Pesticides, the Earth & You

Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides... 

Cide is latin for "the act of killing" which reveals the purpose of each of these in preventing those that attack plants. Pesticides encompass all things that kill living things, including herbicides (to kill weeds), fungicides (to kill fungi) and insecticides (to kill insects). The fact of the matter, however, is that these compounds are no more friendly to you and the environment than they are to the organisms they kill.  The fact that less than .01% of the pesticides used actually reach their target while the rest is exposed to the environment and to you illustrates this issue. Here's a closer look at the detrimental domino effect sparked by pesticides and why we should look to alternatives. 


 A grebe.  Flickr . 

A grebe. Flickr

Biomagnification is the accumulation of toxins through trophic levels of the food chain - essentially those at the top of the food chain have the highest concentration of toxins. This effect was illustrated in (the ironically named) Clear Lake, California in 1949. The insecticide DDD was sprayed to kill gnats repeatedly until 1954 (repeated and in increasing amounts because of the pesticide treadmill - increasing pesticide application is needed to control insects and weeds as they develop resistance). But there were more and more grebes found dead in the lake - when their bodies were autopsied they had shockingly high concentrations of DDD while the lake was tested and found to have a non-toxic level of .02 ppm. What explains the lethal concentrations of DDD in the grebes? Investigating other organisms in the lake told the story. Plankton in the lake had accumulated concentrations of 5 ppm, small fish had concentrations between 40-300 ppm and predatory fish had concentrations of 2,500 ppm. Thus the grebes, preying on these organisms, had meals with 125,000 times the DDD level of the water

This is just one example of biomagnification - it can happen in any food chain where a toxin is present. It is the reason that red algae can cause shellfish to be poisonous to humans, for example. While the government has recognized the hazards of these components through increased regulation and bans, there is still reason to be concerned. Often pesticides that are known to be linked to cancer and other health effects are still allowed for legal use if economic and environmental benefits are deemed greater than the risks. Additionally, while certain pesticide use in the U.S. is banned, we can still export them to other countries and then import their food.

  Flickr . 

Biomagnification also holds implications for your diet. Toxins are often stored in fat, meaning that the meats and other animal products are bio-accumulators of toxins. If a cow's meal is exposed to pesticides and then you eat a burger made from cow, you're consuming all of those pesticides in a concentrated form. Therefore, these products can be even more potent than the produce on the Dirty Dozen list (the fruits and veggies exposed to the most pesticides). This also means that babies fed breastmilk from their mothers can be fed even higher concentrations of toxins. 


There is an array of health effects on humans including both short-term effects and long-term effects. If you've applied pesticides to your lawn or otherwise you may have experienced the short-term effects of skin and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea or other symptoms of poisoning. In the long-term, chronic exposure from food and water sources is linked to cancer, ADHD, autism, neurological disorders, Alzheimer's, birth defects, and hormone disruption

Pesticides are one of the reasons that foods made from GMO (genetically modified organisms) are such a concern. GMO foods are engineered to be tolerant to pesticides, so whether you think that GMOs are a danger to your health or not, their tolerance to pesticides means that they can be exposed to greater levels of pesticides. In fact, research from Penn State University has revealed that this bioengineering has led to a 100% increase in pesticide use in the last several years.

 Pesticide over the last several years.  Journal of Environmental Science and Technology .

Pesticide over the last several years. Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

Effect on the environment

Runoff from farms finds its way into water systems, poisoning the water systems and consequently killing and deforming aquatic life. For example, Atrazine, the second most common pesticide in agriculture, can disturb the sexual development of tadpoles. This runoff can persist for decades in water systems. Leaching can also occur, as water-soluble pesticides are carried downstream into permeable soil, where they can remain in the groundwater for decades.

There are other methods through which pesticides spread far out from their origin. Volatilization of pesticides occurs as the vapors moves through the air, just as vapors released when you're cutting an onion can make you cry. In this way, pesticides can spread far beyond their intended targets and amplifying their negative effects.

Such drift can be directly detrimental to insect and animal life. Most pesticides are inherently toxic to bees, causing them to disappear in droves - an effect known as colony collapse disorder. This is a huge concern for agriculture, considering that ⅓ of our foods are dependent on bees for pollination (including peaches, almonds and chocolate). The widespread and cascading effects of pesticides illustrate how detrimental their lethal far reach is.

Alternatives to pesticides 

Alternative farmers like Citizens of Earth work to grow their food organically, without pesticides. There are a number of products and techniques that achieve the goal of pesticides, without the use of toxic chemicals. For example, mineral oil and jojoba oil and spice based products are organic pesticides for certain plants. Additionally, there are a number of techniques that can be used, such as using predator insects, companion planting, physical barriers and crop rotation. Incorporating these techniques produces fruits and veggies free of toxins that are even more nutritious. That's a system that benefits the environment and you to make a more healthy, happy, and happiness world!