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Earth Day 2007: Pesticide Ponderings on Past, Present and Future

(Beyond Pesticides, April 20, 2007) As we celebrate Earth Day this weekend, Beyond Pesticides would like to take this moment to reflect on exactly where pesticides fit into the current environmental picture, including victories of the past and victories needed for a healthy future.

Over the last year, the organic movement has seen many successes, with school pesticide reduction victories in North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and California; new organic parks in New Jersey; increasing numbers of sustainable vegetable and cotton growers; and even hospitals and schools purchasing organic food. As we celebrate these victories, we look ahead to ways we can continue this trend toward organics, and opportunities for connecting with other environmental causes.

Global climate change is the major focus of Earth Day this year, as well as a major focus of the environmental movement as a whole. But rather than being a separate issue from pesticides, the two are actually very much related.

In fact, the Rodale Institute has figured organic farming requires 63% less energy (fossil fuels) than “conventional” methods. Top this off with the fact that industrial agricultural methods also reduce the amount of carbon that can be sequestered in soil, and the organic connection becomes even more important. According to the Rodale Institute, which conducts the world’s longest running study of organic farming, the soils of organic crops sequester significantly more carbon than conventional methods. Although organic farming cannot tie up all of our abundant greenhouse gasses, Rodale researchers have figured a 320-acre organic farm is equivalent to the reduction of 117 cars from the road. Additionally, consider that not only are many of the active ingredients in pesticides derived from petroleum, but so are “inert” ingredients like solvents, as well as synthetic fertilizers. Going organic not only sequesters carbon, but it also cuts down on the fossil fuels required for the production of pesticides.

Beyond the fact that organics may be a key solution in the fight against greenhouse gases, climate change will have major effects on pesticide-related issues. Scientists believe that global warming will increase pest populations, including weeds, invasive species, insects, and insect-borne diseases, which will likely lead to large increases in the use of pesticides. The effects of climate change are already beginning to be seen, and will continue to be seen for years to come. Without drastic actions to curb global warming, the current course we are heading on will lead to booms in pest populations and pesticide use.

Besides switching to organic food, what else can we do? For starters, take a good look at your yard. Is it organic or does it require petroleum-based life support? (If you need support for kicking the habit, visit the National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns.) How about your house or apartment, workplace or school? Prevention methods such as sanitation and physical barriers (sealing cracks, screens, etc.) work wonders. Have messy neighbors or a building maintenance company that doesn’t get it? There are alternative control methods for unwanted species and chemical factsheets to get the message across.

Beyond global warming, pesticides play a role in many other aspects of Earth Day. Pesticides have been an Earth Day issue since the first rally held on April 22, 1970. Rachel Carson and others knew pesticides were taking their toll on the environment and public health. Shortly after the first Earth Day, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which, within the first few years of operation, banned DDT and started reviewing pesticides. However, just like oil-addiction, moving on from the pesticide-addiction has been a slow and arduous process.

Today, we know pesticides are virtually ubiquitous in our bodies and in our environment. Biomonitoring studies reveal a body burden of toxic chemicals exists throughout the nation’s population. Studies of major U.S. rivers and streams find that 90% of fish, 100% of surface water samples, and 33% of major aquifers contain one or more pesticides at detectable levels (to learn more, read Threatened Waters: Turning the Tide on Pesticide Contamination). We also know pesticides can be carcinogenic, disrupt the endocrine system, weaken the immune system, affect neurodevelopment, impair fertility, and influence the development of asthma, as well as trigger asthma attacks.

So, as we celebrate a day that is dedicated to improving our quality of life through clean air, water and food, and honors the basic human right to a healthy environment, don’t forget that pesticide reduction is an important part of the equation. In 2000 (the most current data), over four pounds of active pesticide ingredient was used per capita in the U.S. Anything and everything you can do to take pesticides out of your life helps.

Happy Earth Day from Beyond Pesticides!!!

If you would like to add to these thoughts, have a victory to share or have comments, please make yourself heard by clicking on ‘Comments’ below.

To find out more about the link between pesticides and global warming, and to find out about emerging pesticide issues and what activists are doing around the country, join us at our 25th National Pesticide Forum, Changing Course in a Changing Climate: Solutions for health and the environment, June 1-3 in Chicago, IL.


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