The illusion of targeted pesticides

The Board of NOFA-NH (the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NH) would like to continue the conversation recently begun by Rep. Howard Pearl and Sen. Kevin Avard in their opinion piece “Targeted Pesticides Crucial for New Hampshire Agriculture.” In contrast to Pearl and Avard, we are convinced that diversified, small-scale, organic agriculture is key to keeping New Hampshire healthy, well-fed, and flourishing in the 21st century, not toxic pesticides.

To show why we think this is the case, let’s dispel some of the myths that Pearl and Avard advance.

First, there is the illusion that pesticides can be “targeted” to a specific organism only. This is not accurate. These lethal substances are not arrows or bullets. They’re microscopic particles that continue damaging non-target creatures long after they’ve contacted a particular insect or plant pest. Once introduced into the biosphere, these materials (such as glyphosate, organophosphates, neonicotinoids and their breakdown products) harm myriad beings within the food web, including song birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators, aquatic life such as dragonflies, frogs and fish, the water and soil microbiomes, earthworms and even people. The eloquent opinion piece by Diana Carpinone and Fawn Gaudet (Concord Monitor, March 14th) details the damage these molecules are causing to NH’s humans, domesticated honey bees and biodiversity.

Secondly, it’s not true that farmers can only raise food by using expensive, industrially-produced synthetics. The earth has been providing nourishing food to our species for millennia. Pearl and Avard frame agriculture as some sort of endless war against invasive insects and other pathogens. In contrast, truly sustainable farming, which has been flourishing for thousands of years in many parts of the world, relies on attentive interactions and diverse plantings accomplished on a small scale. This traditional, agroecological agriculture is based on alliances between humans and biodiversity, including beneficial insects and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It’s a strenuous but rewarding dance between species, not a relentless battle. Even today, small-scale farmers (many of them women) on diversified, subsistence farms produce most of the food for 70% of the world’s people. In contrast, much of the U.S.’s vaunted agricultural production is directed towards growing animal feed and making ethanol.

Thirdly, while Integrated Pest Management (IPM) represents an improvement over conventional pesticide applications, larger steps in a different direction are needed. Whether we’re talking about dead zones in oceans, mass extinctions, greenhouse gas emissions or harm to human health (particularly in terms of cancers, neurological function, and declines in human fertility), the impacts from synthetic agrochemicals are unacceptable.

Additionally, “regenerative agriculture,” as extolled by Pearl and Avard, is a very slippery term. It can easily be used to greenwash conventional, pesticide-dependent farming. While regenerative organic agriculture (featuring cover crops and reduced tillage) is indeed a positive development, the regenerative agriculture that Avard and Pearl praise requires, as they themselves acknowledge, toxic herbicides such as dicamba or glyphosate/Roundup® to kill the cover crops prior to planting. How can this method masquerade as “regenerative” when it destroys the soil’s biological community?

Lastly, organic agriculture, by definition, does not allow the use of persistent synthetic pesticides. Pearl and Avard are simply wrong when they say that pesticides are used in growing “almost all foods.” Blurring this distinction between conventional and organic is very misleading. To understand this better, consider the pesticide residues in nonorganic fruits and vegetables documented by The Environmental Working Group.

To conclude, we are confident that local, organic agriculture is both NH’s heritage and its future. Organic farmers partnered with informed, caring customers/co-producers can create reliable NH food systems that are healthy, ecologically sustainable, and economically vibrant.

(Karl Johnson, Edith Pucci Couchman, Steve Forde and Joan O’Connor are members of NOFA-NH’s Executive Committee.)