Rethinking Farming for a Healthier Future
By Perri Polson
In 2013, a group of farmers, and community members came together sharing countless personal stories of harm caused by pesticides. With the Monsanto lawsuit taking place in the background, over in the the United States, the Pesticide Action Group Western Australia was formed. Their goal to change the laws regarding the availability, sale and use of pesticides. On May 25th, the group took their cause to the steps of parliament, to speak about the devastation caused by pesticides in their lives and community, to highlight and reinforce March Against Monsanto, a global anti-pesticide movement, and to encourage WA State Health Minister Roger Cook and State Agriculture Minister Alannah McTiernan to raise the issue in Parliament.
“Its all they know” says organic farmer Jodi, from the Wheatbelt, when asked why farmers still use pesticides and conventional agriculture. “You’re letting the earth and the rain dictate what you’re going to grow, whereas conventional farming is precise, fertilisers and chemicals are precise, you’ll get the best yield every time.” Conventional farming has doubled harvests, but at a great cost to our health and environment.
It has been concluded in several research studies over several years that pesticides affect humans in the short and long term, and the list of symptoms are endless. The chemicals in pesticides can cause severe harm to any of the body systems. Some chemicals mimic hormones, causing reproductive issues and defects, such as cancer, infertility or miscarriage. Others attack the respiratory system, causing asthma, allergies or lung cancer. Or they may affect the nervous or endocrine systems, and impact things like mental health, metabolism, sleep cycles and thyroid function. The members of PAGWA have noticed these effects in their lives and community all too often.
The effects of pesticides in the environment are long lasting, and will be generational. Pesticide use builds up in the soil until it becomes toxic. It pollutes the air and the waterways and remains active and poisonous for a very long time. Even if pesticide use were to stop immediately, the effects of pesticides on the environment would still be having a harmful impact on humans for years to come, so much so, that traces of chemicals are now showing up in the blood tests of newborns. Children are being exposed to chemicals from a much younger age, impacting their development.
But aren’t there times we need to use pesticide? The Central West of New South Wales are currently experiencing a mouse plague which is devastating rural communities, and the state government has just brought in a major weapon, 5000 litres of bromadiolone. Pesticides have one job, to kill quickly. They don’t discriminate between weeds and other plants, between rodents or other wildlife. Bromadiolone travels up the food chain, poisoning predators who eat the poisoned mice. With such an abundance of mice, animals like goannas, wedge tailed eagles, snakes and owls are all going to be consequentially killed off by pesticides too.
Organic farmer Ian, when asked about the mouse plague stated “Pesticides are the cause of mouse plagues, not the cure, if we weren’t relying on monoculture, then we wouldn’t have a ‘mono-species’ taking advantage of the ‘mono-situation’ which causes an explosion in population. Diversity in species and practices, creating balance, that stops one particular population taking advantage of a lack of a particular predator to explode their population.” Just days after the action on the steps of parliament, Ian was hospitalised after a reaction to a herbicide known as paraquat, which is not used on his farm.
I asked Ian “What do we replace pesticides with? Are there alternatives?” “It’s not about replacing pesticides, it’s about learning to live without them” He replied.
Regenerative farming, also known as organic farming, is a rather holistic approach to agriculture where soil health takes the highest priority. In doing so, healthy soil is able to achieve some key benefits. One of these benefits is healthier crops, meaning that the food we eat is more nutrient dense, also meaning that we don’t have to eat to much to meet nutritional requirements. Healthy, nourished plants have their own natural defences against forces like pests and weather, therefore limiting the need to use pesticides, and making them more resistant to tough weather conditions. Our climate is rapidly changing, so protecting a plants’ defence mechanisms is important to ensuring our food sources are also protected. One of the most important and beneficial aspects of regenerative farming is the soil’s ability to draw in carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground. This is known as sequestration.
The soils’ ability to do this could be a huge step towards reversing climate change, and has been a major focus for the Rodale Institute, who have been studying agriculture in the United States since 1947. A research paper produced by the Rodale Institute in 2020 concludes that “global adoption of regenerative practices across both grasslands and arable acreage could sequester more than 100% of anthropogenic emissions of CO2” This means that we would only need to change our farming practices to make such a huge difference to climate change.
Additionally, the chemical based agriculture practices in use today are permanently degrading soils, killing the nutrients and microbial health of the soil, and reducing the amount of carbon intake. According to the United Nations, 75% of our soil is already degraded due to these practices, and if soil degradation continues, we will only have 60 years of farming left.
With so much information, studies and evidence opposing the use of pesticides, and considering how much noise the climate action movement has been making recently, it is surprising and disappointing that the issue is largely ignored by our law-makers. However, there are things you can do to make a change in your own life and support the cause. Follow PAGWA on Facebook or head to their website www.pesticideactiongroupwa.com for petitions, actions and more information.