In the air we breathe, in the food we eat. The pesticides that are used in intensive agriculture remain in our body. In fact, almost one in three Europeans has traces of pesticides in their hair, According to the latest report of Pesticide Check Upan initiative that warns of the health risks of pesticides.
Checkmate the bees: intensive agriculture kills pollinators in Europe
Farmers and people who live in rural areas are the ones who register a greater presence of these chemicals. However, these substances affect even those who live in the city and have nothing to do with working in the fields. “If pollen is capable of traveling kilometers, imagine how far a pesticide that moves in the form of a vaporized cloud can reach when the ideal circumstances are met. That’s without counting what comes through food to consumers’ tables,” explains Tamara Rodríguez, doctor in agricultural science and head of agriculture at SEO/BirdLife.
Rodríguez has compiled the data relating to Spain from the study Pesticide Check Up, in which 300 European citizens have participated, including 15 Spaniards, whose hair has been analyzed to detect the presence of 30 different types of pesticides commonly used in agriculture. In 29% of the analyzed hair there was presence of these chemicals. “The sample is too limited to draw absolute conclusions, but the results show a clear trend and are in line with other published studies,” explains the scientist after a meeting to analyze the situation organized by the Otra PAC Coalition.
Spain, among the countries that use them the most
In 2020, more than 325,000 tons of pesticides have been used in the European Union, 90% of these in agriculture, according to data from the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Spain is the fourth country —behind France, Italy and Germany— that uses these substances the most, which, in some cases, represent a serious risk to health. “We talk about fertility, respiratory, dermatological problems, the possibility of generating cancer or genetic mutations. They can also be endocrine disruptors: they are molecules similar to our hormones, which, when incorporated into the body, change the functions of the cell”, assures Rodríguez.
At European level, Brussels presented a year ago a strategy to reduce the use of these substances in agriculture by 50% by 2030, within the package of measures of the European Green Deal. It is an ambitious goal –although for the moment, not binding– that has put the agribusiness lobby on a war footing, according to research by the NGO Corporate Observatory Europe.
Farmers and field workers are the group most vulnerable to exposure to pesticides, and those who suffer the most poisoning due to their constant use. “There is more and more advice on the danger and on the management that they have to do with toxic waste, although it is also deficient in many cases. The danger is direct exposure during fumigation,” says the agronomist.
The environment also suffers the consequences of the abuse of chemical pesticides, through the contamination of soils, water and the decline of biodiversity. “Some insects and fungi that are essential to naturally control pests and promote soil fertility are disappearing. In the end, all these factors also have repercussions on food and human health”, indicates Rodríguez.
Towards a 100% organic model
When it comes to choosing what to put on the table to eat healthier, Rodríguez recalls that there are no foods that suffer more or less from exposure to pesticides: “It’s not so much about buying apples instead of strawberries. The problem is in the method that has been used to produce it. In general, intensive agriculture makes use of these products because they are large monocultures, where there is no other type of natural control to avoid pests.” On the other hand, ecological and agroecological production, as well as other sustainable models that are not cataloged under a specific label or seal, guarantee healthier food.
But, is a 100% organic production viable? “The problem is not so much if it is feasible, but that it is absolutely necessary to reduce chemicals. A totally ecological model is possible, but it is necessary for consumers to integrate for it to be viable”, answers the scientist. In Spain, she assures her, organic production “is quite powerful”, while what fails is “consumption”.
“It is important that consumers are aware of these models and recognize the added value of paying more for products that do not represent a risk to the ecosystem. Let them know that they are not only acquiring food, but that they are promoting the conservation of nature in the countryside”, he reiterates.