Pesticide Facts

Over at his NYT blog, Mark Bittman weighs in on pesticide use in agriculture. It is really hard to know where to start to address the misnomers that are raised in his piece. Let me begin by saying, however, that no one (including myself) likes the thought of eating pesticides in food. But, we need to put things in perspective. Here are some UC Berkeley scientists:

We estimate that about 99.9% of the chemicals that humans ingest are naturally occurring. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant foods are low in comparison to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves.
Bittman begins by saying:
After the publication of “Silent Spring,” 50 years ago, we (scientists, environmental and health advocates, birdwatchers, citizens) managed to curb the use of pesticides[1] and our exposure to them — only to see their application grow and grow to the point where American agriculture uses more of them than ever before. And the threat is more acute than ever.
But if you click on the link he actually provides in the quote, you'll find front and center from the EPA that:
Total pounds of U.S. pesticide use decreased by approximately 8% from 1.2 to 1.1 billion pounds from 2000 to 2007.

Similarly, if you look at the USDA, you'll find that:

In 2007, roughly 877 million pounds of active ingredients were applied to U.S. cropland at a cost of roughly $7.9 billion. In comparison, in 1980, roughly 1.1 billion pounds of active ingredients were applied at a cost of roughly $7.1 billion (in inflation-adjusted dollars). During 1980-2007 the aggregate quantity of pesticides applied in the U.S. declined at an average rate of 0.6 percent per year
So, it appears the entire premise of the piece is off base. Still, I will briefly remark on some of the other claims raised in this piece:
  • Even if pesticide use were increasing (which according to the above it is not), you have to keep in mind that not all pesticides are created equal. The pesticides farmers now use include much more glyphosate (think Round-Up) than they once did, which is less toxic and environmentally damaging than options they use to use (think atrazine).
  • I agree integrated pest management (IPM) is a promising alternative and it is one that many farmers and food processors are already, voluntarily, pursuing because it can be profit enhancing. Pesticide resistance is a problem - always has been, always will be. Calling something a "superweed" makes it sound as if this is a new problem but it isn't. IPM can help mitigate resistance issues.
  • The piece tries to link trends in pesticide use with autism and IQ. Has anyone heard of the Flynn effect? IQ is rising not falling.
  • It is true that organics tend to (on average) use fewer total pesticides. But it is simply not true that organic farmers can't use pesticides. They can use "natural" pesticides like copper and sulfur, which are more toxic than many synthetics. There is really no way to tell when in the supermarket whether the organic has more or less pesticides than the non-organic.
  • If you want to read a really nice account about pesticide risks in food, see Bjorn Lomborg's book. There you'll find lots of data and statistics showing that the relative risks of food pesticides are very small in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, he shows that the bigger cancer risk is not ingesting too many pesticides but rather not ingesting enough fruits and veggies.
  • On an acre-per-acre basis, which commodities are the biggest users of pesticides? You might be surprised to find out that it is not corn, soybeans, or wheat but rather fruits and veggies like lemons, strawberries, etc. It is true that more pesticide is used in corn than strawberries but that's only because we grow a lot more corn than strawberries. If you look at pesticides per acres planted, a much different picture emerges.