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

Related Posts

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

Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree?

Decorated Artificial Christmas Tree with Wrapped PackagesA whopping 94 million or 78% of all U.S. households will celebrate the 2014 holidays with a Christmas tree of which 8 out of 10 will be artificial trees. 1 Thousands or perhaps millions of additional trees will be displayed in offices, retail stores, factories, restaurants, and public spaces and buildings across the country.

I am a fan of real Christmas trees but over the past few years, I have been wondering if an artificial tree would be more environmentally friendly or if we should forgo a tree altogether. This year, before heading off to buy a Christmas tree, I decided to do some research.

Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees – Environmental Issues and Benefits

Interestingly, the industry websites and life cycle assessment reports I reviewed did not include the environmental impacts of their inputs, for instance, manufacturing pesticides for real trees or extracting materials and manufacturing plastic and steel feedstock for artificial trees.

Real Christmas Trees

Aerial View of Christmas Tree Farm - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

Two of the environmental issues associated with real Christmas trees are:

Pesticides – can harm people (especially those who dispense them), kill surrounding wildlife and beneficial insects, and pollute streams and rivers. Tree farms often grow one specific type of tree (e.g. noble fir) or grow the same type over large areas. Just like with food monocrops, diseases and pests can spread quickly and damage or wipe out entire crops, which leads to increased pesticide use, pests developing resistance, using more powerful pesticides, etc.

Transportation – in 2012, of the 17.3 million Christmas trees cut for sale in the U.S., over 78% were grown in four states: Oregon (37%), North Carolina (25%), Michigan (10%), and Pennsylvania (6%) 2. Each year, diesel semi-trucks emit tons of carbon pollution as they crisscross the country delivering trees to stores and tree lots in every state. Customers add to their tree’s carbon footprint by driving to and from tree lots and stores.

Environmental benefits of real Christmas trees include:

Carbon Sequestration and Oxygen Generation – trees store carbon and produce oxygen.

Renewable Resource – a real Christmas tree is ‘made’ from a tree, which is a renewable resource. Typically, growers plant one to three seedlings for every tree cut down. 3

Recycling – a real Christmas tree is a cradle-to-cradle product meaning that at the end of its useful life gracing your living room or office; it can be recycled and become an input for a new product. For example, chipping trees into mulch and spreading it in yards or on farms nourishes soil for growing new plants, crops, or even Christmas trees.

Artificial Christmas Trees

Artificial Christmas Tree Store Display

Three of the environmental issues associated with artificial Christmas trees are:

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – many parts of an artificial Christmas tree are made of PVC, a plastic made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Vinyl in PVC outgases toxic fumes and can contaminate the plastic recycling stream.

Transportation – according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 80% of the artificial trees bought in the U.S. are manufactured in China. 3, 4 Trees are packed in containers and shipped overseas via cargo ships burning enormous amounts of fossil fuel and contributing to air and water pollution. Upon arrival, trees are transported to online store warehouses and retail stores all over the country using the same diesel-powered trucks that deliver real Christmas trees. Fortunately, after the first year, customers who reuse their trees have zero travel emissions.

Waste – an artificial tree is a cradle-to-grave product, meaning that after its useful life it cannot be recycled into an input for a new product and thus becomes waste. Technically; PVC is recyclable, however recycling it is a difficult and costly process. Regardless, it is impossible to separate the materials that make up an artificial Christmas tree so 100% of discarded trees end up in landfills.

I have not found any article or report that states artificial Christmas trees are good for the environment, yet they do have one potential benefit, reuse.

Reuse – there is no consensus on how many years an artificial Christmas tree must be reused for its environmental impact to break even with or be better than a real tree, the longer the better. The American Christmas Tree Association recommends reusing an artificial tree for at least 9 years. 5 I wonder how many artificial trees are reused for a decade or longer.

The Bottom Line

Both real and artificial trees share a common environmental issue, which is transportation. Although production and use of pesticides on real trees is a concern, it is likely far outweighed by the environmental damage associated with extracting materials and manufacturing inputs for artificial trees. Real and artificial trees can both end up in a landfill, but only the real tree can be recycled.

Cut Christmas Trees Loaded on Trucks - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

Of course, skipping a tree is the greenest choice, but Christmas trees are traditional and beautiful so that seems too drastic, at least for now. I think the environmental impact of extracting materials and manufacturing the steel and plastic used to make artificial trees tips the green scale in favor of real trees.

We can make our real or artificial Christmas tree purchase more environmentally friendly by keeping the following three things in mind.

  1. Real tree buyers do not buy a flocked tree because it cannot be recycled, select a tree stand built to last, and make sure your tree gets recycled after the holidays.
  2. Artificial tree buyers select a tree that is well made, and one you really like and are willing to use for at least a decade, preferably longer.
  3. Real and artificial tree buyers shop close to home.

This year, we continued our family tradition of real Christmas trees. We bought our tree at a nursery about 1 ½  miles from our house and ran another errand on the way. Our tree stand is in its third decade. After the holidays, our tree will be recycled in our yard with trees from other Christmases past.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that organically grown and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified Christmas trees do exist. They represent a tiny fraction of the Christmas tree market and are not available where I live, but it is something to aspire to in years to come.

A Tree for a Tree

Real and artificial Christmas tree enthusiasts, I propose a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree. Each year we buy a real or artificial tree or put up an existing artificial tree, let’s plant a new tree in our yard, a park, or a forest.

Noble Fir Tree Branches with Needles - Photo: National Christmas Tree Association

I am planting a tiny cypress seedling rescued from a street median in our yard.

Nurseries offer tree seedlings and trees in a variety of sizes and price ranges so you are sure to find something to fit your yard or patio and your wallet. If you do not have a place to plant a tree or place a potted tree, type “plant a tree” in your web browser to locate an organization that will happily plant a tree on your behalf for a small donation.

Imagine planting 94 million-plus trees every year! What a terrific gift for the Earth and everyone living on it.

Happy Holidays.

Related Posts

References

  1. American Christmas Tree Association – Numbers Don’t Lie–Christmas Trees Remain the Centerpiece of U.S. Holiday Celebrations, December 11, 2014
  2. National Christmas Tree Association – States by Total Trees Harvested (based on data from USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture)
  3. National Christmas Tree Association – Quick Tree Facts
  4. U.S. Census Bureau – Facts for Features: The 2012 Holiday Season
  5. American Christmas Tree Association – Choosing an Artificial or Real Christmas Tree? — Either Way, Both are Green (link not valid as of September 2016)

Resources