Is it immoral to oppose the use of pesticides?


INTRO: If you were to ask a group of medical professionals to name the most significant public health achievements of the past century, antibiotics and widespread vaccination against infectious diseases would almost certainly top the list. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention2 (CDC) would add motor vehicle safety, fluoridated water, workplace safety, and a decrease in cigarette smoking.

If you were to say pesticides not only belonged on the list, but well toward the top of it, you would likely be greeted with skepticism, if not incredulity. On this topic, highly educated professionals are little different from general consumers, who get most of their information from media stories that overwhelmingly portray pesticides as a health threat or even a menace. At best, some open-minded interlocutors might concede that pesticides are a necessary evil that regulators should seek to limit and wherever possible, eliminate from our environment.

Yet by any of the standard measures of public health – reductions in mortality, impairment, and infectious diseases, as well as improved quality of life – the contribution of modern pesticides has been profound. An adequate supply of food is absolutely foundational to human health. Denied sufficient calories, vitamins, and other micronutrients, the body’s systems break down. Fat stores are depleted and the body begins to metabolize muscles and other organs to maintain the energy necessary for life. Cardiorespiratory and gastrointestinal functions falter and the immune system is seriously compromised.

A 2019 report3 from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that “one-third of children under age five are malnourished – stunted, wasted or overweight – while two-thirds are at risk of malnutrition and hidden hunger because of the poor quality of their diets.” And according to the World Health Organization1, undernutrition is currently an underlying cause in nearly half of deaths in children under five years of age. Inadequately nourished newborns who survive early childhood can suffer permanently stunted growth and lifelong cognitive impairment. Death results more often from undernutrition than insect-borne killers like malaria, Lyme disease, Zika virus, dengue and yellow fever combined. In addition, it makes people more susceptible to such infectious diseases. Pesticides help to address all of these problems by increasing the food supply, controlling the growth of harmful mycotoxins, and preventing bites from mosquitoes, ticks, other disease-transferring insects, and rodents.

The medical community knows all of the broad strokes above, at least in the abstract. But living in a time of unprecedented agricultural abundance, we often take for granted the provision of adequate diets. We shouldn’t... (MORE - continue to central body of details)

[...] Epilogue ... Certainly, just as with pharmaceuticals and medical devices, pesticides need to be well-regulated and monitored, especially for potential effects on certain segments of the population, such as farmers, who have the most direct contact (but have lower rates of cancer than the general population). (See here, here, here, and here. )

The control of pests has come a long way. The toxicity of modern pesticides has already dropped ninety-eight percent and the application rate is down ninety-five percent since the 1960s. I grew up in the era of “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry” (DuPont’s advertising slogan from 1935 to 1982) and lived through the worst of the backlash toward chemicals spawned in large part by the publication of Rachel Carson’s compelling but often dishonest book Silent Spring. Now, chemicals are being complemented, and sometimes supplanted, by biotechnology, but that’s beside the point; the net benefit of pesticides, whether chemical or biological, is irrefutable.

Our greatest public health challenge today isn’t chemicals; rather, it is the institutionalized ignorance and fear-mongering that threatens to undo some of the twentieth century’s greatest technological and humanitarian uses of them.
Yeah, I could have told you that. Much like the international DDT ban removing a critical tool in fighting malaria.

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