Exactly 60 years ago today, the environmental classic ‘Silent Spring’ was first published by Rachel Carson on September 27th, 1962. An author and American biologist, Carson was one of the first scientists to highlight the terrible damage we are doing to the planet through pesticide usage. Her pioneering book ultimately gave birth to the modern-day environmental movement. Sadly, 60 years on, our global appetite for pesticides has not subsided – In fact quite the opposite, it has risen and risen significantly, to the detriment of our soils, wildlife and our own health. There are now more pesticides in global circulation than ever before. Now more than ever we need to move towards more regenerative, agroecological forms of agriculture, halting our reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, working with nature rather than against it. Over the next 60 years business as normal cannot be an option – we need nothing less than a food and agriculture revolution if we have any hope of transforming our food system to benefit human and planetary health.
One of the main pesticides highlighted in ‘Silent Spring’ is the chemical DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Used extensively in agriculture across the globe, the toxic effects of DDT, particularly on birds and marine animals, were unmasked by Carson’s book. One of the most widely documented impacts of DDT was eggshell thinning of certain bird species such as bald eagle and brown pelican, leading to devastating declines in their populations. The issues highlighted by Silent Spring, resulted in campaigns to ban DDT in the United States in 1970, followed soon after by bans in other countries across Europe. Despite heavy lobbying efforts from the biggest producers of DDT, a complete worldwide ban came into force in 2004. 60 years after Carson’s book, we are still experiencing the consequences of DDT today, with persistently high concentrations of DDT being recorded in soils and sediments in ecosystems where it was used.
“What was considered yesterday’s environmental crisis in the 1950s through 1970s remains today’s problem” (Dr. Josh Kurek, Assistant Professor in Geography and Environment at Mount Allison University)
Pesticide Use Today
Today, there are around 385 million cases of acute unintentional pesticide poisoning annually worldwide including around 11,000 fatalities. In addition, an estimated 44% of farmers, farmworkers, and pesticide applicators experience at least 1 incident of acute pesticide poisoning on the job each year. In fact, many of the pesticide issues that Rachel Carson highlighted in her book have become far more acute, with global pesticide production more than tripling over the 60-year period since the book was published. An estimated 3 million tons of pesticides now enter our soils, water, and airspace yearly. What’s more, many of these modern pesticides are thousands of times more toxic than any that existed in Carson’s day.
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 soya beans grown being genetically modified so they are resistant to pesticides. 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 soybean 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.
Tackling Pesticide Poisoning Use in California
A recent case study highlighted the disparity and alarmingly high numbers of pesticide poisoning in California, where incidences of harm to human health due to pesticide usage, were predominantly affecting Latinx communities, many of whom were migrant farm workers from Mexican communities. For cities and US states like California, where in-state use of pesticides makes up 20% of the country’s entire pesticide usage, the negative effects on human health as a result of poisoning are disproportionately impacting those without equal access to healthcare and worker’s rights. Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR), provided data that showed that counties with a majority Latinx population were exposed to 906% times more pesticides per square mile than those with fewer than 24% Latinx residents. CPR, founded in 1996, acts as a public defender for Latinx communities, migrant workers, families, and children unable to advocate for their health, doing this through lobbying for regulation and legislation, educating the public, and advocating for sustainable, organic farming methods.
In 2021, alongside other partners and collaborators, CPR succeeded in winning a historic national victory that was decades in the making. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a nationwide ban on the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops, a chemical that scientists had linked to developmental issues and brain damage in children. The pesticide was one of the most-used pesticides in the country and was applied to kill insects on everything from soybeans to fruit trees to cauliflower. This national success was not new for California and CPR. Two years previously in 2019, CPR was one of the leading groups that successfully lobbied the California state government to end its own use of the chemical on food, making it one of the first states to do so. It was a collective effort, involving many stakeholders, voices, and perspectives that shaped CPR’s campaign effort to get the legislation passed, “together, we shared our stories in English and Spanish, brainstorming campaign activities and building people power” – Angel Garcia, CPR’s Organizing Director (Civil Eats Op-Ed). This event reinforces the importance of not only fighting for pesticide reform but how food and environmental justice must also be seen through a racial justice lens.
The pesticide industry remains one of the most valuable in the world. Globally, the pesticide market was valued at 68.6 billion (USD) in 2019 and is estimated to grow to 87.5 billion by 2024. More than 1/3 of the pesticides are sold by just 5 top companies: Syngenta; Bayer; BASF; Corteva (formerly Dow and Dupont); and FMC (Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation). These commonly used pesticides are substances that are classified as ‘highly hazardous to human health, wildlife, or ecosystems. Pesticides, unless significantly reduced in agriculture and farming, will continue to pose a threat to human health, nature, and biodiversity for the foreseeable future.
Reducing Pesticide Use through Regenerative and Agroecological farming
So how can we halt the frightening and ever-growing rise in pesticide usage? Now more than ever we need to move towards more regenerative, agroecological forms of agriculture, stopping our reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, working with nature rather than against it. Governments and decision-makers, small and big businesses, and all other stakeholders involved in agriculture and health policy can start by reading Silent Spring – a book that is still as pertinent today as it was 60 years ago. The need to ‘read and learn’, is just as important as action and advocacy; and with both in unison, we stand a chance together to be heard and to see real change in years to come. Over the next 60 years business as normal cannot be an option. We need nothing less than a food and agriculture revolution if we have any hope of transforming our food system to benefit human and planetary health.