by Alan Broughton
Human health must be considered a priority. The human body is now bombarded with hundreds of chemicals that never existed in previous generations.
Chemical companies claim that their products are thoroughly tested for adverse health effects, if used according to directions. However, they are not tested for their effects on children, including the unborn. They are not tested in combinations with other chemicals. They are not tested for damage caused by minute quantities – some chemicals have greater impact in parts per billion than parts per million, because at higher levels the body can sometimes reject them. The testing scientists are rarely independent. Chemicals are not always used according to directions.
There is a strong correlation between increased chemical usage and increased incidence of the modern illnesses of autism, asthma, diabetes, depression, infertility and schizophrenia.
The environmental is suffering. There are many unintended side effects of chemicals on the environment. Non-target insects that pollinate crops and help control pests are impacted. Loss of bird populations is a worldwide problem. Contaminated waterways kill frogs and fish. Much of the world’s drinking water is severely contaminated by nitrate fertilisers and pesticides.
Chemical usage is unsustainable for economic reasons too. Pesticides do not solve pest, disease and weed problems. They often make them worse. Despite the massive increase in the use of pesticides, the amount of crop loss has not decreased. The world spent $850 million on pesticides in 1960, rising to $39 billion in 2007 – with no reduction in pests and disease. Pesticides can increase pest attack by reducing the ability of a plant to repel attacks, and by killing off the natural controllers.
Pests, diseases and weeds develop resistance to the chemicals designed to control them, a process of natural selection. If a few individual organisms survive a pesticide, their genetic advantage is passed on to the next generation, so that within a few years the pesticide loses much of its impact. New chemicals with different modes of action are continually developed by the chemical companies, now fast running out of new options.
As soluble nitrate fertiliser use increases, the damage to soil biology and soil structure also increases, so that more nitrate is used to obtain the same yield. Nitrates also weaken plant cell walls, leading to easier attack by pests and diseases.
Chemical fertilisers are major contributors to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Less than half of the nitrates applied to fields are used by crops. The remainder either leaches downward into the water table, washes off into waterways, or volatises into the air as nitrous oxide.
Manufactured forms of nitrate and phosphate fertilisers negatively affect the soil biology, particularly the mycorrhizal fungi which are the main creators of stable carbon in soil. Nitrate fertilisers stimulate certain bacteria which, because they need a carbon source, start decomposing normally very resistant forms of soil carbon, turning it into carbon dioxide.
Chemicals keep farmers poor. The only long-term beneficiaries of agricultural chemicals are the chemical companies.
Organic farmers do not need chemical inputs. Soil fertility is maintained by recycling crop and animal residues, and by the soil microbes that release locked up minerals from the soil. Pests are controlled by natural predators, which are encouraged by crop biodiversity. Adding nectar and pollen producing flowering plants to the farm ecosystem allows the beneficial insects to complete their lifecycle. Root diseases are prevented by active populations of disease-controlling organisms in the soil. Foliar diseases are controlled by the plant health and vigour that a chemical-free balanced soil produces. Weeds are managed by tools and ground cover.
Organic farming requires greater knowledge and understanding and experimentation to design farming systems that produce good crops with minimal inputs. It is not as easy as chemical farming, but more rewarding. Organic farmers are happier farmers, knowing that they are producing nutritious uncontaminated food. There are millions of successful organic farmers in the world.
Organic farming with a sound scientific ecological base is the way of the future. Chemical farming is not sustainable. If the true costs to health and the environment were included in food production economics, only organic food would be affordable.