Pesticide Degrading the Environment

In the past few decades there has been a shift in the crop market. The high demand of specific crops altered the agricultural practices of farmers to a more intensive manner of farming. The small farms once owned and run by families could no longer thrive in these competitive times, and new techniques that produced higher yields of specific crops were implemented (Altieri, 2000). Although output has increased, land is being degraded. Farmers are now using chemical enhancers to try to produce more crops; these increasing crop yields are aided by the use of pesticides, which has skyrocketed to try to reduce crop loss.

Composition of Pesticides:

Pesticides are any substances that are used to prevent, destroy or control pests and disease vectors (Zacharia, 2011). The use of such chemicals in agriculture exponentially increased in the 1940s with the beginning of the “Green Revolution” in Mexico, which later expanded throughout the globe. The goal of the Green Revolution was to increase the grain yields in the world to meet the demand of food that was increasing with the world population. Thus, in current times where the population is increasing at even higher rates, the use of fertilizers and pesticides has also largely increased.

As seen in the table below pesticides have a large range of targets. This translates to a wide variety of  differing chemical compositions of  pesticides that cause a range of effects on the environment. Identifying which type of pesticide does the most damage can help one target exactly how to combat and reverse the detrimental effects. Persuading governments to implement restriction on the use of certain chemicals or invest in research to find alternatives to these harmful chemicals can lead to healthier, more fertile lands in the future.

Types of pesticide Target organism/pest
Insecticides Insects
Herbicides Weeds
Rodenticides Rodents
Fungicides Fungi
Acaricides and Miticides Arachnids of the order Acarina such as ticks and Mites
Molluscicides Mollusks
Bactericides Bacteria
Avicides Bird pests
Virucides Virus
Algicides Algae
Figure 1: Classification of pesticides based on the target organisms (Zacharia, 2011)

 

Pesticide Usage:

Farmers have adopted the practice of crop monoculture, where only single crops are grown on large scales. This means the crops are more likely to be affected by single plagues or pests.This dependence on a single crop forces farmers to try to protect their crops by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Yet, in recent years crop yields have faced significant losses, up to 30%, even with the use of pesticides (Altieri, 2000). This outcome indicates that pests are becoming more resistant to pesticides and that this method of controlling them is no longer ecologically viable or effective. A counterargument to the pesticide resistance is that the changing climate is triggering a redistribution of the insects and pests causing the the target pests to be altered thus proving the pesticides ineffective (Palikhe, 2007).

One of the large problems with the new form of agriculture is that the crops are being grown outside their optimal growth ranges. Some crops do not have the capability of growing in certain areas, but farmers use an influx of different chemicals to try to increase their vitality in these areas. Another problem that farmers and the environment face is the low percentage of nutrients that are recycled. The wastes of the farm animals and the crop residues from previous harvests are no longer being used to benefit the new crops. Fertilizer and pesticide industries have made it more expensive to reuse organic materials than using the chemical products they sell on large quantities (Altieri, 2000).

The rapid intensification of food demand has led to various maladies of the environment. But there are two disorders that affect the environment that should be given large priority to. The first group affects the ecotope; these effects are mostly associated with erosion and its consequences on soil fertility and nutrients and water pollution. The other group consists of ailments of the biocoenosis which encompasses losses in crops and animal resources. Added to this is the bottleneck effect that gives pests the capability of genetically becoming resistant to pesticides and other chemical additives (Altieri, 2000). These problems, added to the collective loss of biodiversity and pollution of the environment need much attention to be fixed. Implementing crop rotation techniques could aid in preventing the loss of soil fertility, crop loss, and loss of animal resources, but to prevent erosion one must be cognizant of the land’s capacity and capabilities and not overuse the land. Also, the use of soil surface covers and runoff control mechanisms are key to prevent soil from eroding (Queensland Government, 2013).

The high demands of food and overuse of the land is causing erosion. To combat this farmers should implement minimum tillage practices to prepare the land for crops. Yet, an issue with this concept is that to reduce the frequency of tillage practices one must implement herbicides to kill weeds. Another alternative is contour bank cropping where slope lengths of the terrain are controlled and runoff is intercepted before it reaches high enough velocities that would damage the crops. The sediment that was carried along with the runoff here is mostly collected near the banks that are created and can be put back into the land (Carey, 2014).

A major effect of soil erosion is nutrient depletion of the soil. This is worsened by the farmers’ practice of monoculture, which drains the land of specific nutrients and in the long term leaves the land infertile. This issue can be tackled if farmers begin using crop rotations so the same crops do not consume the same minerals and nutrients from the soil every year.

Another issue that is brought about with the use of pesticides is the detrimental effect it has on native pollinators. Although not all crops depend on the pollination of insects such as the honey bees, wasps, beetles, flies, butterflies, and moths, a whopping 35% of the world’s crop production depends on these (FAO, 2015). The insects may carry particles of the insecticides back to their colonies and they may kill large portions of the other insects. A way to prevent the large scale loss of pollinator insects is to apply the insecticides on all portions of the plant except the blooms. This would lessen the chances that the beneficial insects would come in contact with the pesticide. An alternative to this, would be to spray the pesticides during the evenings or later hours because most of the pollinators, such as the bees, search for food during the daylight hours (University of Georgia, 2015).

Case Studies

Problems in the United States:

The United States in the recent years, has faced problems with biocides. Biocides are chemicals or microorganisms that destroy or control the effects of harmful organisms through the use of chemicals or biological means. These biocidal substances are reactive and are a risk to the environment and humans if they are not properly used. They have particularly harmful effects on children under the age of 12 and on pregnant women (Rathore & Nollet, 2012).  In the United States there are two main laws that govern the proper use of pesticides. The first is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which guarantees that all pesticides on the market have been approved by the EPA (United States General Accounting Office, 2000). And the second law is the Federal, Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which monitors the residues of pesticides on or in foods. The US also recognizes the potential pesticides have on causing illnesses on the long term and the EPA has implemented the Worker Protection Standard which reduces farmers’ exposure to pesticides (United States General Accounting Office, 2000).

Laws similar to these, where the pesticides are monitored to see if the residues are harmful to the consumers of the crops and the workers that handle the crops should be implemented on a global scale. Having governing bodies monitor and correct any damages caused by pesticides would bring about health benefits to the populace and the wild vegetation. Policies similar to these have even shown their success in underdeveloped countries like Mozambique.

Problems in Mozambique:

Pesticide imports in Mozambique have increased by 500% in the last decade because of the increase in the planting of cash crops such as cashews, cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco (FAO). One of the biggest issues with the influx of pesticide usage is the fact that some of the chemicals used are extremely dangerous to humans. These pesticides are known as Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs), and they produce irreversible damage to human health and the environment.

An example of these HHPs is the pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) which had horrible effects on wildlife and on humans years after it was introduced. DDT in humans has been linked to damage in a person’s nervous system, reproductive system, and development (PAN, 2015). These HHPs are typically not used in developed countries because there are multiple alternatives, but in underdeveloped countries like Mozambique where the resources are not the same, farmers have to risk using these pesticides. Yet, Mozambique’s government has prioritized the health of its people and crops and has prohibited the use of many pesticides in the nation (FAO). Mozambique is an example to follow for all other developing nations.

Conclusion:

To reduce the detrimental effects of pesticides on the land the world has to return to more modest outputs that yield healthier crops with less detrimental effects Altieri & Nicholls, 2003). The majority of farmers around the world live near the poverty line and convincing them to decrease yields of crops would require governments to subsidize their farmers. Growing a variety of crops on the land or rotating the crop growth with legumes will not allow the sufficient time for pests to complete their life cycles and the overall nitrogen output will increase in the fields for future crops (Altieri & Nicholls, 2003). This would ultimately reduce the use of pesticides.

Another alternative that also increases crop yields is to genetically modify the seeds of the crops.Yet, genetically modifying the crops can bring about a completely different set of problems. The crops would be able to grow better in areas outside of their original growth range so many farmers would try growing the most profitable crops. This in turn may cause the crop prices to drop and the farmers to all concentrate on growing a very limited number of crops (Altieri, 2000).

Another issue that comes about this uniform growth of crops is the potential of a resistant pest that affects the area will have a larger impact on the crop yield than if the crops were more varied. There is also the possibility of unintended transfers of the transgenes from the modified crops, this may affect nearby plants in unknown ways (Altieri, 2000). This issue occurs when the genetically modified crops have significant similarities with the surrounding vegetation. An example of this occurs when glyphosate pesticides are used on rice crops, Oryza sativa; the surrounding weedy form of this crop does not get eliminated, but it instead gets aided. This enhanced weed has higher rates of photosynthesis and produces between 48-125% more seeds per plant than the original non-genetically modified sort (Qui, 2013).

An alternative to pesticides and fertilizers is the use of cover crops -they improve soil fertility and allow for more water to seep in. The cover plants are also home to some of the predators that eat the pests that affect the crops, so the overall output of the crops increases (Altieri, 2000).  The most used types of cover crops are grasses, legumes, and brassica. The way for farmers to incorporate these into their crop rotation schedule depends greatly on the type of cover crop, the location of the farm, and the time of the harvest (Heggenstaller).

The solution to the problem of agriculture and its detrimental effects to the environment is to take the agroecological approach. This method’s goal is to bring back the medium size farms and diversify the crops that are grown by adding cycle of crop rotations with cover crops. This added to a change in the agricultural policy and food systems so that the farmers and consumers are equally benefitted. Yet, to diverge from the agricultural systems that are already implemented will be quite difficult, as various governments invest to subsidize the farmers that are growing their crops in monocultures. This creates a disadvantage for all the other farmers who would prefer to practice crop rotation in their land (Altieri, 2000).

The solution to the problem would be to persuade governments of larger nations to aid farmers by giving them loans or subsidizing their farmers. The farmers that decide to reduce the consumption of pesticides and implement crop rotations with cover crops will be unable to directly compete with the other farmers, that continue using an influx of chemicals to achieve higher crop yields, alone. These farmers need all the support they can get to cause a shift to a healthier form of agriculture that will revitalize the land and allow it to be fertile for years to come.

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Works Cited

(2000). Pesticides. In U. S. Office, Improvements Needed to Ensure the Safety of Farmworkers and Their Children (p. 39). Washington, D.C.: [Washington, D.C.] : U.S. General Accounting Office, [2000].

(2012). Uses and Environmental Pollution of Biocides. In H. S. Rathore, & L. M. Nollet, Pesticides : Evaluation of Environmental Pollution (p. 647). CRC Press.

(2011). Identity, Physical and Chemical Properties of Pesticides. In J. T. Zacharia, Pesticides in the Modern World – Trends in Pesticides Analysis (p. 514). InTech.

Altieri, M. A. (2000, July 30). Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming. Retrieved November 8, 2015, from Agroecology in Action: http://nature.berkeley.edu/~miguel-alt/modern_agriculture.html

FAO. (n.d.). Mozambique prohibits Highly Hazardous Pesticides. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from Food and Agrigulture Organization of the United Nations: http://www.fao.org/in-action/mozambique-prohibits-highly-hazardous-pesticides/en/

Herzfeld, D. (2011). Chapter 4 Pesticide Formulations. In Private Pesticde Applicator Safety Education Manual 19th Edition. University of Minnesota .