The Survivor's Guide to Farm Chemicals

What you need to know about agricultural pesticides and herbicides, and their potential threat to health and environment.

| February/March 1995

  • 148-090-01
    What you need to know about agricultural chemicals.

  • 148-090-01

One bright morning during our first spring in the country, my wife and I sat on our orchard hill watching a bug-shaped truck with extended wings roar back and forth over our neighbor's fields. Clouds of chemical spray billowed from the outstretched "booms," and swirled with columns of dust kicked up by the balloon tires running at 20 miles per hour. It finished quickly and moved on to the next field, leaving behind a fog drifting in the steady May breeze across our lower pasture. Ominous curds of white foam lay in stripes on the freshly tilled soil.

Few would argue the virtue of avoiding contact with farm chemicals—the days are gone when state officials will offer to drink a Malthion cocktail on the evening news to prove its benign effects, as they did in California during the medfly scare a few years ago. Although a great deal of regulation exists governing the use of farm chemicals, the only practical protection for t hose wishing to avoid them is to learn the nature of the pollutants, how and when they will be applied, and to develop a friendly working relationship with those using the chemicals. In spite of the Clean Water Act, the EPA, and the many state and federal restrictions on chemical use, widespread lack of enforcement means we're pretty much on our own.

The burgeoning use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides (primarily herbicides and insecticides) is both a cause and the effect of the gradual industrialization of farming over the last 50 years. Since 1945, the farming community has lost 3.5 million workers, the number of acres under cultivation has remained about the same, and output has increased an average of 2% per year, every year. Corn yields, for example, have risen from an average of 38.2 bushels per acre in 1930 to 118 bushels per acre in 1985. Our neighbor has pushed his corn as high as 200 bushels per acre in the bottomland he works along Ohio's Mad River, surely an unnatural act. It takes 75% less effort per acre to farm today than it did a generation ago.

The incentive to continue this increase in productivity does not originate strictly with growers; federal farm commodity programs have both encouraged farmers to maximize yields and penalized those whose yields have fallen. Federal standards for fruits and vegetables have reinforced market pressures to strive for huge, blemish-free produce at the expense of massive near-harvest pesticide use. As in any industrial process, the aim is to control the variables effecting production as much as possible, in particular, nutrients and competition from insects and other plants. Thus the amount of applied nitrogen fertilizer increased almost fivefold between 1960 and 1981. Corn alone accounts for 44% of total nitrogen application. Estimates of how much nitrogen is actually used by the plants range from 20 to 70%, depending on soil type and the weather. Most of the balance leaches away in the rain.

Between 1971 and 1982, total herbicide use more than doubled, accounting for more than 90% of all pesticides applied. The chemical industry sells more than $4 billion worth of these pesticides each year. In Ohio, the first sign of spring is the barrage of slick, prime-time herbicide ads on network television.

Not everyone is at equal risk, however. Over 90% of all pesticides are applied to just four crops: corn, soybeans, wheat—and cotton. If you live near a farm in the Midwest or South, chances are you are downstream or downwind from an operation growing one of the above. Most pesticides and fertilizers will be applied in the spring. If you lived next to a cornfield in 1971, there was a 40% chance that it would be sprayed with pesticide; by 1986, your chances of a spray had shot up to 95%. Although it is impossible to generalize about the hazard posed by farm chemicals, one rule of thumb is always safe to follow: your risk is proportional to a chemical's toxicity and your cumulative lifetime exposure to the chemical.


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