Not all chemicals are equal, and neither are all pesticides. As in most areas, many people are misinformed by vague polarizing texts that frequently talk about “toxic” chemicals without stating the dose. There are things you need to know about pesticides, and I did my best to put them all into 5 points.
1. Organic farming uses pesticides, and they aren’t necessarily less toxic
2. The best alternatives to spraying are biological controls and genetic engineering
The downside of spraying anything is that you have to create this solution, ship it to the area it is being used, and then not all of it gets where you want (some of it goes into the soil and wind). The impacts on insects who are not even interested in eating the plants are logically greater when Bt is being sprayed than when it is being expressed in the tissues of the plants.
The most promising alternatives to spraying are using biological controls (like natural predators or boosting the plant’s natural immune reactions) and genetic engineering. The new RNAi GM pest control is a really clever method of enabling plants to turn away normal pests without needing to produce anything more than a secluded double-stranded piece of DNA that inhibits the development of only the target insects. If the organic movement is really concerned about environmental sustainability, then this type of GM should be considered for admission.
3. Pesticide use has not increased with the increased use of GM crops
Everybody knows that the United States is the biggest adopter of genetic engineering worldwide, with the majority of US corn carrying glyphosate resistance. If you listen to anti-GM people, they’ll tell you pesticide use has skyrocketed since the introduction of GE crops, but this simply isn’t supported by data.
The use of Bt crops have actually reduced pesticide spraying, which is something that’d be easy to miss if you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere. The pesticides we use today are less toxic, and are sprayed in lower concentrations, than yesterday’s. Still, optimally we’d grow our plants with limited logistics.
4. Most pesticides can be removed through scrubbing with warm water
Seriously, you can remove most pesticides by simply washing and scrubbing your produce with warm water. The story going around about vinegar is, ironically, an unncessary logistical step that does not increase pesticide removal.
5. Pesticide levels are routinely tested, and the vast majority of samples are within limits
Pesticide levels of conventional and GM crops are routinely tested for pesticide residue. Ironically, organic crops that also use pesticides are not tested, nor is data about their useage levels published anywhere (they are tested for synthetic pesticides, though). A recent analysis by Europe’s Food Safety Agency (EFSA) found that 97% of samples had pesticide residues within limits, and a little over half (54%) had no detectable levels of pesticides at all, and 27% had detectable residues of more than one type of pesticide.
I’m not a fan of spraying anything onto crops, because applying anything in an excess onto a wide area will have a greater impact on the soil and the water than other methods. There are indications that our chemical use (specifically endocrine disruptors) is increasing birth defects. We can only improve the system if people are informed enough to demand meaningful change and regulation.