Today, Rootstock Radio co-host Anne O’Connor chats with Margaret Reeves, senior scientist for Pesticide Action Network (PAN). This year, Margaret celebrates 20 years with PAN working toward a just, thriving, pesticide-free food system. Prior to that, she spent most of nine years in Central America teaching and conducting research in tropical agricultural ecology. Margaret’s writing—both in English and Spanish—appears in professional and educational journals as well as popular venues. She has been a member of New World Agriculture and Ecological Group, and currently serves as PAN’s representative on the board of directors for the Equitable Food Initiative.
A veteran of the agricultural ecology or ”agroecology” world, Margaret says that truly “if the interest of agriculture is to grow food for people and to protect the environment and to create jobs and support rural economies, then it [modern agriculture] would be a completely different model.” However, more and more people are not only using alternative models, but also proving them economically viable.
In our current agricultural structure where pesticides constantly threaten the health of farmers, community members, and consumers alike, the term “regenerative agriculture” with its emphasis on regenerating soil and regenerating the food system comes up often. Using this vocabulary, “you include the human component, which is absolutely essential,” Margaret points out.
Interview with Margaret Reeves
July 11, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Margaret Reeves. Margaret’s a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network, also known as PAN. Margaret’s worked in Central America on improving the productivity of low-input, ecologically sound agricultural methods for tropical regions and is a passionate advocate for farm worker rights. At the Pesticide Action Network, Margaret focuses on environmental health and justice, and farm worker health and safety, and serves as their representative on the board of directors for the Equitable Food Initiative. Welcome, Margaret.
MARGARET REEVES: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
AO: Can you tell us more about the Pesticide Action Network?
MR: Sure. We are an international network of some several hundred organizations and over ninety countries around the globe. We have five regional centers, in Malaysia; Senegal; Argentina—the Latin America regional center rotates around; in the UK, with close collaboration with PAN Germany; and we are the North America regional center based here in Oakland, California. We started in 1982 at an international consumers organization in Penang, Malaysia. And since then, we continued to work collaboratively with our partners around the globe, and very deliberately so, often with direction from the global South, recognizing that often our partners—ourselves included, from the global North—tend to have greater resources. And we often, we recognize that disparity in power balance and look to our partners in the global South to help direct and guide our joint decision making.
The main areas in which we work, very, very big-picture, are on the one hand pushing for public health policies that protect people from exposure to highly hazardous pesticides—and that’s at the international, national, local levels; and, on the other hand, we work to promote the ultimate alternative to the use of highly hazardous pesticides in agriculture, and that is sustainable, regenerative, agro-ecological practices—lots of names, but essentially agro-ecology.
AO: It’s interesting, you did just throw out a lot of names. But one of the ones that people are talking a lot about these days is regenerative agriculture. Can you tell us what that means and why we’ve had to come up with this kind of name?
MR: Well, it’s a very good question. It’s interesting, the names do change, and that’s why I say that there are a whole slew of different kinds of practices. So one of the common ones used right now is regenerative, but I like to include all of those names and kinds of practices that include agro-ecology.
So popular is regenerative, and it refers to both regenerating soil, soil quality, soil health, which is absolutely fundamental to food production, anywhere and everywhere; but also it talks about regeneration of the food system. And so that includes the people who work in the food system, and the people who rely on what’s produced in the food system, and so local rural communities as well as urban constituents. So if you define, whether it’s agro-ecology or regenerative agriculture, in broad terms, then you include the human component, which is absolutely essential.
AO: Give us a kind of an overview of farm worker health and safety in this country today.
MR: Sure. So in the U.S., there are an estimated maybe two million farm workers. And the estimate is fairly rough because there’s very little access to detailed information about actually who is out in the fields. We know that on the order of 90 percent are migrant farm workers, many of whom come to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico. But those are the folks, the men, women, and too often children who are working in agricultural fields mostly for the production of fresh produce. Those are the folks on the front line of exposure to the still increasing use of highly hazardous pesticides.
And those include the soil fumigant pesticides. If you’re at all familiar with California’s landscape, you see along the Central Coast there are often fields that are covered in plastic tarps. That’s because the soil has been fumigated with gaseous pesticides to penetrate through the soil profile to kind of kill everything that’s there. Because if you plant one crop, like strawberries, again and again and again, then you’re just creating a situation that’s ripe for all sorts of plant diseases. And so the way that, in these conventional agricultural systems, they deal with it is pesticides. That’s one group of really nasty pesticides, and they have a big impact, a big risk, health risk to not only the workers in the fields but also increasingly the communities that are ever closer to those agricultural fields.
But then there’s a whole slew of other kinds of pesticides. There are the insecticides and the herbicides—those are the weed killers. And many of those also fall into this big, general category of “highly hazardous.” And what that means is that they’re either neurotoxic pesticides—they impact the nervous system—or they might cause birth defects or cancer or impact the human hormone system, or what we call the endocrine disrupter or disrupting pesticides. And so all of those together fit into these categories of highly hazardous. And there are some, now nearly four hundred pesticides, that are currently used today that fall into that category of highly hazardous.
So one of our focuses is to push for farming practices that can reduce, significantly reduce if not altogether eliminate, reliance on the use of those particular pesticides.
AO: Right. So, I mean, what you were talking about, and back to the strawberry field, if you changed up that crop and you did different kinds of practices, you wouldn’t kill everything off—you wouldn’t have to kill everything off because the pests wouldn’t become smarter and smarter and figure out how to adapt to their environment. Because that’s what they do, right? And that’s their work.
MR: Yeah. So one of the fundamental pieces of agro-ecology or regenerative agriculture, is that you have very diverse cropping systems so that you have a whole mix of potential hosts for the pests, so you can confuse the pests that way. When you have a very diverse system, you also have along with it a whole slew of what are called natural enemies—so all the good bugs, all the good bugs that eat the pest bugs and insects. And you also rotate the crops around, so if you do have a pest or a disease, then you get rid of that host and you put in other crops that are not hosts to that particular pest or disease. And those are the fundamental pieces of agro-ecology with respect to what crops you grow.
And the other piece of it is always focusing on building a healthy, vibrant soil, because the soil not only feeds the plants the nutrients that they need, but it also brings along with it all sorts of microbial friends. In other words, microorganisms and larger organisms that together work to combat disease, to provide more nutrients, better nutrients to the crop, to make the crops more vigorous and therefore resistant to the diseases. And so it’s a whole system of managing the soil, managing the crops, rotating them, keeping them diverse and mixed up.
But in much of large-scale conventional agriculture, a given operation knows how to grow one crop. And so they grow that crop again and again and again, and they just therefore exacerbate all of the problems in what’s called monoculture production, when you have the same crop again and again in the same soil.
AO: Right. And as I’m sitting here listening to you, and all of what you’re saying makes so much sense, and yet in the larger world, really, what we’re doing is we’re going the opposite way, right? We’re doing all corn, all soy, all the time. And so what are the effects of that? You know, these things that you’re talking about, this is why we end up thinking that we need to have these highly hazardous pesticides.
MR: Yes, so you’re right in that since, especially since the green revolution, we’ve been, the push from the big agrichemical companies and agribusiness companies has been to industrialize production and focus on corn and soy mostly, which is produced to feed animals, not people. And those are political decisions—those aren’t agronomic decisions, they aren’t ecological decisions. It’s a decision based on how can they produce the most volume of produce with the least amount of labor and to try to make the greatest capital gain.
So if the interest of agriculture is to grow food for people and to protect the environment, and to create jobs and support rural economies, then it would be a completely different model. And that, and I’m happy to say that more and more people are demonstrating that those alternative models not only are there and exist, that people are doing them, but they’re economically viable. They really work. And some of the best examples is just the consistently positive growth in organic production through the United States, and in fact throughout the world. And it’s the sector in agriculture that continues to grow the fastest.
AO: Right, so that’s very encouraging, right? So the organic model is a model that doesn’t use pesticides that are persistent—these hazardous, highly hazardous pesticides, they are not allowed in organic production. And so you have to come up with different ways, right? And like you said, there are all kinds of models out there that are working, that people are demonstrating that there’s a different way to do this. And not the old way, right? Like they’re new ways that are profitable and are good for the planet and that can actually produce enough food to feed the planet, which is of course one of the concerns that people have about alternative methods.
MR: That’s actually a really good point you said there, about not the old way. And that’s really crucial, is that it’s both dependent on recognizing the value, the incredible wealth of knowledge from farmers, passed down through generations, as well as all sorts of innovative science that’s going on within agricultural sciences and agro-ecological sciences. So it’s actually both: it’s recognizing, not discounting, and valuing traditional knowledge and experience, as well as looking to the innovative sciences.
One of the areas, for example, is plant breeding. And right now, with what’s happening with climate change, ever more important is finding the right varieties that are going to be resistant, more resistant to drought or to flooding conditions, or increasing pest problems that we anticipate as a result as well of the climate change, et cetera. So science and technology and local knowledge are together all very, a very important part of the picture.
AO: Well, I’m glad you picked that up, Margaret, but it is, you know, sometimes people say organic food is the way their grandparents did it. Well, yes and no, right? It’s the respecting, as you said, the wisdom that comes from that experience but also using the new technology and the innovative ways that people are farming right now, and so that you can have these alternative methods that are not only good for the environment and for the people who work it but also good for the planet and providing really great food, too.
MR: We also have increasing technology that allows us to actually quantify and describe the impacts of our farming methods. So when we’re looking, for example, at the whole climate change, we can look to regenerative agriculture and its great potential to actually mitigate climate change through another term out there, carbon farming, which is the capacity to sequester carbon into the soils, capture it from the atmosphere and sequester it or hold it in the soils, which not only relieves the pressure significantly, has great potential to relieve the pressure globally from taking carbon out of the atmosphere, but it also, in so doing, builds incredibly healthy, vibrant soil resources. And we have increasing capacity through technology to be able to evaluate which systems do that better.
So that’s actually one application of some of the new science and technology that can help us make regenerative agriculture even better in terms of climate mitigation, both from sequestering carbon into the soil and from reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural systems.
AO: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Margaret Reeves, senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network.
I wanted to ask you, you know, you’ve been at this work for a long time, and you’ve been with Pesticide Action Network, I think, twenty years this year—is that right?
MR: Twenty years, yes.
AO: Yes. Congratulations. That’s fantastic. And so, you know, things have changed a lot in twenty years in this particular field. And I wanted to ask you what has changed—when you were having these conversations twenty years ago, some of this technology was not available, and it was a very different conversation. And so what have you seen morph? What are some of the biggest things that are different today as a scientist looking at this? What do you see?
MR: Well, actually, one of the most exciting things is that the term agro-ecology has, in the last year, and in fact I think it was part of…2015 was the International Year of Soils, and I think there was a lot of international discussion in international governmental fora, the Internet, social media, et cetera. And the term agro-ecology, I think, really rose to the top in that you actually literally started seeing that in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and other international fora, and I thought that was really exciting. You saw that there was a public discussion about the value of soil, and how absolutely crucial that is to the production of food, fiber, materials, all sorts of resources upon which we depend, and how important maintaining healthy soils is to, in turn, assuring that we have healthy air and water resources. So the fact that all of this stuff has come up to a head in public debate has been great. That’s been one really, really good thing.
Some of the technology that we’ve seen come to the fore has included our capacity to make some of these measurements I was talking about, so we can measure not only just roughly carbon in the soil but we can actually measure what fractions, where it is in the soil in terms of is it stable, is it going to be there for a really, really long time, or is it going to disappear quickly? We can measure greenhouse emissions from the soil, whether that’s nitrous oxide, which comes from over-fertilization and different methods that might be applied in agriculture with respect to water use. We can measure methane, which of course is a big problem in terms of, or can be, in terms of livestock management. And a lot of misinformation as well, a lot of debate out there about whether to continue to eat meat or not, and what that is in terms of energy use and methane production. And so there’s a whole body of sciences that’s been developed around those issues as well.
AO: So, Margaret, you know, one of the things that I want you to think about is the use of pesticides and what they mean in terms of human consequence. A lot of times we are now talking about a lot of different things. We’re talking about…GMOs definitely have been a big conversation; there’s lots of different ways that people are thinking about where their food comes from. And sometimes I worry that we’ve forgotten about pesticides and their risks. Can you talk about, just in really basic terms, what do pesticides mean for human consequences?
MR: Sure. So backing up to the very, very basics, pesticide is basically anything that is designed to kill a pest. And that pest can be insect, mammal, bird, disease. And so if we have insecticides, they’re designed to kill insects. Herbicides are designed to kill weeds. Acaricides are designed to kill mites.
AO: So pesticides covers all the…all of those are generally spoken of as pesticides.
MR: Yes, correct. So the term pesticide is all of those things. And when we talk about the human health risks—and then of course there’s a whole other category of environmental risks—but if we just talk about human health risks, we’re talking about how many, many of these pesticides have associated with them various toxicological outcomes. In other words, you could be directly poisoned, and that could be eye irritation, respiratory problems, nervous system problems, skin rashes, et cetera. And you can have…we have seen a whole slew of what are called chronic problems, long-term problems, problems that occur after multiple exposures and will appear after a longer period of time, so cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive disabilities, harmful or negative reproductive outcomes.
AO: So the abnormalities like, for example, the frogs with fewer legs or more legs.
MR: Exactly. So there’s an example of endocrine disruption—that is, chemicals in tiny, tiny, tiny amounts, especially when the exposure occurs at a moment in development, a crucial moment in development, like fetal development or the development of frogs, or metamorphosis of frogs—that tiny, tiny fractions of chemicals can have those long-term effects in development of the brain, or learning ability. And those are, that group of hormone disruptors or endocrine disruptors can have those impacts in tiny, tiny little amounts at key moments of development. And so if a mom, a pregnant mom is exposed to tiny amounts, then her developing fetus may be affected permanently. And there are a number of studies that have gone on to document this and are currently under way.
One really great group of research being conducted on the Central Coast of California by a group of researchers at UC–Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley, the acronym for the project is CHAMACOS, and they have produced a lot of publicly available documents about the impacts of the use of primarily organophosphate insecticides, a group of neurotoxic insecticides, on the development of kids whose moms had been exposed. And they’ve now followed those kids up until, I think it started in like 1998, so now these kids are in their teens. Tremendous amount of great research coming out of that shop[?], and others around the country as well.
AO: And what was the pesticide that you were just speaking of, what are they used for in the fields? Why were these women exposed to these?
MR: Well, insecticides principally, so insects that are on the different crops. And that’s the focus of that particular study. They were very common in the 1960s and 1970s; [it] still is very common to use some of the very persistent organochlorine pesticides, like DDT, with which people are very familiar. And when Rachel Carson, bless her heart, came up with Silent Spring, it became very public that some of the long-term health hazards of continued use of these organochlorine pesticides. So what they did is they actually substituted the use of those with some of these organophosphate pesticides, which degrade much more rapidly. However, they have these acute poisoning effects, so workers and community members can be poisoned right at the time, around the time that they’re applied, but they also have these long-term effects on the development of the neurological system in humans and other organisms. So there are tradeoffs. They were not so persistent in the environment, but they similarly have long-term health effects.
AO: So in listening to you, if somebody just were to drop in from another planet and listen to you, and say, “Oh, okay, this all makes a whole lot of sense—so why are we still using any of these,” right? I mean, I was listening to someone the other day talk about pesticide use in the Midwest, and he was saying, you know, if you’re going to get pregnant in the Midwest, wait until October, because of exactly what you were talking about.
MR: Yeah. Well, it’s a good question, and again it’s largely a political one, because those whose interest it serves to continue this system that is reliant on the massive use of synthetic pesticides are the big agribusiness companies that aren’t really in the business of growing crops for food. They’re in the business of growing crops that they can turn into commodities, processed foods, or use them for animal feed, and as a place to apply their pesticides.
But I want to also back up and say that when we look to encouraging farmers to make a shift in their reliance on pesticides, we might, we start with pushing what’s called integrative pest management, which is a different approach to managing pests, which says, well, let’s first see what pests are there. So we monitor for them. Then we see, we determine, are they there at economically important levels or can we tolerate them all right? And so that requires a certain amount of science and the development of sort of economic science in that you have to see how much pest damage can the crop withstand and still produce adequately.
And then you look at, well, what alternatives can we use to manage that crop and that pest? So can we rotate the crops? Can we put cover crops in? Can we use maybe intercropping systems where you have different crops that some of which might bring the pest away? And there’s all sorts of different methods that people can start to use, and for which there’s very good science. And a lot of university systems have integrative pest management programs associated with extension programs so that they can provide those resources to growers.
Most, in recent history, many of the agronomy schools around the country have, once upon a time were very focused on integrative pest management, and slowly shifted to a focus on use of agricultural chemicals instead, because it’s a silver bullet and it’s easy. And the funding for those land grant schools and others like them increasingly comes from the chemical companies whose interest is promoting the use of the chemicals. So, and therefore the growers, the farmers who go to agronomy school, learn from the schools that the best, most scientific way to manage is with chemicals. And it’s not their fault, because the school curricula have been largely defined by the funders, who are increasingly the chemical companies, who determine what the farmers are learning. So the farmers out there, whose primary source of information is from agricultural extension, are getting the information that has basically been served to them from the chemical companies in their influence over the universities.
AO: Margaret, thank you so much for joining us today.
MR: You’re welcome.
AO: I feel like we could spend a lot of time together. If our listeners wanted to learn more about the Pesticide Action Network, where should they go?
MR: You can come to our website at www.panna.org. That’s for Pesticide Action Network–North America.
AO: Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, Margaret.
MR: Thank you very much.
AO: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. If you don’t subscribe to our podcast, it’s really easy. Just go to iTunes and Stitcher. Search for Rootstock Radio and click “subscribe.” See you next week!
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