Chemicals, whether fertilisers or pesticides, are used during the growing process to protect or spur the crop on. Corporations aver that these are ‘low residue’, but the fact is that these chemicals are used to kill insects, and force growth in the plant – and these are what we are consuming.
The beginning of the end
Prior to World War II, the USA always lost more soldiers to insect borne diseases by malaria and typhus, than the war itself. In 1939, DDT was discovered and used extensively by the military in the war. Soldiers were encouraged to sprinkle it everywhere, practically dust themselves every day with it, and seeing its ‘miraculous’ effects, DDT soon became sought after in every day, non-war, non-disease related uses as well.
The post war age saw the dawn of the chemical age. By 1952, there were almost 10,000 new pesticide products registered in the US alone. Huge profits and increased harvests bore testament to the conviction of that time that chemicals could do no wrong.
The lies that were held to be truths
It was widely held that pesticides weren’t harmful; rather as the chemicals broke down into the soil and plants, they would disappear. Today, we know that this isn’t true. Most agricultural chemicals and poisons like organophosphates become even more poisonous to humans after degrading. It was also said that the pesticides were tested to ensure that they weren’t harmful – this means usually that only the active chemical underwent tests for daily intake; without delving into the dangers of the inactive chemicals or long-term effects of the chemicals we were being subjected to. The combinations of chemicals were also not taken into account; which meant that we were consuming a cocktail of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilisers, without considering what the blending of those ingredients would do to our bodies.
How much do we know now?
Not much. Due to the lack of awareness at the beginning of chemical usage, it’s only relatively recently that governments and testing bodies have started to observe a co-relation between chemicals and ailments. More worryingly, corporations are still obfuscating data and test results, skewing them in such a way so as to show lesser danger or focusing on one ingredient over others to pass muster.
In a report titled State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals—2012, released jointly by the UN and the WHO, it was stated that “close to 800 chemicals , known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion. However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests capable of identifying overt endocrine effects in intact organisms.” These endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs can be found in food, electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, water, air and skin.
Exposure to these lead to issues with neural development in children, genital malformations in infant boys, attention deficit/hyperactivity in children, and endocrine-related cancers including prostate, breast, and thyroid, as well as other disorders. “Chemicals also interfere with metabolism, fat storage, bone development and the immune system, and this suggests that all endocrine systems can and will be affected by EDCs,” the authors write.
The authors call for improved, increased testing, research and reporting on the sources of EDCs, their effects on humans and their collaborative identification amongst governments, especially amongst emerging economics.
Cancer – one of the immediate result of pesticides
Alarming studies reflect the truth of chemicals being harmful, no matter how low residue. At the Indian Cancer Congress, held in New Delhi from November 21-24, 2013, studies of patients over 10 years, pointed to the co-relation between pesticide toxicity and breast cancer.
Researchers have also concluded links between DDT and breast cancer; DDT acts as a synthetic hormone, spurring cells to the excess production of proteins, and thus becoming cancerous. DDT also leads to precocious puberty, which means that the body is forced into performing much like the plants, growing faster than nature intends.
Higher rates of breast cancer are found in women from states like Punjab, which witness higher use of pesticides after the Green Revolution campaign. The incidence of chemicals as well as the lack of medical infrastructure make for a dangerous setting.
For today’s generations and tomorrow’s too
Chemicals seep into our food, air, water and skin – and in the long term cause issues for the next generation as well. Chemical carcinogenesis, as the process of chemicals causing cancer is known, is complex. Its effects can be passed on over generations, causing gene and cell mutations. One has to only consider the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which killed over 20,000 people at the time; and the generational effects of which are still making themselves apparent.
The gas in question, MIC or Methyl Isocynate, is used in the production of insecticides.
For almost 25 years, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala sprayed villages around the Kasargod district with endosulfan, a persistent organic pollutant (POP) to eradicate tea mosquitoes in cashew plantations. Exposure to this hazardous chemical for 25 years has left the communities and people there with immense issues from cancer and mental retardation to cerebral palsy, nervous and reproductive disorders and physical deformities. What’s worse, the consistent depositing of this chemical on the environment and humans has ensured that even 15 years after the banning of endosulfan, tests show alarmingly high deposits of the POP across the area.
Children are already more affected than adults by pesticides. But the fact that your children’s children may also suffer because of our choices is scary.
Going back to organic for India – and how you can change things
In this scenario, it is even more imperative that India embraces her traditional organic agricultural practices and return to farming methods that suited our soil, our plants and us. Crop rotation, natural pesticides, natural fertilisers like vermicompost, rainwater harvesting – organic farming is kinder to the environment, the end consumers and the farmers too. Organic farming is also fully capable of yielding the same kind of results as chemical farming, over time and what’s more, given the denser levels of will be able theoretically to feed more with less. It is the only viable long-term solution, and the easiest way for you to help effect this change across the nation is by choosing organic, making it viable for farmers to switch and governments to support, while staying healthy yourself.