Growing up in the Midwest isn’t as idyllic as it used to be. The family farm has been eclipsed by sprawling thousand-fold acre parcels of corn and soybeans. Typically managed by one solitary man, he spends his spring and early summer days planting genetically engineered seeds and spraying herbicides. Monitors in the tractor map soil temperature and crop conditions, surveying the contours of green expanse and helping the farmer make timely decisions about which herbicides to spray and when.
The “modern” farmer’s toolkit is indeed impressive, but like a hammer is only useful when paired with nails, the farmer’s toolkit is mostly designed for one thing – applying chemical pesticides and fertilizers whenever pests threaten crop yields or the soil is unable to provide the growing crop with the nutrients it needs.
This is why toxins run deep through the waterways that flow through farm country, and why toxins will soon be in the air, drifting into nearby towns and damaging backyard gardens. It should come as no surprise then that there is also mounting evidence linking herbicide use and exposures to heightened reproductive risks to pregnant women, and the children growing up in the once idyllic, rural Midwest.
In most counties in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois, corn and soybean fields dominate the unending farm-scape and account for over 50% of the land area. Meanwhile, millions of homes, schools, and churches are surrounded by thousands of acres of heavily sprayed farmland. Findings indicate women and children are bearing the brunt of this toxic assault across the heartland of our country.
Key insights from peer-reviewed research conducted over the last 20 years were presented this week at the biennial 2017 Children’s Environmental Health Translational Research Conference sponsored by CEHN (Children’s Environmental Health Network).
One disturbing study of pregnant women in an Indiana obstetric practice found glyphosate (aka Roundup) in the urine of over 90% of test subjects. According to the lead scientist, Dr. Paul Winchester, “In our study, which is ongoing, mothers with relatively higher levels of glyphosate were more likely to have shorter pregnancies and deliver babies with lower birthweight, outcomes that everyone should be concerned about.”
In his presentation at the CEHN Research Conference, Dr. Winchester points out that “Shorter pregnancies with relatively lower birthweights have been linked to lower cognitive ability later in life and higher risk of metabolic syndrome.”
In a panel titled “Will Rising Herbicide Use in the Midwest Raise Reproductive Risks?” researchers presented strong evidence showing that most Americans are now exposed on a near-daily basis to herbicides used on corn and soybean fields. This ever increasing exposure is due to recent and ongoing changes in when and how herbicides—mainly glyphosate, 2,4-D and dicamba—are applied.
The growth of super-weeds that are resistant to glyphosate is putting a hitch in the giddy-up of our Midwest farmer and his family. Herbicides used to be applied once in May, and then, for the most part, the farmer went fishing until harvest. Now the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds is triggering an intensification of herbicide mixtures and applications, and headaches and added costs that last deep into the summer.
It is estimated that around 40 million acres of corn and soybeans will be planted this year with new genetically engineered corn and soybean varieties. Most of these acres will be sprayed with new cocktails of toxic combinations that include glyphosate (Roundup), glufosinate (Liberty), 2, 4-D, EnlistDuo (2,4-D and glyphosate), Dicamba, and several other patented herbicides.
Just 10 years ago, most soybean fields were sprayed with only one or two herbicides. In 2017 it’s likely that four or more herbicides will be applied by most soybean growers, and some of these herbicides will be sprayed more than once.
This study makes it clear that it’s risky business rearing children in the rural Midwest. According to science team member Dr. Phil Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at Mt. Sinai Medical School, “Until this year, most herbicides in the Midwest were sprayed during a six-week window, but now the heavy herbicide spray season will last at least four months, placing more women and children at heightened risk,”
Herbicide use will likely more than double in 2017 compared to 2001 and so will the increased assault to women and children living in rural areas. For the sake of future generations living in the place of my birth—the upper Midwest—isn’t it time we ceased the chemical offensive? There is a better way: organic agriculture can help restore balance and fertility to a land and its people now paying a very dear price for the loss of both.