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The Industry That Feeds Us Is Also Hurting Us
New Review Finds Link Between Insecticide Exposure & Lower Sperm Concentration In Men. Plus, Concerns Rise for Farm-Related Water Pollution in the Midwest.
We’ve all been sold the myth that modern farming requires pesticides and insecticides to “feed the world,” and that large-scale farming with chemical additives is the only way.
But the data tells a different story.
The world has more than 608 million farms, according to research. Of those farms, most are small-scale agriculture. Farms of less than one hectare (2.5 acres) account for about 70 percent of all farms, but they operate only 7 percent of all agricultural land. Farms of less than 2 hectares (or 5 acres) total about 510 million and account for 84 percent of all farms, but operate only around 12 percent of all agricultural land.
In the U.S., certified organic cropland acres increased by 79 percent (to 3.6 million acres) from the 2011 to 2021, according to USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service surveys.
In the past ten years, organic sales have more than doubled as Americans are eating and using more organic products than ever before, according to the Organic Trade Association. In fact, organic food sales in the United States in 2022 expanded to $60 billion for the first time, despite inflation.
People want food free of chemicals, period.
Now more research shows how toxic substances aimed at killing or repelling small bugs from our crops are impacting male fertility.
A team of researchers found in a new systematic review a strong association between insecticide exposure and lower sperm concentration in adult men globally.
The team reviewed nearly five decades of human evidence regarding the health impacts of exposure to two popular insecticide classes, organophosphates (OPs) and N-methyl carbamates (NMCs), and found consistent associations with lower sperm concentration, which warrants concern, particularly in light of observed downward trends in semen quality demonstrated by other studies (like this one).
“This review is the most comprehensive review to date, sizing up more than 25 years of research on male fertility and reproductive health,” said Dr. Melissa J. Perry, dean of the George Mason University College of Public Health and the senior author on the paper. “The evidence available has reached a point that we must take regulatory action to reduce insecticide exposure.”
OPs and NMCs are among the most widely used pesticides in the world. The most common route of exposure for the general population is through the consumption of contaminated food and water.
Pesticides and insecticides can adhere to the soil and enter groundwater and surface waters. Some of the most vulnerable people are the more than 23 million households that rely on private wells for drinking water. These wells are seldom tested for this kind of contamination. I urge anyone who lives in a rural area, near farmland, to check your wells. Find more information here on testing and how to protect your well water.
If you test your private wells annually, the most common things to look for are total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels, but you may also want to include testing for pesticides and insecticides.
Speaking of Nitrates…
In much of the U.S. Corn Belt and farm country, the contamination of drinking water from nitrates, largely caused by polluted runoff from crop fields, poses a serious health risk.
Nitrates form when nitrogen from commercial fertilizer and manure are exposed to oxygen.
Last week, the EPA put Minnesota on formal notice to urgently address the nitrate-contaminated drinking water crisis threatening southeastern Minnesota residents.
The federal agency sent a letter detailing its expectations to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on November 3.
The letter responded to a petition filed to the EPA by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and ten other environmental organizations this past April asking the federal agency to intervene in the ongoing public health crisis because of state agencies’ failure to adequately do so.
“We know what causes this pollution,” said MCEA’s director of strategic litigation, Leigh Currie in a statement. “It's time for Minnesota’s agricultural lobby and the Department of Agriculture to come to the table and agree to real solutions to eliminate this public health threat.”
Nearly 400,000 Minnesotans live in the affected region, according to the EPA, and almost 95,000 of them rely on private drinking water wells. Previous testing conducted in the region found that at least 9,200 residents had nitrate-pollution levels in their drinking water that exceeded safe limits.
The EPA currently sets the safe drinking water level for nitrate at 10 ppm.
Nitrate pollution has been linked to the potentially fatal newborn condition known as Blue Baby Syndrome, as well as a host of other health conditions including birth defects, pregnancy complications, and various cancers.
Nitrate contamination issues are not just a Minnesota problem.
In June, in a separate action, the EPA said it would formally assess the risk to human health from nitrates in drinking water.
In Iowa, state Rep. Austin Baeth, pledged to hold hearings next year on the causes of cancer in a state with the worst nitrate contamination in water and second highest cancer incidence. About 1 in 20 of the state’s public water systems in the last decade have reported potentially harmful levels of nitrate in their drinking water, according to a new yet-unpublished Iowa State University study, and disadvantaged Iowans, people of color, low-income communities, children and older people, are more exposed to them.
In Nebraska, the University of Nebraska is investigating the links between nitrate contamination and startlingly high rates of pediatric cancer.
The EPA also called on Minnesota state agencies to establish new rules to limit nitrate pollution from large dairy, swine and cattle operations, and to enforce violations.
The agency said it wants Minnesota to require livestock operatives to install monitoring wells around their feedlots and in the fields where nitrogen-rich manure is spread.
The EPA wants the state to strengthen rules for when, where, and how livestock operations spread manure and commercial fertilizer on their land to limit nitrate contamination.
Food and water are what sustain human life, but when these elements become polluted and impact our ability to reproduce, you know we are in trouble. Chemical companies continue to downplay the impacts of their products and lobby against regulations, while the people pay the price.
Well Water Tip
If your water comes from a private or community well rather than a municipality, then it’s up to you to maintain the safety of your water. The EPA does help with information on how to maintain your well here. If you can’t find what you need, try contacting your local health or environmental department and request a list of the state-certified (licensed) laboratories in your area that test water. Get to know your watershed and be aware of the industrial and agricultural businesses located nearby that might pose risks to the quality of your well water.