September 2005

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Customer Comments

General Manager's Report

Board Report

Election Information: Board Candidate Statements and Proposed Budget Details

2005 Annual Membership Meeting Recap

Produce News: The Effects of Chemicals on Our Foods

Specials Information

Eating Well, Being Well and Having Fun While You're At It!: The Food for Thought Festival

Book & Housewares News

Health & Wellness News: Teas

Recipes & Drink Recommendations

Organics: In Our Beds, On Our Bodies and On Our Minds

Producer Profile: Rishi Tea

Putting Your Organic Garden to Bed

Member Services News: Our Annual Farm Tour


Community Calendar

The Effects of Chemicals on Our Foods

by Wynston Estis, Assistant Store Manager

In an attempt to be humorous, my co-workers may sometimes hear me say that what I don’t know could fill a book. As a result of looking into the state of pesticide and herbicide use in agriculture, it is now confirmed just how much I don’t know about this subject that I felt so well versed in. The whole concept of using poisons in food production seems like such an obvious ‘no no’ that it’s just amazing how well accepted this practice is in our culture and in many across the world. But if you’ve ever gotten serious about getting the dandelions out of your lawn naturally you know what a backbreaking task it can be. If you were a farmer whose success comes down to profitability measured in pennies on the bushel, you might better understand why herbicides appear to be an improvement on tilling (which can cause soil erosion) or weeding around the actual crop (which can consume lots of labor on the harvesting end of production). Managing pests and weeds all really starts with concerns for the optimal yield from each planting; unfortunately this is not the full range of what pesticides and herbicides impact. If the effects of these chemicals were just limited to each crop and had no other long-term impacts, the issue of their use would be less of a concern.

Pests vs. beneficial insects
Pests cause damage to crops—that’s why they are called pests versus beneficial insects, of which there are many on any farmland. Beneficial insects contribute to farms in many ways. When alive, they can eat various pests and add a certain amount of aeration in their tunneling travels. When they are no longer living, they break down and become a nutrient to the soil. But pests can have negative effects if they rely on the crop as a food source or a host for offspring, which lowers yield.

Much the same can be said about plants that are called weeds; they are not intentionally a part of the crop. They compete for nutrients and space as well as burdening harvesting efficiencies because the pickers have to pick around them or they have to be sorted out after the crop is harvested, adding another costly step. But complementary plants can also be a part of a weed control solution. Lots of gardeners I know plant as much of their summer garden as tightly as possible to eliminate the opportunity for unwanted weeds to establish themselves. These plants, sometimes pretty flowering plants, die eventually and compost to be naturally turned back into the soil as a nutrient at a later time.

Problems with pesticides and herbicides
If pesticides are used to address pest concerns, an initial difficulty is that they are not so selective that they poison only the targeted insects. So, in addition to the pest, pesticides get rid of the good insects too, causing all sorts of problems with the crop and the land it sits on. Herbicides seem to be able to be more selective, but their use does diminish soil health due to the fact that the monoculture crop is harvested leaving behind little plant material to nourish the soil and prevent erosion. Pesticides and herbicides can have really negative effects on pollinating insects, either by extinguishing them outright or removing good food sources and making it impossible for them to perform their very important function of pollination.

There are innumerable studies coming out all the time confirming that there is pesticide and herbicide residue to some extent on all food. Conventionally-produced foods have residues that are at acceptable levels according to the USDA, the regulating and testing agency for all food production and importing. If they test a crop and find it to have higher than acceptable levels, then this crop is not accepted into the food supply. The USDA and EPA stipulate how these chemicals are to be used and when their use is prohibited to reduce their residual presence on table-ready food. The USDA has been encouraging farmers to implement a strategy to reduce pesticide use termed Integrated Pest Management, (IPM). A major component of IPM is that chemicals should be used only as a last resort. When used, the least-toxic materials should be chosen, and applied to minimize exposure to humans and all non-target organisms. Organics test comparatively low for residues because these agricultural chemicals have not been directly applied to organic crops, but there is still the matter of what is in the environment overall.

The whole effect
Pesticides and herbicides don’t only affect the crop that they are applied to; if that were the case, then just washing my apple and peeling it might be an adequate way to deal with my reluctance to eat these substances. Agricultural chemicals affect the water beneath the crop they are applied to, the air that these chemicals drift into, and the soil of which they become a part. Although they have been in use for decades, we still don’t know their full effects. It continues to be argued as to what a toxic level is, how that toxicity should be measured and over what period of time the cumulative and compounded impacts can be judged. Supporting agriculture that reduces or eliminates the use of these chemicals has the appeal of offering safer natural foods. But to an even greater good, it would improve water, soil and air quality for all living beings. That sounds like the idealism that the natural foods movement was founded on—good food for everyone, and everything.