By Meghan De Jong
Each year over 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed across the world’s agricultural landscapes, despite the fact that these chemicals often have devastating impacts on both the environment and human health. It is estimated that approximately 25 million agricultural workers suffer from pesticide poisoning annually.(1) And although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with regulating the use of agricultural chemicals within the United States, there is significant evidence to suggest that many of the materials being used today are more dangerous to human health than previously thought.(2)
Chemicals used for agricultural purposes not only disrupt soil microbial life, but also directly contaminate the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.3 In fact, herbicides like glyphosate are now showing up in everything from our drinking water to our cereal bowls.
How Do Agricultural Chemicals Affect our Food?
When pesticides and herbicides are sprayed on fields, they not only kill the pests and weeds they were intended to but also harm healthy bacteria responsible for making available vital nutrients within the soil. When soils become depleted over time, farmers are forced to buy and invest in synthetic or organic inputs. Even then, there is evidence to suggest than many of the fruits and vegetables that we eat today no longer have the same vitamin and mineral profile that they did several decades ago. As the Plant Power Doctor, Dr. Gemma Newman, states, “We are living in a nutrient-depleted world. Now we’d have to eat 100 apples to get the same vitamin C content of one apple from the 1950s.”
How do Pesticides Directly Affect Human Health?
Recently, more and more research has focused on glyphosate, the active ingredient in one of the most commonly used agricultural herbicides in the world: Round-Up. Glyphosate works by blocking the shikimate pathway in plants, or the seven-step metabolic process by which plants synthesize essential amino acids. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) also classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” in humans.
Glyphosate might have another problematic impact on the human body: dissolving the tight junctions that make up the intestinal membranes. Tight junctions within the gut lining are extremely important in that they create a barrier between the outside world and the interior of your body.(2) When these junctions in your gut become damaged, you may develop what many people now refer to as “Leaky Gut.” Leaky Gut allows for “foreign invaders” which were never meant to be in the blood stream to flow throughout the body. This in turn can create an immune system response and cause chronic inflammation within your cells.
As a result, many people believe that pesticides can be attributed to many of the serious illnesses that we see today. Chronic inflammation and poor gut health have been linked to cancers, autoimmune conditions, allergies, mental health conditions, Parkinson’s, autism, Alzheimer’s, and even infertility.(4)
While some of this information may feel discouraging, there is still so much we can do on both an individual and on a systemic level to protect human health and improve the functioning of our agricultural soils.
Here are just a few of the actions you can take today!
Grow your own food – this is the BEST way to support your health and that of the planet. Start small with just a few herbs or greens. Click here to learn more about composting and building healthy soil. Make sure you test your soil before you start, to check for things like heavy metals.
Shop at farmers markets or sign up for a CSA. Talk to farmers about their growing practices to ensure they don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on their fields, and ask them about the 5 Principles of Soil Health.
When in doubt, buy organic. Although the USDA organic program fails to address the entirety of the soil health crisis that we’re seeing today, it’s an important step in the right direction and tremendously important for farmworker safety.
If you eat out, look for organic restaurants or ask which foods on the menu are organic and local. The more we demand for these kinds of things, the more they will be supplied!
Eat more seasonal fruits and vegetables along with fermented foods. This is a great way to restore your gut health and improve the overall functioning of your body. A few fermented foods to look out for include: miso, tempeh, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kefir.
Join the Soil Advocate Training and learn to become an advocate for healthy food systems around the world!