Silent Spring 60 Years On: Pesticides, People and Planet

Mar 7, 2022 | 0 comments

It was 60 years ago[1] that the environmental classic ‘Silent Spring’ was published by Rachel Carson, highlighting the terrible damage we are doing to the planet and giving birth to the modern-day environmental movement. Whilst DDT, the pesticide that was the focus of her book, was banned in the United States 10 years later (followed by a world-wide ban in 2004), our appetite for pesticides has only accelerated in the intervening years. Despite the perilous declines in pollinator species across the world,[2] our industrial food and farming systems continue to use vast quantities of pesticides with devastating impacts on the health of people and planet. Today there are 385 million cases of acute unintentional pesticide poisoning annually worldwide including around 11,000 fatalities.[3]  An estimated 44% of farmers, farmworkers, and pesticide applicators experience at least one incident of acute pesticide poisoning on the job every year.

The problems with pesticides that Rachel Carson highlighted in her book have become far more acute 60 springs later, with global pesticide production more than tripling over that period – with an estimated 3 million[4] tonnes of pesticides now entering our soils, water courses and air every year. Many of these modern pesticides are thousands of times more toxic than any that existed in Carson’s day. The global pesticide market was valued USD 68.6 billion in 2019 and estimated to grow to USD 87.5 billion by 2024.[5] More than one third of the pesticides sold by the top 5 companies (Syngenta; Bayer; BASF; Corteva (formerly Dow and Dupont); and FMC (Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation)) are substances that are classified as ‘highly hazardous’ to human health, wildlife, or ecosystems.

A few homogenous monoculture crops, such as wheat corn and soy, are dependent on vast quantities of pesticides that dominate many farming landscapes across the world. In the United States for example, growing corn and soya represent nearly 50% of pesticide sales with 93% of corn and soybeans grown being genetically modified so they are resistant to pesticides.[6] US Farmworkers and migrant workers are particularly susceptible to exposure, encountering pesticides when spraying fields, inhaling pesticide ‘drift’ and exposing their families and local communities via contamination of groundwater or on their clothing. Research by the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that 60% of soyabean farmers had glyphosate in their samples taken within 24 hours after they applied a formulation containing the chemical – with 4% of their spouses and 12% of their children found to have traces of glyphosate in their samples. The agency also concluded that the herbicide is a ‘probable human carcinogen’. Despite this, driven by the continued industrialisation of livestock systems, glyphosate use on soya continues to increase globally, with a 15-fold increase in use since 1996. [7]

Just in the last week the UK government announced that they have given sugar beet farmers permission to use banned ‘bee killing’ pesticides to kill pests on sugar beet crops. These so-called neonicotinoid pesticides were banned across the UK and Europe in 2018 after scientists confirmed they are toxic to pollinators, including bees. Despite explicit advice from the government’s own scientific advisors and many environmental organisations, the decision goes against the UK Government’s green promises, and will ultimately lead to a further decline in UK insect pollinators, on which much of our very food system depends. Protecting sugar beet (crops that provide no nutritional value) and British Sugars profits at the potential expense of healthy and nutritious crops (such as fruits) that depend on pollinators makes no sense to me at all from a food security, sustainability, or health perspective.

Now more than ever we need to move towards more regenerative and agroecological farming practices which significantly reduce the need to use pesticides. Prime ministers, presidents and those involved in agriculture and health policy need to read Silent Spring – a book that is still as pertinent today as it was 60 years ago. The need to Read, Learn and Act is as important today as it ever has been.

[1] Silent Spring was published on 27th September 1962

[2] https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2019/february/the-world-s-insect-populations-are-plummeting-everywhere-we-look.html

[3] Boedeker, W., Watts, M., Clausing, P. et al. 2020. The global distribution of acute unintentional pesticide poisoning: estimations based on a systematic review. BMC Public Health 20, 1875 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-09939-0

[4] https://ourworldindata.org/pesticides

[5] https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2020/02/20/pesticides-croplife-hazardous-bayer-syngenta-health-bees/

[6] https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us.aspx#.U-oxb4BdWN7

[7] https://glyphosatestudy.org/hrf_faq/how-much-glyphosate-is-used-worldwide /

 

 

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Written By Tasting the Future

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant focussing on food systems transformation initiatives. He works with businesses, funders and civil society organisations on a range of food systems projects. This includes research work, strategy & policy development, project management and media work. He is a passionate advocate and champion of food systems transformation which gives citizens access to healthy and nutritious foods within environmental limits.

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