The UN has accused the pesticide industry of “systematic denial” of health and environmental harms.
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In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, an exposé of the long-term health and environmental damage caused by chemical pesticides. Since then, pesticides have been regulated to a greater or lesser degree, and government bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency in the US have been created to oversee implementation. Yet despite this progress, much of what Carson wrote then still applies.
The most notorious pesticides sprayed in the 1960s may no longer be in use, but in many cases they have simply been replaced with others. Although the names and properties have changed, pesticides are still very much with us.
Glyphosate, for example, is one of the chemicals promoted as a "safer" alternative to more noxious pesticides. Marketed by Monsanto under the brand name Roundup (it's also a key ingredient in many other pesticides) glyphosate is "the most used agricultural chemical ever." Given its widespread use, it has been found practically everywhere—in streams, in foods such as bread and flour, in drinks such as beer. Among just over 2,000 people tested in Germany, 99.6 percent were found to have detectable levels of glyphosate in their urine.
In 2015, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have not linked glyphosate to cancer, the EFSA said it carries high long-term risks to birds and mammals and the ECHA has said it poses lasting dangers to aquatic life. Although there's not yet enough evidence to come to a definitive conclusion, studies show that exposure to glyphosate can also disrupt human reproduction and our hormone system.
This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, given that herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are all designed to be lethal for a variety of organisms (the suffix "-cide" means "killer"). Nevertheless, we didn't know all about the harmful effects of glyphosate when it was introduced in the 1970s. It was regarded then as a safer substitute for other dangerous chemicals such as 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D.
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In that sense, glyphosate is just like many others. Pesticides are often used for decades and tacitly accepted as safe before we learn that they are highly toxic. Like 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D and like the organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides which first came to public attention in the 1960s and 70s, it has taken decades for the environmental and human health impacts of glyphosate to be acknowledged. Use of DDT was so widespread in the 1950s and 60s that, like glyphosate today, it's estimated that almost everyone in the US was exposed to it. The polluted waterways, bird, and livestock deaths as well as cancer in humans revealed in Silent Spring led to an outcry and eventually to an American ban of spraying DDT on farms in 1972.
If we're serious about protecting our health, as well as the environment, we need a more radical change than substituting one chemical for another. Due to the massive uptake of pesticides in farming, agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow have gained unprecedented power, locking farmers into a costly relationship and established pesticide-dependent industrial farming as the predominant agricultural model.
The UN human rights council has accused the global pesticide industry of "systematic denial" of health and environmental harms, "aggressive, unethical marketing tactics" and heavy lobbying of governments which has "obstructed reforms and paralyzed global pesticide restrictions." To make matters worse, the same agrochemical companies are in the midst of mega mergers. In the next few years, three giant companies are expected to hold huge sway over what is farmed and what we eat. Politicians will find it increasingly hard not to kowtow to an all-powerful cartel that would control more than 75 percent of the world's agrochemical market and more than 60 percent of the seed market.
Who controls our food and how it's farmed is a matter of public and planetary health. At the same time, the recent revelations surrounding the "Monsanto Papers" show that the laws and agencies designed to protect us are susceptible to corporate meddling. Much like what Rachel Carson revealed about chemical companies in the 1960s.
If we want to eat food that's not tainted with toxic chemicals, then we need to reimagine how we farm—and while it sounds idealistic, many farmers are already showing that it works and that it's possible to get off the chemical treadmill. Organic farming combines modern science and innovation with respect for nature and biodiversity, while ensuring healthy farming and healthy food.
In Europe at least, there's an opportunity to take a step in this direction. A movement supported by more than a million people is asking governments to ban glyphosate, just when Europe's farm subsidy scheme is under review. This gives governments a unique opportunity to clamp down on the use of toxic pesticides, while supporting a switch for farmers to more environmentally friendly practices that are not detrimental to our health or our planet.
Laura Ullmann is a communications officer at Greenpeace EU.
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