only substance of those up for discussion insecticides, fertiliser, fungicides and herbicides - which organic farming does not use at all is herbicides. Herbicides are used to kill weeds. Newer herbicides have evolved to minimise soil erosion by killing only the top of weeds. Organic farming uses "bare-earth weed control that lead to increased soil-erosion and less sustainability" ('Nature's Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming', by Alex A. Avery, Center for Global Food Issues).

When considering the pros and cons of organic farming in Bermuda, climate must be taken into account. Organic farming is more successful in cooler climates where the overwintering effect - ground freeze - kills a lot of worm larvae and other pathogens. Of course in Bermuda we do not experience the overwintering effect. In fact our very humid and hot climate promotes the growth of pests and bacteria which makes the use of insecticides and fungicides even more necessary.

I have farmed in Bermuda for more than 25 years and I strongly believe that to be commercially viable, insecticide, fertiliser, fungicide and herbicide use is necessary.

Bermuda's laws are such that the consumer is significantly protected. Restrictions in Bermuda are at the point of entry - the Department of Agriculture decides what agricultural synthetic compounds are allowed into the country. Government is also moving towards requiring that applicators be licensed. This would only strengthen the safe use of pesticides, agricultural pesticides fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides, but I believe that Bermuda's farmers are already knowledgeable and responsible in their use.

I believe that testing of local produce would indicate that insecticide, fertiliser, fungicide and herbicide levels are lower than those of imported produce. Most of our produce is imported from the United States. Studies there by the National Research Council, part of the prestigious National Academy of Science, have concluded that the risks from insecticide, fertiliser, fungicide and herbicide residue were so low as to be negligible.

On a more practical note, it is important to remember this: Farmers feed their produce to their own families. Now there's an incentive to use as little synthetic products as possible! Another is that these products cost money. Commercial farmers who have many acres of farm will want to use the minimum amount that will be effective. Bermuda's farmers are an experienced lot and know that using more pesticides, fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides does not necessarily produce a better yield.

At the end of the day it is important to put this discussion in context. As mentioned above, the amounts of synthetic products used are not enough to cause health problems. It is more important to emphasise the health benefit of fruits and vegetables and to get more people to eat them as part of a healthy diet.

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