With a global population of 7.5 billion people, it's no wonder that growing enough produce for the planet is proving to be a challenge. The way that we grow and harvest foods now is far different than it was even a few years ago. Instead of relying on family-owned farms and local harvests, things have gone global. Groceries stores have blueberries from Spain, bananas from Costa Rica, asparagus from Switzerland... You name it, your grocery store can probably stock it.
But this global culinary paradise is not natural. On average, a single apple has a natural shelf-life of about 1-2 weeks. With the use of pesticides however, some apples are able to last to over a year. And with this elongated shelf-life comes the opportunity for international produce, and reduced food waste.
Recent reports say that the average sample of produce contains a significant amount of pesticides, which has many consumers reacting negatively. Strawberries, spinach, and kale are all shown to have at least 2 types of pesticides on them at once. So what's the deal with pesticides? What are their effects on the human body, and are they necessary?
Pesticides in the US
Using pesticide products on fruits, vegetables, and grains is at an all-time high. As climate change continues trending and the population expands, pesticide usage is becoming more of a necessity than a choice. In order to keep grocery stores stocked, the shelf life of produce and grains needs to be extended, which is where pesticides come in.
Over the past 10 years, pesticide amounts in the US have surpassed 1 billion pounds annually; Only 5 billion pounds less than the global amount. Needless to say, America has become a hub of agricultural growth and supply, with pesticide and chemical coatings at the forefront of our success.
But with this consistent usage of pesticides comes the concerns for their effects on the human body. Naturally, coating all of our produce in chemicals will lead to our consumption of them. While most of the side effects of pesticide consumption are mild, others can be more deadly. The more severe side effects include birth defects, cancer, and neurological conditions. Some samples also show a link between pesticide consumption through diet and ADD/ADHD for adolescents.
Pesticide usage is controversial for some consumers because it has been reported to have negative health effects
The US Government has strict policies on the pesticides used on American crops. In a report done in 2017, the US Department of Agriculture called the US's food supply, "among the safest in the world." This is due to the EPA's set of rules and guidelines on the types of pesticides that are approved, the dosage, and the enforcement of pesticide registration for farmers. Among these guidelines are also requirements for data collection and risk assessment tasks to make sure that consumers have the healthiest version of produce preservation possible.
Produce without Chemical Aid
The production and mass farming we have experienced since the 1950s was made possible because of pesticide use. When left to the elements, grains, fruits, vegetables, and corn are all subject to disease and pests. And if the pests and diseases don't take hold, time itself will. Naturally, fresh crops aren't meant to last for weeks on end. They're meant to be picked and eaten, not shipped across the country (or even the world.)
Let's go back to the apple example. Yes, adding pesticides can increase the shelf life of an apple from just a few weeks to over a year. This is definitely a major advantage when it comes to our produce, not only in terms of reducing waste, but also in reducing costs since pesticides are generally a low-cost alternative for crop health. They don't cost much to incorporate, and they actually save an exponential amount of money in terms of crop success and reduced wastage.
But, if the average apple farmer were to go completely pesticide-free, their costs would go way up. Instead of spraying the orchards with pest and disease-protectant sprays, each tree's fruit would have to be "bagged." The process of bagging includes wrapping each individual fruit in a sock-like bag and closing it off with a tie. Essentially, the bag acts as a protective barrier for the apple, keeping it safe from insects as it grows.
Bagging apples is a possible alternative to heavy pesticide usage, and it's also proven to enhance the taste of the produce that grows from the process. While this may sound like the ideal solution, cost-wise, it isn't picture-perfect. The expense of buying the bagging material for each apple can quickly add up, especially for big-time apple orchards. A single bag from a specialized bagging company can cost upwards of 22 cents each, which can eat into profit in no time. Plus, there's the cost of labor; Placing bags on the apples individually is not exactly a quick and easy fix.
Bagging is a pesticide-free growing alternative that involves placing apples into bags as they grow to protect them from disease and pests
Pesticides, however, are relatively quick and easy solutions to produce problems. They are effective at keeping pests and diseases at bay, and they can extend the window of time between farm to table; An increasingly important factor considering our food waste problem. In fact, it's estimated that about 50% of the produce in America is thrown away. That comes to about $160 billion of produce tossed into the trash annually.
So what are we left with then? Whether grown naturally or with the help of pesticides, the process of growing produce that tastes great and lasts from farm to table is not an easy undertaking. There are pros and cons to both methods, some of which have greater consequences than others. But with a growing population and the demand for fresh foods, elongating the shelf life of produce may need to become the most important aspect of our world's agriculture. Who knows, climate change may make fresh fruits and vegetables near-impossible to sustain, and we may no longer be able to cope with wastage.