March 10, 2010

Dangers of Spring

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After a brutal and never ending Ithaca winter, the sun’s rays have finally hit Cornell University. The campus has come back to life — from frisbee on the arts quad to Magic Hat pitchers outside of CTB — students all across campus revel in the outdoors. It’s as if the entire atmosphere of Cornell has transformed, and this is precisely why we must be weary of the charms of warm weather and sunshine, for the spring and summer seasons bring about dark perils.

A study published in 2009 by WebMd revealed that babies conceived in the spring and early summer seasons run a higher risk for an array of birth defects. This increase in birth defects — which range from down syndrome and cleft palate to spina bifida — are correlated with the increase of pesticide use by the agricultural sectors. There’s a billion-plus pounds of pesticides used in food production every year, and although tonight’s meal is nourishing, we are slowly poisoning ourselves and children around the world.

The rise of the synthetic chemical pesticide industry came in the mid-20th century. With built up stockpiles of poisonous gases during wartime, we found a domestic use for them in food production. Many pesticides used in food production today are derivatives of chemical weapons and nerve agents hoarded during World War II. The chemical structures of today’s pesticides remain as hazardous and deadly as the nerve gas they came from, and the EPA continues to allow the widespread use of these poisons.

Oxydemeton-methyl (ODM) and Methamidophos are organophosphate (OP) pesticides that the EPA currently has as green lit for use in agricultural farming. They are all acutely toxic — to humans and wildlife — and cause systemic illnesses — like permanent nerve damage and other neurobehavioral effects — the same way nerve gas works, by inhibiting the ability to produce cholinesterase, the enzyme necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses. ODM specifically is a toxin that also hinders human and animal reproductive systems. It is associated with decreased size and viability of offspring, decreased fertility and decreased size of reproductive organs. In 2005 over 130,000 pounds of ODM were used in California alone.

Methadimophos is the organophosphate insecticide that poses the highest risk to farm workers, it is banned in Kuwait, Indonesia, Samoa and Sri Lanka because of the risks it poses to human and environmental health. Yet the EPA continues to allow growers and farmers in the U.S. to use this poison — today about 640,000 pounds of methamidophos active ingredient are used in the U.S.

The EPA should be held accountable for allowing the use of pesticides that are proven to harm human beings and nature, especially if the affects harm children the most. Through the cavalier spraying of insecticides by way of aerial and ground booming, many families that live far away from farms suffer the harms of these poisons. Migrant families that are placed in direct contact with the spraying are even more vulnerable. Through the exposure to these insecticides without any proper protection, or specially designed suits for spraying, the statistics that arise are stomach churning. Migrant workers, compared to the average American, face: 59 percent higher rate of leukemia, 69 percent higher rate of stomach cancer, 63 percent higher rate of uterine/cervical cancer and 57 percent higher rate of brain cancer.

Protections and rights for farm workers are continuously shutdown by the powers of agricultural and chemical lobbies. The New York Farm Bureau, along with the National Federation of Independent Business and the Business Council of New York State, took the helm in spending hundreds of thousands to blockade bills such as the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (which ensure workers basic rights such as disability insurance, collective bargaining and health and safety protections). The transnational mega-corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta have allotted funds to designated accounts  that keep their vice grip on the control of the direction of the world’s food consumption. By funding conservative think tanks such as the Marshal Institute —notorious for their involvement in publications against global warming funded by the Exxon Education Foundation — they have studies published that sponsor the use of pesticides and genetically engineered foods which ensure that their products remain in global markets.

The voices of individuals are diminishing as powerful lobbies gain more and more control of which legislations will govern their industries. The power of the corporation is getting stronger, and the rights of the migrant worker, which have historically been abused, continue to be trampled on.

There is a battle between organic farmers, environmentalists and those who champion for migrant workers’ rights, against corporations over genetically modified foods, pesticides and who controls agriculture and food supply.

Biotech development, firmly in the hands of transnational corporations, is heading in the wrong direction. Its current advocates overshadow the potential of biotech, by only using it to design products that extend non-sustainable and non-ecological agricultural systems. The systems of natural and cultural farming that have been in existence since prehistoric times are being replaced by these synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered super crops.

Pest control took a wrong turn in the ’40s, and corporations reaped billions from the burgeoning chemical market. The success of chemical pesticides caused a paradigm shift: Where farmers had previously talked of controlling pests, the conversation now shifted to ways of eradicating pests. Biotech and chemical transnationals want to further remove agricultural knowledge of the reproduction of crops from the wisdom of practicing farmers. This is dangerous because farmers are now encouraged to discard many preventative measures like rotating crops, simultaneous cropping and introducing natural enemies of pests.

We need to shift current food industry practices, research and immigration policy to sustainably deal with the complexity of nature with rigid requirements that ensure healthy human beings, healthy human communities and safe working conditions.

Vicente Gonzalez is a junior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be contacted at [email protected]. Color Between the Lines appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Vicente Gonzalez