The following piece is meant to inform, not to scare. I wholeheartedly believe that although the structure of our food supply is not near perfect, it’s still safe for human consumption. Toxins are everywhere, the air we breathe in urban environments, in the water we drink and also present in the food we consume. Everyday environmental toxins are an unavoidable part of modern existence.
The question is, what levels of toxicity are safe for us and further, is there anything we can do to make our consumption safer.
Herbicides and Insecticides
The scientific community is divided as to whether the introduction of chemicals, such as herbicides, pesticides and insecticides, affect the safety of our produce for human consumption. These different chemicals, whether directly applied to the plant or not, are introduced to our food chain through animals passing on these toxins to each other. If wrongly applied or applied in windy and rainy conditions, these chemicals may be washed into a water supply or directly into the soil (1).
Most of us want affordable, perfect-looking produce and farmers want to make a decent living off a sizeable yield of crops. Pesticides ensure that food looks perfect and unblemished by the time it reaches the supermarket shelves and has reduced food loss as a whole. However, they still represent a great source of risk for both human and environmental health.
Environmental agencies are telling us that these pesticides and insecticides are safe for human consumption until proven otherwise. We have the right to be cautious and vigilant over what we are putting in our bodies. These same agencies once protected the now banned chemical DDT which is now a recognised carcinogen linked to the development of cancer and lymphoma in humans. Similar questions are now being asked of Glyphosate a popular weed killer which has been banned in some parts of the world (2).
The Use of Antibiotics in Livestock
The use of antibiotics in the Australian Livestock Industry is widespread, as a country we import 700 tonnes of antibiotics per year. Human consumption accounts for 33% and veterinarians use a further 8%, leaving 59% (or 413 tonnes of antibiotics) for the livestock industry (3). These antibiotics are used as growth regulators and promoters for pigs, chicken and cattle, mixed into their everyday feed. Through the natural food chain, these resistant bacteria can be transferred to humans, increasing resistance to these antibiotics for all Australians.
The Australian Government’s 1998 JETACAR committee was established to monitor the use of antibiotics in agriculture and its effect on humans and livestock (4). The report found:
- Resistant bacteria emerged in humans and animals following the introduction of antibiotics
- Resistant bacteria spread from animals to humans
- Antibiotic resistance genes transferred from animal bacteria to human pathogens
- Resistant strains of animal bacteria cause human disease
While antibiotics were once used sparingly to treat diseases in animals, they are now preemptively used in pig, cow and chicken feed to help increase their growth. The more regularly antibiotics are used in agriculture, the more resistant bacteria becomes to these same antibiotics in both humans and animals. This is a major public health concern in Australia and globally.
All types of agriculture have some impact on the environment, but industrial agriculture is unsustainable. The use of herbicides, insecticides and pesticides damages the soil, water and trickles down to effect the climate on an unprecedented scale. These toxins harm all types of wildlife, including fish, frogs, birds, bees and other land and marine based animals (5). Chemical runoff affects our drinking water supply and marine environments, with the negative impact evident through the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef.
A lack of transparency concerning data on pesticide and herbicide use in Australia has only increased public distrust with regulatory agencies. Several dozen pesticides banned in Europe are currently registered, legal and used commonly in Australia (3).
I’m not here to scare people into buying strictly organic, farmers market fruit and veg over regular supermarket produce. The nutritional content of our produce, particularly fruit and vegetables is far too important, regardless of how it was farmed. However, if we know how our produce is farmed, then we can make our own informed decisions about what to purchase.
We’re not here to dissuade you one way or the other, just to educate. We’d rather win you over on pure taste, flavour and nutritional grounds than fear.
Thanks for reading!
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- Antibiotics Use in Australian Agriculture, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 2000
- Bayer beware. A shock court verdict against Monsanto’s Roundup, The Economist Aug 18th 2018
- The Real Cost of Pesticides in Australia’s Food Boom, Misha Ketchell, The Conversation, December 5th, 2010
- Pesticide Use in Australia, Australian Government Department of Health, November 2010
- The use of antibiotics in food-producing animals: Antibiotic resistant bacteria in animals and humans, Professor John Turnbridge et al. JETACAR Report, 1998