The omnipresence of chemicals in our society is undeniable. We touch them, breathe them in, and ingest them on a daily basis. In 2006, National Geographic reporter David Duncan let scientists check his body for an experiment. The results were shocking: Duncan tested positive for a multitude of chemicals, including flame retardants, chemical pesticides, heavy metals, and DDT (a form of insecticide). There is a very high probability that these chemicals cause harm to the body and upset hormonal cycles – especially pesticides, which many of us might have tried to circumvent by spending more money on organic food. According to a CBC News analysis of data supplied by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), almost half of the organic produce controlled in Canada in the last two years tested positive for chemical residues. This is surprising, considering the high standards of food production Canada usually showcases (see: the Canada Agricultural Products Act and the Fertilizers Act on www.inspection.qc.ca).
Most developed countries use modern technology in order to minimize direct contact with pesticides; however, due to their use in agriculture, contact can never be completely eliminated. Farming communities tend to be present in areas contaminated by pesticides affecting their long-term health (water is the most likely source of contamination). Furthermore, the residues on chemically treated foods will affect people who don’t live in rural areas, as it stays on the produce.
pesticides can cause a number of health problems such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other diseases.
While pesticides can protect the food that we eat from diseases and insects, a small amount of pesticide residue might be able to get into our system by consumption. In Canada, this amount is regulated by maximum residue limits (MRL), which indicate a concentration of pesticides that does not affect human health. In 2006 and 2007, Health Canada tested over 99 per cent of Canadian fruits, vegetables, and imported foods, and found that all were below Canada’s MRL.
Although limited contact with pesticides is usually not fatal, the negative health effects are tremendous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that pesticides can cause a number of health problems such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other diseases. The effects depend on the pesticides used, and on their level of toxicity – some pesticides can toxify your body right after you ingest them. The main purpose of pesticides is killing any predator threatening the plants they are applied on. Since their mode of action is not specific to one species, they can also harm humans, especially children in their developing age. Other pesticides create diseases in the long term, including cancer.
It is clear that pesticides can pose a threat to our health, so why do we continue using them? From an economic point of view, pesticides are seen as beneficial, as they prevent the premature fall of fruit, deterioration during storage, and ensure that the produce ripens more slowly, assuring a higher amount of profit. Our consumer society is used to a yield high enough to sustain the population. By stopping the use of pesticides, the total yield will decrease, leading to a price inflation for food. These economical disturbances would increase the gap between rich and poor, since people with less income will be even less able to purchase produce needed for survival.
The use of modern technology in food production allows the yields to be high enough to make food accessible to most people, yet the dilemma is obvious. People with less income cannot stop buying products that have been affected by pesticides, as they are often in a more accessible price range. As long as people consume those goods though, they will be produced. Pesticides were created to benefit mankind and establish food security; however it cannot be ignored that those same substances bring undesirable effects.
One alternative to pesticide-infected food is organic produce. The major issue with organic food is that the yield in the short term is comparatively low to that of fields farmed with industrial agriculture. This leads to a very high price as opposed to more affordable conventionally grown food, making it inaccessible to many populations. As long as the common consumer is not willing to spend more of their income on organic food, and the government does not reinforce organic over conventional agriculture, the cost will be a problem that many are not willing nor able to bear.
Furthermore, organic food is not as clean as most of us think it is. A CBC News investigation this month found that as much as 5 per cent of organic food in Canada tested in the past two years has traces of pesticide residues higher than the MRL allowed for organic food, while half of all the produce had at least some traces of chemical residues. The companies producing organic food have been accused of deliberately putting pesticide on the food to enhance growth. This leads to the conclusion that even organic food might not be the right option in order to keep chemicals out of your system. Unless you have a crop in your garden, and you grow your own food, buying food from the market will never be 100 per cent safe.