Agricultural chemicals, population and environmental justice

I’ve been researching the agricultural inputs market in Ghana for my internship, and I’ve realized just how easy it is to buy agricultural chemicals here. Within a block of the Burro offices are at least two shops selling a variety of pesticides—everything from organochlorate insecticides, which are broad-spectrum neurotoxins, to atrazine, a common herbicide which has been linked to birth defects (see the excellent New York Times story here for more information). You can even buy glyphosate, which is the active chemical in Roundup, Monsanto’s famous broad-spectrum herbicide that kills anything with green leaves. Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired a few years ago, meaning that any company can manufacture glyphosate herbicides. So if you want a liter of Roundup in Ghana, all you need is $4 and the ability to walk around the corner.

Virtually every farmer in Ghana uses these broad-spectrum herbicides on their fields, and as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as organic produce here (at least not in the Koforidua market).There are sometimes adverse health effects experienced by people applying these chemicals, though more with insecticides than herbicides. There’s also a long history of associated environmental problems with agricultural chemicals (see: Silent Spring and the Bhopal chemical plant disaster).

The chemical issue, to me, is less an example of the wealth-environment paradox (see last post), and more an example of environmental injustice. Ag chemical exposure, as I understand it, it pretty directly linked to wealth around the world. It’s not like American farms don’t use these chemicals, it’s just that farmers can pay people (who usually happen to be low income people of color) to apply the neurotoxins for them. Or it’s done by machine. On the other side of the equation, well-off people live in places where organic produce exists and can afford to buy it; the rest of the world gets a healthy dose of toxic chemicals along with their fruit.

So why do farmers use these chemicals? In short, because they tend to increase output. Large, industrial farms in the US tell us that without them, we couldn’t feed the world. (“If everyone ate organic, you’d have a few healthy people and a lot of dead people” is what a Walla Walla wheat farmer told us on an environmental studies class trip last spring.) Small, Ghanaian farmers need that increased output to feed their families, and all the data in the world about neurotoxicity and birth defects won’t change that reality. In the long run, I believe industrial agriculture will collapse. Eventually, we’re going to run out of oil to make these chemicals with, our soil will run out of nutrients, our farmland will salinize and turn to desert, and we won’t have cheap, government-subsidized water to irrigate California.

But in the short run, I think they’re right. How could grass-fed, local meat ever replace the perverse efficiency of a factory farm (assuming people keep eating meat at current and growing rates, which seems like a pretty healthy assumption)? How could we produce enough to feed the world on small-scale local farms?

I’ve read so many environmentalist laments against the toxicity of agricultural chemicals, most recently by Sandra Steingraber in Orion. Many of them seem to assume that if we knew what these chemicals were doing to our soil, water and bodies, we would stop using them. But what if that’s not true?

As I’ve come to realize just how toxic civilization is (and I mean that literally: modern civilization is largely sustained by a variety of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals), I’ve also started thinking that the logic underlying environmentalist appeals might not hold water. Sure, the world responded to Silent Spring by largely banning DDT. But if we laid out chemicals on a balance sheet—you get enough food to (theoretically) feed the world, a variety of convenient consumer products, electronics (one of the most toxic manufacturing processes on earth) and cars, and for all this, you run the risk of getting cancer, having a child born with birth defects or experiencing lead poisoning—would we choose to go without? Increasingly, I don’t think so. Would you give up the Internet if it meant your cancer risk went to zero? What about cars, or cheap food?

Of course, I’m oversimplifying. It’s possible we could retain some of the benefits of technology without so much disease and destruction. But I don’t think it’s likely, especially in the case of agriculture. Insecticides are a perfect example. By definition, they’re designed to kill living animals, and they’re designed to work on a variety of different organisms. It’s not a question of whether these chemicals could affect humans; it’s a question of at what dosage, or at what level of accumulation?

We’re at seven billion, headed to nine in the next few decades. Do we want people to starve, or do we want them to get cancer? Because the classic refrain—that most, if not all environmental problems stem from overpopulation—is not going to make those people go away.

If I could redesign the world from scratch, I have a decent idea of what it would look like. But given what we have now, I have no idea how to proceed. I want to know what chemicals are doing, and I want them regulated. I want environmental justice—if we’re willing to pay the price for civilization, that price should be evenly distributed regardless of gender, race, income level or country of birth. I’m aware that this might be impossible, and that it’s the very people least likely to have any of civilizations “benefits” (laptops, cars, or even access to medical care) who are most likely to experience its ill effects. I know that we overproduce food in the US, and that we’re eating all the wrong things, and I’m hoping that if we fix that, we’ll be able to find a better food system in the process. I know that I have no right to tell Ghanaian farmers what chemicals they should or shouldn’t use, but I want to make a world where they don’t need to use them and no one needs to starve because of it.


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