College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Pesticides’ effects on sustainability

The story of toxic pesticides in America did not end with the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT.

Fritz Davis makes that important point — and addresses the consequences of thinking otherwise — in his environmental history courses and in his book, Banned: A History of Pesticides and the Science of Toxicology (Yale University Press, 2014).

“Don’t get me wrong, the DDT ban in 1972 was very important,” said Davis, R. Mark Lubbers Chair in the History of Science and Interim Head in the Department of History. “It was important for the health of the environment, and a number of wildlife populations have recovered since the ban on DDT. It’s true for bald eagles, for brown pelicans, for osprey, among many others. Having said that, the argument that I try to make is that was anything but the end of the story, and that the pesticides used in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were extremely toxic — toxic to farm workers as well as wildlife.

“Although most of those pesticides were banned in the early 2000s, even today the pesticides that are widely used in agriculture pose real threats to honeybees and bird populations,” Davis continued. “So no, I don’t think most Americans are aware of the tradeoffs that come with widespread pesticide use. I think for most of us, the story of toxic pesticides ended with the ban of DDT.”

Across the globe, the argument persists that pesticides remain vital in food production to affordably feed a growing population. In fact, the volume of pesticides used continues to rise both domestically and globally.

If that is to change, the United States almost certainly must lead the way, Davis said, referencing China’s 1983 ban of DDT and its 2007 bans on many of the most toxic pesticides that the U.S. banned earlier in the decade.

“The overarching point that I try to make is that all chemical insecticides carry unintended consequences and yet agriculture, not just in the United States, but all around the world, remains dedicated to these chemical inputs,” Davis said. “The other side of that, though, is what are the alternatives?”

One alternative is to purchase organic produce. And while that is an option that has risen in popularity, it is not the most cost-effective way to shop.

“As produce has been produced organically at larger and larger scales, the prices come down, but not to a price that is equivalent to produce produced with the now-standard chemical inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers,” Davis said. “But yes, they are generally more expensive and consumers have to weigh whether or not that’s of value to them.”

Government intervention remains another effective possibility. Previous pesticide bans resulted in improved environmental and health conditions, as did legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

And then there are the decisions that everyday citizens can make, Davis said.

“This is something that goes back to Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, where consumers take an active role in demanding food safety, which continues up to the present,” Davis said.

“I think that’s, for many people, the promise of organic produce — that these foods will be free from chemical inputs, essentially.”

Time will tell how world leaders will address these concerns as they seek to meet the needs of a growing populace. Davis said the problems associated with pesticide use are not new, and it will require international cooperation to uncover solutions that are both economically and environmentally workable.