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Aromas of Black Plum and Licorice, With Lingering Notes of Roundup

The detection of herbicides in wines — even some organic wines — highlights the growing health impacts of chemical-farming practices.

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A team of U.C. Berkeley researchers has studied childhood and prenatal exposure to pesticides in Salinas Valley farm communities. They've concluded that a chemical group called organophosphates causes extreme developmental disorders in children, including lower IQ, attention deficit disorders, and neurodevelopmental delays. Asa Bradman, an environmental health scientist who contributed to the research, has published a paper with his colleagues encouraging a phaseout of such organophosphates. 

"But I worry that we might phase out one class of neurotoxins and replace them with others," he said.   

UCSF doctor Marya said she has personally seen rising rates of lymphoma; inflammatory bowel disease; and colon, thyroid, and nasopharyngeal cancers, often in patients from agricultural communities. 

"They're often either living in direct proximity to farms or they're farmworkers themselves," said Marya, who believes a wholesale ban on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is overdue.

Feldman, at Beyond Pesticides, believes a global transition to organic, mostly chemical-free farming could be implemented, but it must happen through farmer education — not by failed systems of assessing and licensing chemicals, supposedly as safe. "You could spend half a lifetime trying to ban a single chemical," he said. 

Perro warns that the American government cannot be trusted to protect us from chemical poisoning. 

"People need to wake up about what's going on," she said. "This idea that government agencies are regulating these companies is erroneous. People are under this perception that they are being protected somehow in this fairy tale, and that is not the reality."


The Insect Apocalypse

The California Almond Sustainability Program — reminiscent of the wine grape growers' certification system — calls for an "ecosystem-based approach" to managing pests. This manual of guidelines suggests a balance between chemical and non-chemical tactics.

But growers of the state's most lucrative nut crop seem to be skewing toward the chemical approach. In 2017, they sprayed a staggering 3 million pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation's records. 

That's ten times what wine grape growers applied on roughly one half the acreage.

In an emailed comment, the Almond Board of California said its growers "follow the strictest laws in the nation when using pesticides" and only use compounds approved by the U.S. EPA and the state's pesticide department.

The irony of spraying glyphosate around almond trees is that almond farmers rely heavily on on bees for pollination. New research from Nancy Moran at the University of Texas in Austin shows that contact with glyphosate is detrimental to bees' health and may lower survival rates. 

Worse, pesticide applications are probably contributing to a phenomenon writers and scientists have dubbed the "insect apocalypse." Thousands of species of small arthropods — mostly, but not all, insects — are now plunging in abundance.  

"Our work reveals dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 percent of the world's insect species over the next few decades," wrote Francisco Sanchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys, the authors of a paper published in February that blamed the die-offs on intensive pesticide use and agricultural land conversions, among other factors. 

One of the most shocking studies analyzed in their review came from Puerto Rico, where researchers had observed biomass declines of between 98 and 78 percent of ground-foraging and canopy-dwelling arthropods over a period of 36 years. That's virtually everything, gone.

"The conclusion is clear," the authors wrote. "Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades." 

Insect losses seem to be cascading into other tiers of the food web. A new study from researchers at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes freefalling populations of hundreds of bird species. Published in the journal Science, the paper reviewed citizen bird counting data from 2006 to 2015. They compared this period to data from as far back as 1970. They concluded that, among 529 species of birds in the United States and Canada, total numbers were down 29 percent — about 3 billion birds.


Is the Revolution Beginning?

Organic grape farmer Phil LaRocca, who owns LaRocca Vineyard near Chico, is rallying for an organic revolution — and leading by example. He said he has farmed without chemicals for 42 years. 

"I've never used any herbicides on any of my production," said LaRocca, the chairman of the board of the California Certified Organic Farmers, a major certification group. "It's less convenient, it's more labor intensive, but it can be done."

He believes the organic revolution is underway. 

"We're in a new era," LaRocca said. "That lawsuit [against Monsanto] is making people open their eyes." 

He said interest in organic foods is growing, as is the acreage of organic production in California. Currently, he said, about 4 percent of the state's agricultural land is certified organic. 

"But we have a goal of having 30 percent of our land certified organic by 2030," LaRocca said. 

Already, he added, 28 percent of the state's leafy green production is certified organic, and between 12 and 15 percent of carrots are grown organically. 

"A few years ago, we were at about two percent," he said.

But incredibly, in spite of negative publicity, glyphosate-based weed killers remain popular, and economic projections show glyphosate sales will continue to grow rapidly.

"I just can't believe people keep using Roundup," Preston said. "We know it gets into the water table; we know it affects wildlife." 

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