Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Spring Cleaning Carnival - Get the Pesticides Out?

After writing last week's post on how Our Nebraska Feedlot and Farm is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), I wanted to do something similar on how we use pesticides on our farm and in our garden.

Check out what Laura from Heavenly Homemakers has to say about Organic Gardening over at Kitchen Stewardship (also check out the giveaway being held there!) as well as her follow up post with a bit more information on how she does it at Heavenly Homemakers.

Unfortunately my quest to "do something similar" was somewhat derailed by busy farmers who are a bit cranky that it's rained lately and we aren't done planting yet. But I spoke with another of Hubs's cousins, Joel, who farms and holds a degree from the university in... something related to ag (I forgot to ask and hate to bother him again) as well as my own dad, who brings qualifications including working in the agriculture industry in various capacities most of his life and growing one heck of a garden.

There are a number of different types of chemicals that can be applied to crops, and they include insecticides, which target insects; fungicides, which target fungi; and herbicides, which target weeds and other plant-type things that grow where you don't want them. Pesticides and insecticides can overlap somewhat, from what I understand, but pesticides also include control for animals such as ground squirrels, etc.

There are different methods of applying pesticides; and the two main ones are aerial application (using a spray plane) and ground application, which involves using a tractor and a sprayer or a planter, or applying through a center pivot system (that also is used to deliver water to the crop). The method of application is determined by cost, time constraints, the size and stage of the crop, and terrain.

When applying chemicals, there are many guidelines that must be followed for safe application. For example, it is illegal to apply chemicals within a certain distance of surface water. The chemicals break down in the soil, so they don't reach the ground water supply. In the case of using a pivot to apply chemicals, the pivot must have a back flow shutoff valve (that isn't the phrase Joel used, but it's the same thing) to prevent the chemicals from backing up into the well and reaching the water supply. The pivots are inspected for this.

Joel said the same thing as what his cousin Chris said last week in my post on our feedlot, that genetic modification has allowed ag producers to use far less pesticides, and not only that but the ones we do use are far less toxic than the ones that were used years ago. Several months ago, I had an interesting facebook conversation with Joel's brother regarding genetic modification. He is a biology professor at a college in addition to being a veterinarian. Perhaps someday I'll pull his comments together for a post, but I'll have to check with him first! Here's what Joel's brother said about GM:
Genetic modification occurs when a gene, a region of DNA that "codes" for a protein, is inserted into the genome of an organism (like corn). That gene, when expressed by the organism, produces a protein. Every protein produced by an organism is coded by a gene, or a region of DNA. So, for example, in the case of Bt corn. A gene from a bacteria (Bacillus thermophilus) is inserted into a corn seed's genome. In the corn plant, the gene is expressed with the other protein genes that make up the leaf and stalk structure. This protein is not digestible to corn borer beetle, so they don't colonize the plant. Ta-da, you have a corn-borer "resistant" corn plant.

The same thing is done with lots of crops, including many fruits and vegetables to make them ship without bruising, etc.

When you eat the corn, the DNA in the corn's genome is broken down into its constituent chemicals. Similarly, when you consume the corn, the protein produced by the corn's genes is broken down by enzymes in your GI tract (from your stomach and pancreas) that break every protein into its subunits, amino acids. You do not ever absorb "DNA" or "proteins", rather you absorb the chemical constituents that make them up. It is physically impossible to absorb a whole "protein" or a gene into your body.

Thus, genetically modified crops cannot, biologically speaking, pose a threat to any vertebrate that consumes them. All of the proteins you consume, whether plant or animal, "natural" or genetically modified, are broken down into tiny subunit before
absorbed by your body. An amino acid is an amino acid.

There simply exists no mechanism for you incorporate genetically modified genes or proteins into your body through your digestive tract. Proof exists in this manner--literally millions of hogs, chickens, and cattle consume millions of bushels of GMO grains over many years...over a decade now, and no adverse effects have been noted. This supports the conclusion that no "unknown" mechanism is in existence.


Keep in mind that pesticides cost money, and higher input costs for producers means lower profits. Organic producers are typically not able to produce as much as those who use conventional methods, and therefore charge a higher price.

My dad feels that pesticides on fruits and vegetables is probably overused. So, if you feel it is important to buy organic, that may not be a bad idea. (I should note that he didn't say that - that's how I feel.) We don't buy organic, but we do grow as much of our own food in our garden as possible, and I'm hoping that we can continue to expand what we grow.

The pesticides sold for home garden use are far less potent than the ones that we use on our crops. They have a shorter half-life, and break down relatively quickly in sunlight and water. There are a number of more "organic" methods of controlling pests. Two that I've bookmarked (but admittedly not perused) are Organic Gardening and VanMeer.com's Organic Foods and Gardening.

My dad felt that pesticides are overused far more with lawn application than gardening application, so next time the local company wants to apply stuff to your lawn, check it out and see what you really need first!

The Bottom Line
Laura wrote this on her post at Kitchen Stewardship: "When pesticides are sprayed over a field to kill critters, they have to land somewhere. They absorb right into the soil. Then, nutrients and “stuff” from the soil grow up into the plant and into the food growing there. Therefore, pesticides from the soil grow right up into the food. INTO the food."

Joel, my dad, and I are all decidedly not scientists. As much as I love Laura (and I really, truly do!), none of us agreed with this statement. We all feel that the chemicals applied to the plant are broken down and while they may be absorbed into the plant and therefore the food we consume, it is much different from eating an unwashed apple that has just been sprayed with something.

Last year, my dad brought me a bucket of apples that were more or less organic, and I turned them into applesauce. I remember being very nearly in tears after standing for HOURS, trying to cut out bad spots and worms that were still in the apples, to say nothing of the trails they left behind. Although I don't like to think about it, a worm or twelve probably wouldn't hurt my applesauce. I am not all that sure about worm poop, though. (And there were a LOT more than twelve worms involved...)

On a wider scale, the technological advances that have been made regarding controversial topics such as pesticides and genetic modification have led to a MUCH more stable food supply. Although I can't recall which "Little House" book by Laura Ingalls Wilder told the story of the grasshoppers, I still have a vivid picture in my mind of bugs as far as the eye could see, and they left *nothing* behind. I've read that this year could be a bad one for grasshoppers and I'm not kidding when I say that I'm worried about it.

We have insurance on our crops, but it wouldn't get near the level of a normal year for us (probably around half to two-thirds of the income we might usually expect). Not only would that be personally difficult for us, but a problem that widespread would also seriously affect the food supply and drive up prices.

So. What's a girl to do? I plant my own garden, with the help of my sweet Hubs. We use manure from a local sheep farmer as well as from our chickens. We use a small amount of pesticides when necessary, only as much as needed. It's all a balance between what you feel is right for YOUR family.

Next week's Spring Cleaning Carnival will cover clutter, and the week after that will close out the carnival with debt. You can see all the Spring Cleaning topics here.


Amy @ Finer Things said...

I am loving reading your take on these topics! I tried buying organic apples... and they were soft. Not so tasty. I need to be better about washing them thoroughly, but I'm sticking with my $1.99/3lbs. bargain bags. :) And yes, growing what we can in our space and trusting that God is watching over us!

Heather said...

I got really, really lucky last year and got hundreds of pounds of neglected apples from a family friend. I hadn't remembered that they even had apple trees, but all their pastures (horses) are filled with lots of old trees and they never spray/treat or even harvest them at all. I was lucky in that they wanted me to pick all I wanted, they were ripe when I was up there, and there were almost no bugs or bad spots. I love it when God provides!

The challenge I have with genetic modification of our food isn't so much the break down into amino acids that then we absorb, it has more to do with the fact that a company than owns that genetic code and that seed. You get into the debate of who owns a life form...I don't believe there should be laws that allow for a corporation to have that ownership. Then you get into the "round-up genes" and prosecution of farmers who have those genes in their fields when they never planted them (due to pollination). Then farmers lose the ability to sell things as organic because of the genetic modification that they never wanted is now in their crop...and they are being sued by the company who owns those genes.

Not to be all conspiracy theory, but what happens if a certain company owns all or almost all the genetics of a certain crop? Then they decide they want to raise the prices like crazy? How do we consumers or farmers have protection? Obviously growing our own food (especially heirloom) gives us more independence, but I can't help but question the incredible domination by certain corporations and what that may end up doing to our food supply over the years. Honestly it scares me.

I'm so glad to hear your take as well...I think the more transparency we have across the board in food production the better! If every corporation, farmer and consumer knew what the other was thinking/wanting/needing it would make for better choices by all! :)


Debbie said...

I so appreciate your posts and your take on CAFO's and pesticides. I am just venturing into eating more locally and more naturally. However I haven't been so sure about all the organic information I've been reading. I am married to a grain farmer. We grow corn and soybeans. We use pesticides sparingly, they're expensive. We use pesticides/herbicides even less in our own garden. But we do use some. Thank you for being a reasonable voice for me on this topic.
I think the real truth may be somewhere in the middle. I live in an ag belt. But I have never seen a cow confined to one small manure filled area. Even though most of the dairy and beef farmers I know are not organic. But I am sure it happens somewhere. Similarly I am sure there are those who over spray their plant crops. But most I know take the risk toward as little as possible, and care deeply about their soil.
thank you for your eloquence.

Kitchen Stewardship said...

I am finally reading the whole post! Your balance is great. I wonder what the research says (no, no, not more research!!!) on the -icides breaking down before the get "into" the plant. I can see sense in both your quote and Laura's, in some ways. Hmph.

Part of the problem with non-organic farming that you didn't address - probably because you focused on pesticides - is the overuse of the same fertilizer over and over, which denatures the soil and causes other problems for the overall water system. There are better ways to make crops grow well other than dumping nitrogen on them, like crop rotation - which I know you already do! So you and hubs aren't the enemy here; there are a lot of less sustainable farms messing up the ecosystem out there.

Someday I'm going to get into GMOs, but not yet. Water is next for me!

:) Katie