Conventional vs. Organic Farming Series, Part II: Safety of Conventional Farming

conventional farming chemical safetyHere’s the second part of the conventional vs. organic series. This part deals with the safety of conventional farming.

Safety of Conventional Farming: Should Consumers Be Concerned?

The goal of agriculture is the production of food. The US Department of Agriculture indicates that US consumers increasingly expect safe and healthy food and the agriculture is more being defined as “consumer-driven”.

From the consumer side, it is necessary to ask questions about safety of conventional agriculture, about the effect of agricultural chemicals on nutrient content in the produce as well as on animal and human health. Numerous studies show, however, that there is a reason for consumers to be concerned about safety of these chemicals.

Fertilizers

It is known that chemical fertilizers interfere with the uptake of other nutrients. For example, when ammonia or ammonium is added to the soil, their ions displace other ions from their sites in the soil and drive them into mixture where it is possible that they can be leached out due to rain or irrigation.

In cases where there is an abundance of certain nutrient in the topsoil, the soil itself may not be technically deficient. However, the plant itself can be deficient if there is existence of excess nutrients that “fight for plant’s attention”. This is an important aspect to consider in regard to human nutrition. A large concern exists regarding the effects that nitrogen fertilizers on produce quality.

Here are the negative effects on potatoes due to the application nitrogen fertilizer:

  • Increase in disease
  • Declined resistance to mechanical damage at harvest & during transport
  • Decline in keeping during winter storage
  • Loss of flavor
  • Reduction in favorable proportions of graded fruit and vegetablesnegative effect of fertilizer on potatoes

It is also known that chemical fertilizers affect vitamin content. There is a striking increase in vitamin content in produce when fertilization is achieved with compost rather than chemical fertilizer. Also, results of a study confirm that the chemical fertilizer treated potato showed much lower quality in terms of nutrient content, storage life and flavor than organically treated potato. Finally, researchers inform that application of fertilizers suppresses production of certain soil enzymes which are part of nutrient cycles such as amidase in nitrogen cycle.

Pesticides

The crop production in agriculture leads towards the absence of self-sustaining biological community. Since the relationships between many species are altered, farmers must protect crops chemically. The use of pesticides on the U.S. farms has risen 10-fold over the past 40 years as the agriculture has become more intensive. The problem posed by the use of pesticides is that they do not kill only targeted pest, but many other organisms including beneficial ones, as described in the section on loss of biodiversity.

In addition, some previously insignificant species can become crop pests in case when their natural predators are exterminated by a given pesticide. It is also demonstrated that many species are very much capable of developing resistance to a certain pesticide. That is, pests that survived a pesticide are able to reproduce themselves, by producing offspring with much higher tolerance to the pesticide in question. As a result, farmers must use pesticides in the increasing quantity or develop new ones in order to effectively control the pests. Results of a study show that in response to pesticides 550 insects, 230 disease species and 220 weed species evolved as a result of adaptation.

One of the most effective pesticides, DDT and related chlorinated hydrocarbons were introduced following the World War II. They were considered as potent chemicals and were used throughout the world to safeguard crops and also to control mosquitoes and lice, species associated with human-related illnesses.safety of conventional farming

Thanks to the Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962, public attention was drawn to the fact that pesticides are highly enduring in the environment and tend to accumulate in tissues and water causing illnesses of people and killing many species including fish and birds. Although DDT was banned for agricultural use in the United States in 1973, many less persistent, but more acutely poisonous chemicals were introduced on the agricultural market.

Due to their water solubility, many of new generation pesticides can reach groundwater under the farms. Many pesticides were found to exhibit harmful effects on animals and plants. For example, atrazine emasculates male frogs while clopyralid is very toxic to plants and cannot be broken down during the composting process. Pesticides also posses occupational hazard. Only between 1991 and 1996 there were 3,991 cases of occupational poisoning by pesticides in the US.

safety of conventional farmingEffects on Human Health

Scholars have recognized that some 80-90% of human cancer may be caused by contamination of the environment and food. Associated risks are recognized with DDT and dioxin found in some herbicides. Although the pesticide itself may not be carcinogenic, the plant may be. The extensive testing is being performed worldwide and many pesticides are being banned, but it would still take decades before these pesticides are eliminated from the earth and from the human tissue. All these considerations indicate that there is an increased risk to society from continued use of chemical pesticides.

Furthermore, there is an evidence of increased carcinogenic activity of the combination of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. Both technologies lead to decreased crude fiber in food. Since pesticide residues collect in the outer and oily portions of the food, their removal may also remove the pesticide content. However, refining and peeling leads to another problem – lower nutrient and fiber intake. This can lead to another forms of cancers that are associated with nutrient and fiber deficiency. So, avoiding one type of cancer may lead to another in case of conventional farming.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering uses methods of cutting and splicing DNA to transfer genes specific to one type of organism into any other organisms. In the U.S. food markets some GM vegetables include tomatoes, squash, yeast, corn, potatoes, and soybeans. The effect of GM organisms on human and animal health as well as the environment is not yet fully known. However, some researches indicate that consumption of GM foods is very risky and can cause mutagenic effects on human health, increased contamination of our water supply and food, creation of herbicide-resistant weeds, the spread of diseases across species barriers, loss of biodiversity in crops and the disturbance of ecological balance to all subsequent generations and to other related organisms.

 

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