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Food and Agriculture

Pesticides and cancer risk in mainstream agriculture

Photography by Tracey Creed
Assisted by Amandine Paniagua
Research by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published September 8 2019

Chemical pesticide and fertiliser use as a human rights issue

Marking the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed 1,134 people and injured many more, Fashion Revolution Week encourages millions of people to ask brands #whomademyclothes and demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain. After seeing documentaries like "The True Cost" (2015), one would find it difficult, once aware of current environmental and ethical issues to return to conventional fast fashion. However, this discussion is much more expansive than labour exploitation in the garment industry – or even sustainability; they are all interrelated. Also, I think that if we were honest with ourselves, we would want to know if we were making the right decisions about the things we purchase, including the food we eat.

This article is not to speak to the point of the struggle to end marginalisation and oppression of agricultural workers’ and the most critical topics of environmental protection but more about why there is an urge to change and to re-think the food system. The idea that chemical agriculture, conventional agriculture is essential to feed our global population is a myth according to UN food and pollution experts in the paper, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.” This paper provides an account of global chemical pesticide use in agriculture and its impacts on human rights; the negative consequences pesticides have had on the environment, society; the health of communities and human health, your health, and more specifically cancer risk.

I think there is still this misconception that cancer is a familial genetic disease, your destiny so to speak. It could be, for 5% to 10% of cases, however for everyone else, as this paper argues, cancer is a preventable disease. We need to make it a point, to be aware of this - the remaining 90% to 95% of cases are the result of our environment and lifestyle. The most established cause of cancer is arguably tobacco smoking. So when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) based on accumulated scientific literature classified processed meat as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans and red meat, Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans the Internet responded accordingly with memes and The Times published this piece, yet, this is an objective truth. This assessment also included the classification of glyphosate - the most widely used broad-spectrum systemic herbicide in the world as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” More recent evaluations of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) by various agencies continue to generate controversy, many believe there isn’t enough evidence. Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto Company proved otherwise.

The relationship between exposure to pesticides and the development of some cancers

The IARC report referenced the work of Doll and Peto’s “Quantitative Estimates of Cancer Risks”, the report had been commissioned by the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment to help determine the percentage of cancer because of avoidable causes, and the 117-page document was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in June 1981. For the most part, it still holds up today. The article influenced decades of scientific research. However, Doll and Peto concluded that “the occurrence of pesticides as dietary pollutants seems unimportant.” Subsequent studies concluded that the general population through food residues is not exposed to any predictable risk, less than 2% of deaths, and that “virtually no one dies of cancer caused by pesticides.” People do. Doll’s influential criticism of herbicide exposure studies led to allegations that Doll was in fact, a ‘friend of industry’ and a paid consultant-on-retainer to Monsanto, the herbicide manufacturer. His work for decades influenced future studies and progress of the science. So pesticides were not the scientific focus they perhaps could have been and Doll’s work, and that which followed had considerable influence over the regulatory process and protection of the public interest in pesticide regulation.

And yet agriculture has been consistently associated with an increased risk of cancer since the 1970s when Milham reported a higher than expected number of Multiple Myeloma (MM) deaths among American farmers. Khuder and Mutgi later published a meta-analysis of farm employment and MM and assessed 32 case-control and cohort studies between 1981 and 1996. Then in 2007, this study, a systematic review indicated a positive relationship between exposure to pesticides and the development of some cancers, particularly Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). This meta-analysis based on more recent studies suggested a compelling link between exposures to glyphosate-based herbicides and increased risk for NHL, indicating a statistically significant increased risk of 41% for NHL following high cumulative glyphosate-based herbicides exposure. There is no shortage of scientific research on pesticides and cancer.

Eating is a political act

The organic food movement today is viewed much as it was in the 1960s, as an unconventional food movement. Organic agriculture globally represents 1.5% of agricultural land, and therefore conventional agriculture is by definition the most practised form of agriculture, perhaps better defined by its’ chemical dependence. Conventional agriculture is chemical agriculture. With so much information (and misinformation) we have access to, it’s no wonder that we can feel a bit lost. If anything, take this as a starting point, and as Organic Week Aotearoa suggests, start with one. If there was an urgent message within the climate narrative, food would have to be it. I felt strongly we should communicate a way of eating that was more connected to our environment, and one that focused on eating sustainably in light of climate change’s effects on our food system.

It is about the awareness that we have to change the system because it is unsustainable as it is. Within this, you come to realise that every purchase you make implicates you in a broader network, people who are working towards nourishing sustainable ecosystems. Once we learn to recognise and appreciate that choosing what we eat isn't just about us, what we eat will change, and, subsequently, so will the system that creates our food, and the lives of those throughout the supply chain. What we need is a new cooperative that would displace the exploitative, corrupt, ecologically destructive and violent order that currently dominates our food supply. Organic agriculture is a part of a solution, however; the movement has a class issue. We need to ask ourselves, what is the motivation and intention of the movement? For those sharing in the movement, for who and why are you choosing to show up? How do we improve inclusivity in the organic movement? What governmental incentives and subsidies are required for the organic industry to grow, to improve access to chemical-free food and obtaining food security? We all eat and thus engage with the food system, and we have to ask questions.

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