An Argument Against Pesticides: Fuming Over Fumigation

words and photographs by Christina De La Rocha

My eyes are burning as I write this, and not just with rage. This morning, I went for a walk. Where I live, that means traipsing down country roads and the ancient paths between fields of grass, wheat, maize, rye, oil-seed rape, and fava beans. Even with the miraculous, multi-million dollar, labor-saving machinery of modern farming, the farmers are often out there doing things to their fields. Today, that turned out to be spraying.

Before I lived in farm country, I used to think mildly badly of pesticides. Now I hate them. We have a field at the end of our garden and when the field is sprayed, we have to shut all our windows and doors to keep the fumes out of the house, but there’s nothing we can do to save the bees. Every summer has a day when our bumble bees begin to jitter and stumble, writhe, and die. Within two weeks, there won’t be even one left out of thousands.

It also breaks my heart that the one organic grain field grown locally by the guy needing to feed his organic pigs is a riot of red poppies, white daisies, blue cornflowers, bees, and butterflies. All the conventional fields are a monocultural wasteland, like we’re trying to turn the Earth into the Moon.

Assaulted by a Toxic Cloud

The pesticide cloud hit me this morning with almost no warning. I was almost home, walking along the road leading to my street when, lurching out from behind the willows of a small pond and a bend in the road, the enormous machine was upon me, it’s spraying equipment out hovering over the rye like the steel wings of a gargantuan insect. The farmer seated inside the sealed cabin with the safely filtered air, nearly whites-of-the-eyes near to me, was kind enough to pause. Not wanting to be rude, I hurried on, trying to pass by as quickly as possible, so he could get on with his spraying.

That’s when I walked into it. It was invisible but so billowing with petrochemicals and plasticizers, it stank and it stung, and there was no escaping it, not even by burying my face against my arm and breathing through my sleeve. There was only 200 yards (meters, more or less) between me and home, but I only managed six of them. It was simply too awful. Holding my breath, I turned around to escape back the way I came, to walk the unfumigated extra mile and a bit it would take, and the only thing that I could think, besides that this couldn’t be good for me, was who, having mixed up the first batch of this stuff, said: Hey! Let’s go spray this on food!

A green what field stretches away towards the distant hills
The beauty of a wheat field masks hidden dangers
The Reason for Pesticides

Our across the street neighbor is a retired farmer. He’s sharp and shrewd, the kind of guy who abides only by the rules he sees the point of and the rules he hasn’t figured out a way around. Last summer, at a neighbor’s birthday party, we asked him, why had he worked with pesticides, when it was so clearly killing things and had such potential to make people sick, including the person spraying it? His answer was that he would have loved not to use them, but that, as a farmer, he’d had little choice. The price farmers get for crops is so low, to make a living, they have to produce as much as possible from as much land as they can manage.

Our neighbor would have preferred to get paid the same amount of money for the lesser amount of crop he could have produced without insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides–not only would it have been healthier for everyone and better for the environment, it would have been less work for him–but the market just wasn’t up for it. His point was, we can’t complain about all the pesticides if we’re not willing to fork over the extra cash to support the farmers not to use them. We have to stop insisting that food be so cheap.

Pesticides Remain in the Environment

When I got home from the walk today, I threw my clothes into the washing machine and scrubbed my face and hands with soap and water. Then me and my raw, puffy eyes sat down and realized I had no idea what I’d just been exposed to, nor what concentration I’d been hit with.

Out of the three possibilities–herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides–insecticides would have been the worst. They work by disrupting the nervous systems of animals, a category that includes primates, birds, fish, and reptiles, as well as insects. So never mind me! What a dead zone they must create, wreaking havoc not just with hungry caterpillars and aphids, but with the foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, boars, mice, shrews, moles, rabbits, deer, snails, slugs, grasshoppers, beetles, snakes, lizards, toads, and birds who try to eke out their lives in these fields, because there isn’t any other place for them to live around here. There are no wild grasslands left and woodlands mainly consist of strips a few yards wide.

The Chemical Composition of Common Pesticides

But let’s take a better case scenario. I managed to dig up a materials safety data sheet (MSDS), a document, required for all chemicals sold, detailing toxicity and safe-handling practices, for a herbicide mixture commonly used on cereal rye here in Europe. Even if herbicides are intended to disrupt weeds using biochemical pathways specific to plants (as in, should I care if a chemical makes it hard for me to photosynthesize?), the MSDS does not make for comfortable reading.

I spent decades as a biogeochemist working merrily with hydrofluoric acid and fluorine gas, so it’s not like I have a knee-jerk distrust of chemicals, but this herbicide mixture is exactly the sort of stuff I would have gone out of my way not to work with. And if I had worked with it, I would have been forced to pay to dispose of it afterwards as hazardous waste. This commonly used, fairly typical agricultural herbicide consists of a mixture of a gasoline substitute, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), a brominated benzene ring with something similar to cyanide attached to it, and an only extremely slowly biodegradable foaming detergent.

You shouldn’t drink it, breathe it, touch it, or let the fumes anywhere near your eyes. It’s bad for your liver and causes birth defects. It’s both acutely and chronically very toxic to aquatic life and, because it isn’t terribly biodegradable, it sticks around in the environment for a very long time. Although it’s sprayed on fields where runoff will carry it into rivers, ponds, streams, and groundwater, if you accidentally spill it, you’re not supposed to let it get into surface water or groundwater or go down the drain. There’s even an emergency number you should call to report spills to a local environmental agency who will come contain it.

The Dangers Worsen

When working with this common agricultural herbicide, you should always wear a respirator, gloves, goggles, and at least two layers of clothing, the outer of which should be a chemical protection suit and the inner of which is best made from cotton (presumably because cotton won’t dissolve in an organic solvent). Both items of apparel should be laundered frequently and if cleaning them is not possible, they should be burned, and the fumes should not be inhaled.

And that’s just the herbicide the farmer might be using on that field of rye. He’s probably also probably spraying fungicides and insecticides, and when food agencies test the grains later, they will find residues.

It’s now seven hours after my walk, and my eyes are still itching, the skin on my face still feels a bit like it’s burning, and my vocal cords are so irritated, my voice belongs to a frog.

Up close photo of the green stalks and leaves of wheat, with visible droplet of pesticides
Wheat, doused in pesticides
Moving Forward

Personally, I can only eat rye (or wheat) upon pain of hay fever, so, generally, I don’t, but my other half enthusiastically indulges. Over the couple of years that we’ve lived out here in farm country, I’ve been slowly switching over to buying only organic oats and buckwheat for myself and organic wheat flour for his pies, cakes, pizza dough, and gravy. But for his bread, which constitutes the bulk of our grain consumption, my better half insists upon the mixed wheat-rye loaves that German bakeries bake so well. Well, buster, from this day forward, you’ll be buying organic loaves, whether you like it or not.

Because I get it now. It took walking into a toxic cloud, but I finally looked up what a typical herbicide is made of and mixed with and, as a chemist, I am horrified.

That pesticides are bad, really means something to me now. And I understand that if I don’t want to live amidst clouds of pesticides (which are a disgusting stew of poisons), dead bees, and contaminated waterways, I have to put my money where my mouth is by eating only organically grown grains. Although, even so, unless the entire world makes the change with me, we’re going to keep swamping our food and our countrysides with poisons.