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Thursday, 10 March 2011 16:21

Environmental and Public Health Issues in Agriculture

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As the world’s population continues to increase, demand grows for more food, but the increasing population is claiming more arable land for non-agricultural uses. Agriculturists need options to feed the world’s growing population. These options include augmenting output per hectare, developing unused land into farmland and reducing or stopping the destruction of existing farmland. Over the past 25 years, the world has seen a “green revolution”, particularly in North America and Asia. This revolution resulted in a tremendous increase in food production, and it was stimulated by developing new, more productive genetic strains and increasing inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and automation. The equation for producing more food is confounded by the need to address several environmental and public health issues. These issues include the need to prevent pollution and soil depletion, new ways to control pests, making farming sustainable, abating child labour and eliminating illicit drug cultivation.

Water and Conservation

Water pollution may be the most widespread environmental problem caused by agriculture. Agriculture is a large contributor to nonpoint pollution of surface water, including sediments, salts, fertilizers and pesticides. Sediment runoff results in soil erosion, a loss to agricultural production. Replacing 2.5 cm of topsoil naturally from bedrock and surface material takes between 200 and 1,000 years, a long time in human terms.

Sediment loading of rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries increases water turbidity, which results in decreased light for submerged aquatic vegetation. Species that depend upon this vegetation can thus experience a decline. Sediment also causes deposition in waterways and reservoirs, which adds to dredging expense and reduces water storage capacity of water supplies, irrigation systems and hydroelectric plants. Fertilizer waste, both synthetic and natural, contributes phosphorus and nitrates to the water. Nutrient loading stimulates algal growth, which can lead to eutrophication of lakes and related reduction in fish populations. Pesticides, particularly herbicides, contaminate surface water, and conventional water treatment systems are ineffective at removing them from water downstream. Pesticides contaminate food, water and feed. Groundwater is a source of drinking water for many people, and it is also contaminated with pesticides and nitrate from fertilizers. Groundwater is also used for animals and irrigation.

Irrigation has made farming possible in places where intensive farming was previously impossible, but irrigation has its negative consequences. Aquifers are depleted in places where groundwater use exceeds recharging; aquifer depletion can also lead to land subsidence. In arid areas, irrigation has been associated with mineralization and salinization of soils and water, and it has also depleted rivers. More efficient use and conservation of water can help alleviate these problems (NRC 1989).

Pest Control

Following the Second World War, the use of synthetic organic pesticides—fumigants, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides—grew dramatically, but a plethora of problems has resulted from the use of these chemicals. Growers saw the success of broad-spectrum, synthetic pesticides as a solution to pest problems that had plagued agriculture from its beginning. Not only did problems with human health effects emerge, but environmental scientists recognized ecological damage as extensive. For example, chlorinated hydrocarbons are persistent in soil and bioaccumulate in fish, shellfish and birds. The body burden of these hydrocarbons has declined in these animals where communities have eliminated or reduced chlorinated hydrocarbon use.

Pesticide applications have adversely affected non-targeted species. In addition, pests can become resistant to the pesticides, and examples of resistant species that became more virulent crop predators are numerous. Thus, growers need other approaches for pest control. Integrated pest management is an approach aimed at putting pest control on a sound ecological basis. It integrates chemical control in a way that is least disruptive to biological control. It aims, not to eliminate a pest, but to control the pest to a level that avoids economic damage (NRC 1989).

Genetically engineered crops are increasing in use (see table 1), but in addition to a positive result, they have a negative consequence. An example of a positive result is a genetically engineered strain of insect-resistant cotton. This strain, now in use in the United States, requires only one application of insecticide as contrasted with the five or six applications that would have been typical. The plant generates its own pesticide, and this reduces cost and environmental contamination. The potential negative consequence of this technology is the pest’s developing resistance to the pesticide. When a small number of pests survive the engineered pesticide, they can grow resistant to it. The more virulent pest can then survive the engineered pesticide and similar synthetic pesticides. Thus, the pest problem can magnify beyond the one crop to other crops. The cotton boll weevil is now controlled in this way through an engineered cotton strain. With the emergence of a resistant boll weevil, another 200 crops can fall victim to the weevil, which would no longer be susceptible to the pesticide (Toner 1996).

Table 1. Genetically engineered crops




Three varieties, incorporating insect and herbicide resistance


Two varieties, incorporating insect resistance


One variety, with herbicide resistance


One variety, incorporating insect resistance


Five varieties, with delayed ripening traits, thicker skin


One variety, resistant to two viruses


One variety, engineered to produce oil rich in lauric acid

Source: Toner 1996.

Sustainable Farming

Because of environmental and economic concerns, farmers have started using alternative approaches to farming to reduce input costs, preserve resources and protect human health. The alternative systems emphasize management, biological relationships and natural processes.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development to meet “the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Myers 1992). A sustainable farm, in the broadest sense, produces adequate amounts of high-quality food, protects its resources, and is both environmentally safe and profitable. It addresses risks to human health using a systems-level approach. The concept of sustainable agriculture incorporates the term farm safety across the entire workplace environment. It includes the availability and the appropriate use of all our resources including soil, water, fertilizers, pesticides, the buildings on our farms, the animals, capital and credit, and the people who are part of the agricultural community.

Child and Migrant Labour

Children labour in agriculture throughout the world. The industrialized world in no exception. Of the 2 million children under age 19 who reside on United States farms and ranches, an estimated 100,000 are injured each year in incidents related to production agriculture. They are typically children of either farmers or farm employees (National Committee for Childhood Agricultural Injury Prevention 1996). Agriculture is one of the few occupational settings in both developed and developing countries where children can engage in work typically done by adults. Children are also exposed to hazards when they accompany their parents during work and during leisure-time visits to the farm. The primary agents of farm injuries are tractors, farm machinery, livestock, building structures and falls. Children are also exposed to pesticides, fuels, noxious gases, airborne irritants, noise, vibration, zoonoses and stress. Child labour is employed on plantations around the world. Children work with their parents as part of a team for task-based compensation on plantations and as migrant farmworkers, or they are employed directly for special plantation jobs (ILO 1994).

Table 2. Illicit drug cultivation, 1987, 1991 and 1995



Hectares cultivated





Opium poppy





Coca (leaf)










Source: US Department of State 1996.

Some of the problems and conditions of the migrant labour and child workforce as discussed elsewhere in this chapter and in this Encyclopaedia.

Illicit Drug Crops

Some crops do not appear in official records because they are illicit. These crops are cultivated to produce narcotics for human consumption, which alter judgement, are addictive and can cause death. Moreover, they add to the loss of productive land for food production. These crops comprise the poppy (used to make opium and heroine), coca leaf (used to make cocaine and crack) and cannabis (used to produce marijuana). Since 1987, world production of the opium poppy and coca has increased, and cultivation of cannabis has decreased, as shown in table 2). Five links are involved in the farm-to-user chain in the illicit drug trade: cultivation, processing, transit, wholesale distribution and retail sale. To interdict the supply of illicit drugs, governments concentrate on eradicating the production of the drugs. For example, eliminating 200 hectares of coca can deprive the drug market of about one metric ton of finished cocaine for a period of 2 years, since that is how long it would take to grow back mature plants. The most efficient means for eliminating the crops is through aerial application of herbicides, although some governments resist this measure. Manual eradication is another option, but it exposes personnel to violent reaction from the growers (US Department of State 1996). Some of these crops have a legal use, such as the manufacture of morphine and codeine from opium, and exposure to their dusts can lead to narcotic hazards in the workplace (Klincewicz et al. 1990).



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