Myth #3: Organic is better because it protects the farm workers. Farm workers on conventional farms are exposed to harmful levels of pesticides and it is poisoning them.
This myth goes a little more like this: Evil Farmer A sprays his cabbage patch with Pesticide X, Y, and Z. He immediately sends Farm Hand B and C out into the field to weed and tend the patch. B and C get sick from exposure to the pesticides and become seriously ill.
Sorry if that scenario screams of law school, but that’s my thing.
Now, as always, let’s start with the common sense arguments here. That Evil Farmer is also a farmer. That means he (or she!) is going to be in the field every day also tending that cabbage patch. Does it make any sense that he would want to hang out in a bunch of dangerous pesticides that are going to make him seriously ill? No, of course not. We have to remind people: farmers are out in the fields too. They don’t want to get sick and, unless there is a particularly sadistic one in the bunch, he doesn’t want to make other people sick either.
But maybe you’re one of the folks that thinks most farmers are pretty sadistic. Or, at the very least, those faceless corporations are certainly evil and cannot be trusted.
Once again, we go to something I explained a little about in Part 1: FIFRA. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodentcide Act. This monstrous piece of legislation oversees every single pesticide being used in the United States right now. Remember, extensive studies, research, and data is collected before a single drop of the new stuff can be used. And old pesticides are being reviewed and retested on a regular basis.
Since the 1960’s when FIFRA was put into place, we now have a whole list of pesticides that were formerly legal for use which are now banned completely or on restricted use. A banned pesticide:
“is defined as a pesticide for which all registered uses have been prohibited by final EPA action to protect human health or the environment. It includes pesticides that have been refused approval for first-time use or have been withdrawn by industry.” (Source: CEPEP)
These are things like DDT. No farmer is going to get away with using it. You cannot even purchase the stuff. On the other hand, restricted use pesticides are those that require special permission by the EPA in order to use them legally. Trust me, you don’t want to be in a situation where you have to ask the EPA for permission. This is stuff that we’re probably going to see in emergency situations (Oh, we have a large population of mosquito that is spreading the Black Plague and killing a lot of people? Perhaps we should allow one of those restricted use pesticides now.).
Modern pesticides are not of the variety that Rachel Carson lamented in her book Silent Spring.
During the EPA’s initial examination, and later reexamination, of whether or not a pesticide will be allowed for use in the United States, many things are considered. Again, I went over a lot of that in Part 1. One thing the EPA considers is the way pesticides are used. The labels put on the pesticide bottles aren’t just made up by the evil corporation and slapped on there. The EPA is thoroughly researching the safest and best ways to use the product. Applicators must absolutely follow the directions on the label or they’re breaking federal law. The labels tell them how to spray, when to spray (ie. are the conditions windy, sunny, rainy), and even what to do afterward.
Here is a sample label for Round Up (a product created by Monsanto for killing everything except the crops that are resistant to it). I was going to just post a copy of the label, but it’s 19 pages long. The label includes everything an applicator needs to do in order to use the product safely, as tested (and retested) by the EPA.
Note also that I say “applicator.” Unless you’re a farmer or professional sprayer, it is unlikely that you can go into a spray store and purchase any of these chemicals. Why? Because a person must be licensed in order to do so. Every couple years the applicator undergoes a test, which asks specific questions about applying, storing, and care of the chemicals. These tests are managed by the states under the direction of the federal government and the EPA. Don’t pass the test? Don’t spray your crops. It’s as simple and straightforward as that. (We can talk about the spray that regular folks can buy at the local hardware store another time. An untrained, unlicensed person can dump as much of that stuff as they want on their yard. While it isn’t nearly as potent, concentrated, or effective, how come these environmental groups aren’t throwing a fit about that?)
Why does all of this matter? Because there is a procedure for how these sprays are used. While there might be perceptions of farmers as old overweight guys in overalls who are only farming because its the only skill they have, the reality is that pesticide applicators are trained professionals. They know what they’re doing and they have strict directions on how to do it safely. By the time a farmer is allowed to go back into the field (or cabbage patch), the toxicity of the pesticide is no greater than it would be for consumers later on down the road.
“Vitamin C is something which many people take in large, 250-1000 mg doses on a regular basis. Fifty-five percent (55%) of the pesticides used in California in 2010 were less toxic than Vitamin C. Sixty-four percents (64%) were less toxic than vitamin A. Seventy-one percent (71%) were less toxic than the vanillin in ice cream or lattes. Seventy-six percent (76%) of the pesticides were less toxic than prozac and 89% were less toxic than the ibuprofen in products like Advil. Ninety-seven percent (97%) of California pesticide use in 2010 was with products that are less toxic than the caffeine in our daily coffee, the aspirin many take regularly, or the capsaicin in hot sauces or curries. This is not the sort of image that most people visualize when they hear the word “pesticides.”” (Source: S.D. Savage at Applied Mythology)
The level of exposure that a conventional farmer is getting is quite low compared to many of the things we encounter and regularly ingest every day (have you taken your vitamins today?). Combine this with the labeling requirements from the EPA and the risk is minimal.
Look, it is entirely possible for an applicator to not follow safety instructions or the label and get away with it. Of course the EPA isn’t able to watch every applicator every time he’s mixing, applying, or using the pesticides. But no more can the law stop applicators from not following directions than can it stop homicide 100% of the time. The benefits of a healthy, abundant food supply far outweigh the risk that one guy is going to risk his license, career, and livelihood to skirt the label.
Through the use of safety courses, labels, and safer pesticides, we are able to protect farmer workers while still reaping the benefits of using these chemicals. This myth is is without merit.
(Once again, I’m a huge fan of Steve Savage and his blog, Applied Mythology. Where I’m a new lawyer, he’s a seasoned scientist and his information is absolutely awesome for those interested in this subject!)