26 I EUROPEAN SEED I EUROPEAN-SEED.COM SENSE, NONSENSE AND SCIENCE PESTICIDE CONCERNS BY: JOE SCHWARCZ O ver the last few years I’ve spoken at various agricultural confer- ences and have met many farm- ers. But I’ve never heard a comment like: “Gee, I don’t think I’m spending enough money on pesticides, I’d like to spend more.” Or, “is there any way I can increase my exposure to pesticides?” The point of course is that pesticides are expensive and by design are toxic, facts of which farmers are acutely aware. After all, they are on the front lines, and are far more likely to be affected by pesticides than John Q. Public. Farming is a tough life, it’s hard to make ends meet. No farmer wants to waste money on unnecessary chemicals. They use pesticides simply because they make it possible to produce the hefty amounts of food needed to feed the world. But even with the use of pesticides, and the increased yields they afford, one out of every six people in the world goes to bed hungry every night! Organic produc- tion methods have their place, but they are just too unreliable to feed the masses. As recently as a century ago, some seventy percent of the population was involved in food production. Today, we rely on about two percent of the popu- lation to feed us. And we want them to feed us cheaply and with a wide array of choices. We also want our produce to look good and be available year-round. All that cannot be accomplished without the judi- cious use of agrochemicals. Those of us who haven’t had farming experience have little idea of the variety of plant diseases that farmers have to cope with. Leaf blight, leaf scorch, leaf spot, powdery mildew, botrytis grey mould and red stele are just some of the dis- eases that can affect strawberry plants. Tomatoes can be affected by fungus root rot, grey leaf spot, bacterial canker and late blight. An apple grower has to cope with apple scab, black rot, blister spot, blue mould, bitter rot, bull’s eye rot, fire blight and sooty blotch. But that’s nothing compared with the 51 fungal, 37 viral and seven bacterial diseases that wheat farm- ers have to contend with. And then there are the insects, nematodes, rodents and assorted weeds that can devastate crops. Each of these problems can be addressed through the appropriate use of specific chemicals. Little surprise then that over 400 different pesticides are registered for use in Canada! “Farmers use pesticides simply because they make it possible to produce the hefty amounts of food needed to feed the world.” Pesticides increase crop yields, about that there is no doubt. But do they also increase the risk of health problems? As far as farmers are concerned, probably. Parkinson’s disease, some lymphomas and prostate cancer have been associ- ated with exposure to certain pesticides. There’s no iron-clad proof but given the known toxicity of pesticides and the epidemiological evidence, there’s a good chance that we are looking at a cause and effect relationship. Another concern is raised by the hormone-like properties of some pesticides, exposure to which in the womb may have long term consequences. For example, a study of 50 Mexican girls aged eight to ten revealed that girls from a farming community where pesticides were commonly used had earlier breast development and larger breasts than girls from a ranching area where pesticides were not used. All subjects came from the same Mayan population and their families were similar in diet and lifestyle.