The Harmful Effects of Conventional Practices
Last month, I discussed the evolution of agriculture that supplanted people’s family-run livelihoods with large-scale operations from which most of us are far removed (See the first article in this series: The Story of Soil). The shift from small to large, and from natural to chemical and technological, is detrimental for a number of reasons. For starters, conventional agriculture largely relies on foreign labor, hiring non-English speaking workers who receive painfully low wages and have little to no negotiation power. Many farm operators on family-run farms themselves have limited decision-making power, as they become locked into restrictive contracts and reliant on expensive inputs and other harmful practices.
Moreover, agribusinesses have cleverly sucked farmers into a cycle of chemical dependency. According to author McKay Jenkins, while the sale of insecticides has declined with genetic engineering, the sale of herbicides produced by these conglomerates has gone up markedly. In fact, it is no coincidence that between the years 1996 (when GMOs became commercially popular) and 2011, the use of herbicides skyrocketed by 527 million pounds. Thus, farmers now readily dump high concentrations of glyphosate on their “Round-Up Ready” GMO seeds, killing the weeds without killing the crops. As Jenkins points out, GMOs are often thought of as “an extension of pesticides, not a substitute or alternative to it,” as they undeniably perpetuate the need for toxic agrochemical inputs.
The negative effects of this toxic overload are undisputed. When plants do not absorb the herbicides sprayed on them, they seep into waterways and harm aquatic life, unintentionally suffocate passing insects (such as the honey bee), and compromise the balance of bacteria and fungi in the soil – all of which reduces biodiversity. Additionally, the potential for superweeds arises as weeds become resistant to glyphosate, which has occurred in eighteen different countries, requiring farmers to use even harsher chemicals. Essentially, these synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are “destroying the functionality of soil,” according to USDA soil scientist Rick Haney. Haney offered an appropriate analogy for agrochemicals: they are like chemotherapy for cancer, killing both the good and bad. In humans, we only use chemotherapy as a medicine for sick patients, not as a preventative measure for our overall well-being. Why, then, would we spray our plants with such excessive substances?
Speaking of cancer, these chemicals are not only harmful to the environment, but farmers and consumers as well. The World Health Organization of the UN released a report in 2015 declaring that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, which received widespread news coverage and backlash from corporate stakeholders. According to a New York Times article, Bayer – a company that produces herbicides with the ingredient glyphosate – has $10 billion set aside to settle claims from customers who have purchased their product (mainly farmers) and developed lymphoma or other cancers. Thus, there is much suspicion over the correlation between these chemical inputs and alarming public health concerns. Moreover, Jenkins’ case study of residents living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai near experimental agriculture fields further attests to this suspicion. The heavy use of pungent, “restricted-use” chemicals (atrazine, paraquat, methomyl) in this area has sent school children home with problems ranging from asthma to vomiting; meanwhile, doctors in the area have noticed increases in birth defects, cancer, and other inflammatory conditions. While not everyone experiences such direct exposure of these chemicals, even consuming treated crops is worrisome. No long-term studies have been conducted to prove the effect of trace amounts on human health, so it is up to the consumer to adopt a precautionary approach (rather be safe than sorry), or wait until enough crises crop up to incite national bans.
Finally, by perpetually compromising soil biodiversity, we cannot rely on our plants to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in underground reserves. There is a reason the soil is thought of as a “carbon sink.” From basic science, we know that plants absorb carbon dioxide in their leaves and use the energy from sunlight to convert the gas into carbon sugar molecules. The carbon then becomes part of the plants’ (and plant consumers’) bodies as the plant is decomposed by microorganisms in the soil. These bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and so on, do more than execute the process of decomposition – they also deliver nutrients to the plant roots, promoting growth. In the nitrogen cycle, specific bacteria in the soil must also convert nitrogen gas to a usable form for the plants to absorb.
Thus, when Haney describes herbicides and pesticides as wiping out the “good and bad,” he still underscores the role of these beneficial microorganisms. Fertilizers attempt to replace some of those lost nutrients with manufactured or naturally-derived minerals (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.), but these tend to do more harm than good. According to Haney, some research suggests that by using up the externally-sourced nitrogen, for instance, soil microbes only release more carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This phenomenon may occur, as MD Daphne Miller explains, because too much of one nutrient can cause deficiencies in other nutrients, or “lock up” those other minerals. Ultimately, reduced functionality and more chemical dependency leads to reduced carbon sequestration.
Last month, I asked you to consider the soil, food, and your relationship to these essential elements of life through agricultural practices. Now that I have dissected some of the ways in which our current methods harm farmers, consumers, and the planet, I hope you are more cognizant of why farming -- specifically how we farm -- matters. Next month, I will begin to explore what sustainability in farming entails, based on critiques of our current system. In the meantime, you might ponder what “sustainable” means and the context under which society has promoted this term. Further, you might consider your role in mitigating these harms and encouraging a more equitable, healthy, eco-conscious approach.
Shelley Rose is a Sierra Club Connecticut student intern.
Cohen, Patricia. “Roundup Maker to Pay $10 Billion to Settle Cancer Suits.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/business/roundup-settlement-lawsuits.html.
McKay, Jenkins. Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet. New York, NY:
Random House LLC, 2017.
Miller, Daphne. Farmacology: Total Health From the Ground Up. New York, NY:
HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.
Schiffman, Richard. “Why It's Time to Stop Punishing Our Soils with Fertilizers.”
Yale E360, May 3, 2017.