Back at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, I was a grad student at the University of British Columbia preparing to go on an ocean voyage against U.S. hydrogen bomb testing that would result in the birth of Greenpeace. For the next 15 years, I would lead Greenpeace on a range of campaigns, finally leaving the group in 1986.
A lot has changed since those days, not least the significant improvement in agricultural technology. There should be no irony on this Earth Day that we should think about how science and technology have improved our ability to raise crops and put food on our tables.
More importantly, continued research and development in genetic science, fertilizers and pesticides has enabled us to dramatically increase the quantity and quality of food production while not increasing the land required. The result is greater wilderness protection — more natural habitat for flora and fauna and a more biodiverse world.
Pesticides are a key part of modern agriculture, contributing to the dramatic increases in crop yields in recent decades for most major field, fruit and vegetable crops. By using pesticides, farmers are able to produce some crops profitably in otherwise unsuitable locations, extend growing seasons, maintain product quality and extend shelf life.
In fact, better pesticide science has allowed North America to triple its food production while maintaining the same forest cover that existed a century ago. But activist groups with an anti-pesticide agenda continue to disseminate misinformation designed to scare and confuse the public on this important issue.
The result is that people who listen to the anti-pesticide message tend to actually put themselves and their children at greater risk of cancer because they avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
After staying away from tobacco and excessive fat and cholesterols, eating fruits and vegetables is the best way to avoid the risk of cancer.
Professor Bruce Ames of University of California-Berkeley has been trying for years to tell the world pesticide in food is not a significant health issue, and that, in fact, failing to eat fresh fruits and vegetables puts a person’s health at risk.
Dr. Ames — a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a National Medal of Science recipient for his research on cancer, especially in connection with chemical toxicity — has found natural pesticides produced by plants to protect themselves from insects and fungus are just as toxic as the synthetic pesticides used in agriculture.
According to Dr. Ames, the three major causes of cancer include smoking, dietary imbalances such as excess fat and calories and inadequate intake of fruits, vegetables, fiber and calcium, as well as chronic infections leading to chronic inflammation such as that caused by hepatitis B and C viruses.
Dr. Ames notes that 99.99 percent of the pesticides we eat are natural chemicals present in plants to ward off insects and other predators. This is something the anti-pesticide activists never tell the public. Ironically, those who turn to organic food do not avoid most of the pesticides humans ingest because most of them are naturally occurring.
There are about 10,000 or so different natural pesticides in our diet, and they are always present at much higher levels than synthetic pesticides. These natural pesticides, like their synthetic cousins, have shown negligible risk to human health. Dr. Ames notes, “The levels of synthetic pesticide residues are trivial in comparison to natural chemicals.”
Eliminating synthetic pesticides from our modern world would mean giving up the huge productivity gains we have made in agriculture; it would mean turning wilderness and parkland to farmland, reducing biodiversity — at tremendous environmental cost and no benefit.
More importantly, the misplaced effort to eliminate pesticides would make fruits and vegetables more expensive, thereby decreasing consumption and increasing the risk of disease.
A recent research analysis by the Crop Protection Research Institute of the CropLife Foundation found that without the use of fungicides to control plant diseases, U.S. fruit and vegetable production would decline approximately 20 percent. Reductions of this sort can have major effects on food budgets, especially among lower-income consumers.