GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Pesticide Proliferation

What we do to the environment we do to ourselves.

Biotech crops continue to spread across the world but that does not necessarily mean GMOs and bioengineered food are good for people and the environment.

When I began my quest, at the beginning of July, to learn more about GMOs and bioengineered food, I did not have a preconceived destination. I did know that I wanted to attempt to filter out the noise surrounding this highly controversial subject to find some useful information for you and me so we could each form our own opinion and decide if we wanted to take further action or not.

It was while I was writing GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It? that I decided to write a 4-part series hoping to find a balance between too little and too much material. The second and third posts, GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones and GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Laws and Regulations, illustrated how we got to where we are today and gave an overview of how the EPA, FDA, and USDA handle their regulatory authority and responsibilities in the United States.

Originally, I thought this fourth and final post in the series would cover general environmental issues, but when I had it mostly written, I realized that I wanted to focus on one specific issue—the proliferation of pesticide use on a massive scale, not just in the U.S. but across the entire world, driven by increasing adoption of genetically engineered (GE) crops and spurred on by agrochemical companies.

Pesticides are Everywhere and in Everyone

One of the creepiest commercials I can ever remember seeing is the one that portrays an attractive 30-something family man as a hero because he wipes out a single dandelion growing in a crack in his driveway using the handily attached spray wand on his gallon-size jug of Roundup.

Pests and weeds (bugs and plants people do not like) have been around forever, are ubiquitous, and contribute to healthy ecosystems. Of course, there needs to be some kind of balance between us and them. Yet, humans seem to have developed a zero-tolerance for these constituents of nature and are on a mission to try to eradicate them by spraying pesticides everywhere.

Farmer Spraying Pesticide on Lettuce and Cabbage Crops
Farmer Spraying Pesticide on Lettuce and Cabbage Crops – Photo Credit iStock/aluxum

So what is a pesticide?

The word pesticide is derived from the Latin pestis (deadly contagious disease; a curse, bane) and cide (killer or act of killing). It is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of substances that humans use to kill living plants, animals, and other organisms that we do not want living in our buildings, yards, playgrounds, parks, or agricultural fields and orchards. Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill plants, rodenticides kill rodents, fungicides kill fungi, and so on.

Non-GE crops may be sprayed with pesticides, too, but GE crops with built-in pesticide tolerance (especially to herbicides) actually promote pesticide use because they can withstand heavy and repeated spraying with pesticides.

65% of the GE crops approved in 2017 were genetically engineered with herbicide tolerance contributing to the global pesticide market that is valued at about $65 billion per year and growing.1, 2

Pesticides and People

The widespread acceptance of pesticides results in billions of pounds of pesticides being sprayed on agricultural fields and orchards all over the world, as well as in our homes and yards.3 Just in the U.S., there are over 16,000 registered pesticides and not that long ago, the EPA approved huge increases in what is called “tolerable” pesticide residues on crops and food.4, 5

In the real world, which is where everyone lives, we are exposed to pesticides in our air, water, and food every day.

High School in Waialua, Hawaii Next to Pesticide Test Field
A High School in Waialua, Hawaii Next to a Pesticide Test Field – Photo Credit Jon Woodhouse/The Maui Independent

In 2015, the World Health Organization designated glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup) as a probable human carcinogen (meaning it probably causes cancer in people).6 Monsanto, the company that created Roundup during the 1970s, is facing more than 5,000 lawsuits in the U.S. alone.7

This is just one example.

Pesticides and the Environment

Pesticide makers want you to believe the pesticides only kill the targeted pest or weed but that is a gross oversimplification.

You have likely read about how neonicotinoid pesticides are endangering the bees and butterflies that pollinate our food crops and orchard trees as they go about their business. If we kill off nature’s pollinators, a lot of the food you currently buy at the grocery market will disappear, but even more worrying is that no one really knows what kind of a chain reaction could occur in the wild.

Dead Zone along Louisiana Coastline in Gulf of Mexico
A Dead Zone along the Louisiana Coastline in the Gulf of Mexico – Photo Credit NASA

Another less publicized issue is dead zones in waterways and estuaries where no aquatic life can survive in the water or on the adjacent land. This, in turn, leads to erosion and flooding. Dead zones are created by fertilizers and pesticides running off fields and orchards into streams, rivers, and lakes. Pesticides kill organisms in the soil and you cannot grow plants or trees in the dead soil, therefore, fertilizers are applied to rejuvenate the soil and then pesticides are sprayed to kill bugs and weeds, which kills the soil.

Superbugs and superweeds are already evolving that can withstand the pesticides we try to kill them with, which causes a twofold problem. First, fields are sprayed more often and with a greater array of more toxic pesticides. Second, agrochemical companies race to invent poisons that are even more powerful. Then the pests and weeds evolve and the cycle continues.

Palmer Amaranth (Pigweed) Superweed Growing in Agricultural Field
Palmer Amaranth Superweed Growing in an Agricultural Field – Photo Credit Lisa Behnken/University of Minnesota Extension

Palmer amaranth (pigweed) is one weed that has evolved to resist herbicides and is now considered a superweed.

This led to the development of GE crops that can tolerate a more powerful herbicide called dicamba. This herbicide endangers people and as it drifts from fields where it is being sprayed dicamba settles on other crops and plants and kills them, too. This is just one superweed problem that has spurred state and federal investigations and lawsuits.8, 9

What Can You Do?

After wading through and digesting five weeks of research and discussing it with my family, I came to the conclusion that genetic engineering technology could probably be used to benefit society and even the environment, but I believe that our current approach to feeding the world is endangering people and the environment, while lining the pockets of a handful of multi-national corporations focused on quarterly profits.

We need to change.

It is up to each one of us to care enough about ourselves, our children, and the people of the future to take action to change the world. Governments and corporations only change when people say, “we are not going to take it anymore,” and demand change through their actions.

Farmers are on the front lines. Just like everyone else, they are trying to make a living, and they may feel they have no choice but to accept GE crops and the harmful agrochemicals they require. Farmers should not have to go to work wearing hazmat suits.

Young Female Farmer Standing in an Agricultural Field
A Young Female Farmer Standing in an Agricultural Field – Photo Credit NRDC

Let’s help farmers make a living providing healthful food to eat while protecting themselves, their families, us, and the environment. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Even if you can only do something occasionally, it all adds up.

  • Buy certified organic food. It is GMO-free and good for the soil.
  • Shop at the farmers market where you can actually talk to the people growing your food.
  • Make more meals with whole ingredients (packaged foods contain many GMO corn and soy products).
  • Shop at grocery stores that sell local and regionally grown food. Co-ops are a great source.
  • Donate your time and/or money to an organization, like Agrarian Trust, that helps young farmers who want to practice sustainable agriculture get access to farmland.
  • Eat vegetarian meals more often (a lot of GMO corn and soy crops are used to feed livestock animals).
  • Pass up fast food and make your own lunch sometimes (fast food contains a lot of GMO corn and soy).
  • Sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share and get fresh seasonal food every week during the growing season.
  • Tell your elected officials that you want to eat pesticide-free food.
  • Let food companies know why you stopped buying their products and what they need to do to win you back as a customer.

“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if by knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

Reader Note: At the end of this post, in the resource sections, I listed the books, films, and websites I used throughout this series as well as articles specific to this post. You can find other resources in the previous posts.

Featured Image at Top: Farmer Spraying Pesticide on His Crops Using a Drone – Photo Credit iStock/baranozdemir

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References

  1. Brief 53: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 06/26/18 (p. 107)
  2. Whitewash – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 (p. 236)
  3. Pesticides Use and Exposure Extensive Worldwide – by Michael C.R. Alavanja, Ph.D., National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2009
  4.  Whitewash – by Carey Gillam, published by Island Press, 2017 (p. 229)
  5. Food Fight – by McKay Jenkins, published by Avery, 2017 (p. 280)
  6. IARC Monograph on Glyphosate – World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer
  7. Monsanto Ordered to Pay $289 Million in Roundup Cancer Trial – by Tina Bellon (Reuters), The New York Times, 08/10/18
  8. This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms. Instead, it’s devastating them – by Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, 08/29/17
  9. Challenging EPA, Monsanto Over the Crop-Damaging Pesticide “Xtendimax” – press release, Earthjustice, 2018

Resources – Books

Resources – Films

  • Consumed (This is a fictional anti-GMO movie that may help some viewers get a grip on the situation.)
  • Food Evolution (This pro-GMO documentary contains some useful information.)
  • GMO OMG (This film covers the issues associated with GMOs like corporate ownership of the food system)
  • Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives (This anti-GMO documentary contains some useful information.)

Resources – Websites and Articles

Life after Cancer – Gardening

Gardening can help you reconnect with your life.

On the last day of cancer treatment, I think every patient should receive a medal and a garden trowel. The medal is to acknowledge the horrific journey you have just completed and the trowel is to encourage you to get outside and do some gardening.

Cancer treatment can save your life but it is a brutal experience. I know this because I have been through it. I am a breast cancer survivor. At the end of my treatment, I was grateful to be alive! I was also feeling beat up, worn out, and emotionally traumatized. I needed to recover from cancer treatment.

Gardening has been a surprising and vital part of my healing process. I am sharing my story here in hopes that it may help you if you are coping with cancer or another serious illness or you love someone who is.

My Cancer Treatment is Over, Now What?

For those of us fortunate enough to survive cancer treatment, there is life after cancer.

After I completed treatment, I felt as if I had crossed some kind of ephemeral bridge that disappeared into the mist as soon as I stepped off it at the other end. There was no going back to the old me. The only choice was to move forward into uncharted territory.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap, with the destination “you are recovered” marked on it with directions on how to get there. At least I did not receive one. How do you begin recovering from a devastating life-altering experience?

You start by doing something, anything.

I did things like gradually increasing my daily walking and resuming my healthy eating habits. Volunteering gave me a sense of empowerment that helped me get back to my work, which is trying to convince you, me, and everyone else to live more lightly on Earth.

Taking up gardening again both soothed my soul and healed my body.

You may not realize that gardening is good exercise. Almost any kind of gardening requires physical activity like moving around, carrying stuff, and using tools. These activities can help you regain your strength, energy, and stamina.

Gardening has intangible benefits, too. It can refresh your spirit and reconnect you with your life. The act of growing something can remind you that you are part of nature, not separate from it.

Besides reconnecting me with my life, gardening gave me a feeling of doing something worthwhile. By healing myself, I was healing a tiny spot on Earth.

Gardening Helped Me Heal after Cancer Treatment

At its most basic, gardening is about helping something grow with your own hands.

Hanging Basket with Plants and Flowers
Hanging basket with plants and flowers – Photo iStock/Antony Kemp

Close your eyes and picture yourself gardening. What comes to mind? Do you see yourself pruning roses, digging a hole for an oak tree sapling, harvesting bell peppers, taking out your lawn, or _____?

I saw myself spreading mulch on our drought-stricken patch of land in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

Moving a Mountain of Mulch

Mulch nourishes the soil and helps it retain moisture, which is especially important if you live in a dry climate with low rainfall as we do.

In our town, tree and landscape maintenance services will deliver mulch consisting of wood chips, leaves, and pine needles free. You then provide the labor to move and spread it out.

In previous years, I had spread literally tons of mulch around our yard.

Gardening in our yard involves a lot of walking up and down sloping ground so a wheelbarrow is not practical. I had purchased a 17-gallon plastic tub with handles (the kind you put ice and beverages in at a party). After shoveling mulch into the tub, I would carry it to a location in the yard and dump it. After I covered some section of land, I spread the mulch out with a rake.

The work was hard and strenuous, but it paid off. More tree seedlings survived each year, native plants established themselves, and the soil was dark and rich where the mulch had biodegraded over the years.

Just before my cancer diagnosis, I had received a truck full of mulch that had been strategically placed in piles around our yard.

I had not made much progress when chemotherapy quickly sapped my strength and energy. There was no way I could move the mulch with a shovel and a tub. I could have asked my spouse or perhaps I could have hired someone to do it but I wanted to do it myself—so the mulch sat, and sat, and sat.

As the end of my treatment came into view, I could not imagine how I would ever have the strength to push a shovel into a pile of mulch with alone carry a tub of it more than a few feet. This was a depressing thought. I felt defeated.

Then one day, I realized that there was another way to move the mountain of mulch. I could do it a little bit at a time with a garden trowel and two small pails I already owned. This seemed like a questionable idea, even to me, but I decided to try it.

Each day that I could walk uphill in our yard, I used my trowel to fill the two pails with mulch, then I walked to an area that was crying out for protection and dumped the pails. On days that I felt especially energetic, I did it twice.

As you can imagine it took me many months to move all that mulch but I did do it and I enjoyed doing it.

Being outside was refreshing. I could feel the breeze and hear the birds twittering in the trees. I was doing something worthwhile by helping this tiny piece of land heal. The simple act of moving the mulch from point A to B was empowering for me. It showed me that I could and would recover.

A mulch mountain project may not appeal to you so let us look at some other gardening activities.

Gardening Can Help You Recover from Cancer Treatment, Too

Everyone’s situation is different. You could be a novice who has never grown anything in your life or a seasoned gardener looking for a way to re-enter gardening.

I hope one of the suggestions below will appeal to you or help you come up with your own gardening idea.

Container Gardening

Not everyone has a yard or wants one. Many homes, condos, and apartments have a patio, terrace, or a balcony. These are good places for experimenting with growing plants, flowers, or food in pots and other containers.

Fresh Parsley, Basil, and Oregano Growing in Pots
Fresh parsley, basil, and oregano growing in pots – Photo Credit iStock/Mkucova

Are you a fan of cooking with fresh herbs? Then try growing a few from seeds or already potted plants. Do you wish you had a rose garden? Then start one on your patio with a few rose bushes that are suitable for containers (ask at your local nursery). Would like some color on our balcony? Try your hand at creating your own planter with small-scale flowers and plants.

You can do a lot of gardening with a garden trowel, a pair of clippers, a bucket, a watering can, and a pair of gloves.

Native Plant Gardening

Native plants and trees are adapted to living in the climate of the regions they originated in and they do not require a lot of extra inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and extra water.

Are you interested in giving native plants a whirl but not ready to make a big commitment? Ask your local nursery for suggestions and then select a plant or two to try. Are you tired of caring for your turf grass lawn or paying someone else to do it? Consider taking the plunge and removing your grass then growing native plants or seasonal foods. Are you interested in attracting birds, bees, or butterflies to your yard? Ask for native plant ideas at your local nursery, botanical garden, or native plant society and then add some native plants to your garden.

In addition to the equipment listed under container gardening, you will probably need a shovel, a tub for carrying soil, weeds, and plant clippings, a weeding tool, and possibly a rake.

Public Gardening

If you do not have a place to garden at home or even if you do, you might enjoy volunteering at a public garden. This also gives you an opportunity to work and learn alongside other people in your community.

People Planting Vegetables in a Community Garden
People planting vegetables in a community garden – Photo Credit iStock/Rawpixel

Are you interested in growing some of your own food but do not have a place to do it? Look for a community garden in your area where you are either responsible for your own plot or everyone works together collectively. Do you enjoy visiting a botanical garden where you live? Become a volunteer gardener and help with weeding, raking leaves, pruning, watering, and transplanting seedlings. Would you enjoy helping kids learn how to grow their own food? Find an elementary school in your area with a food garden and volunteer.

These are just a few of the ways you can get involved in gardening.

I hope you envision gardening as part of your life after cancer. Gardening is a delightful way to heal yourself and reconnect with your life while contributing to the greater good.

Featured Image at Top: Wood handled garden trowel pushed into soil – Photo Credit iStock/malerapaso

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