The Toxic Problem with Pesticides and Fertilizers

It seems like putting something on the ground to help plants grow would be a good thing. But synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are actually detrimental to the Earth and human health.
pink spray bottle saturating pink container flowers with neem oil in the garden
Source: Shutterstock

In 2018, Dewayne Johnson, a groundskeeper for a school district in the San Francisco Bay Area, filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, claiming that exposure to the common weed killer caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The jury ruled in Johnson’s favor in the first of many trials filed against Monsanto for failing to inform the public of carcinogens in Roundup, costing the company more than $11 billion in settlements.

These lawsuits are a symptom of the bigger controversies of conventional agriculture, which relies on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Compared to natural alternatives, synthetic versions are often formulated in a lab to be super-potent concentrations. Glyphosate, the synthetic weed- and pest-killing component in Roundup, is credited as the cause of cancer in Monsanto’s costly litigations. 

Synthetic herbicides are one of several chemical additives sprayed on crop fields, gardens, and green public spaces across the nation. These chemicals are used in tandem with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—and such strong concoctions have considerable consequences for the environment and human health.

The Toxic Reality of Synthetics

Nitrogen is a foundational nutrient that plants need and is the most abundant element in Earth’s atmosphere. Yet nitrogen in the soil, known as nitrate, has become scarce because of industrial agriculture practices. Replenishing nitrate was a constant challenge for farmers until the invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer at the turn of the 20th century, which provides nutrients to the plants almost immediately. 

Seth Watkins of Pinhook Farms raises beef cattle in Iowa using regenerative farming practices. He spent years as an industrial livestock farmer before transitioning to methods more in sync with nature. 

“When you’re trying to increase yield, nitrogen is pretty cheap insurance, and there’s no question when you dump it on, you’re going to raise a bunch of crop,” Watkins says. “I think that the problem with it is that it makes us almost overlook the negative. What we don’t take into consideration is the number of impacts it has.” 

quote marks“The nurse just looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Watkins, we see that you farm for a living—where do you get your water?’”
—Seth Watkins, Pinhook Farms

Those negative impacts have considerable consequences for environmental and human health. Nitrate-rich fertilizers that leach into groundwater result in nutrient pollution that cause massive algal growth in waterways. Once the algae die, its decomposition consumes oxygen, thereby suffocating and killing other aquatic life. Additionally, synthetic fertilizers release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Nitrate that finds its way into human drinking water by leaching into groundwater or running off into reservoirs can have significant negative health effects. 

Watkins understands this firsthand. His son Spencer was born in 2001 with a rare syndrome called 49XY, which results in cognitive and physical disabilities. Though 49XY is not heritable, when Watkins and his wife went through genetic testing, they were told that Spencer’s birth defect may have been a fluke. When their daughter Tatum was born a few years later with an abdominal wall defect, doctors knew something wasn’t right.

“The team was reviewing our records, and they’re saying, ‘you guys have done everything right, you’re a healthy family,’” Watkins recalls. “This shouldn’t happen twice. The nurse just looked at me, and said, ‘Mr. Watkins, we see that you farm for a living—where do you get your water?’”

Watkins’ drinking water came from a public municipality. He found out that it contained elevated levels of nitrate, which is related to health complications in babies. The water also contained atrazine, a chemical component in herbicide, which can cause developmental defects in fetuses when the mother is exposed. Watkins didn’t use these chemicals on his own farm, but they were in his water, nonetheless.

Seth Watkins with his children Spencer and Tatum, on their family farm, in 2010. Photo by Christy Watkins.
Seth Watkins with his children Spencer and Tatum, on their family farm, in 2010. Photo by Christy Watkins.

“I can’t change the farming practices that led to this, but now we know better,” says Watkins. “Tatum’s doing great, and Spencer and I are going to get a chicken tractor next week. He’s going to raise some chickens and sell some eggs, and Tatum is an incredibly talented young woman that wants to study medicine.”

Regenerating Relationships with the Earth

In the 1940s, the organic food movement started as a counter to the increased reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. At the turn of the 21st century, a regenerative movement started in response to the development of genetically engineered crops designed to work in tandem with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

Antoinette Lewis grows and sells produce from her suburban home in the Chicago suburbs, which she calls Lewis Farms, and educates others about the benefits of farming. She felt a pull to start growing her own food when she learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the problems with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Initially, Lewis would regrow kitchen scraps like lettuce and spring onions, and participated in her apartment’s community garden and at her mother’s house. Eventually she saved up to buy a home on 1.8 acres to be able to farm at the scale she wanted. 

Lewis did not have a background in agriculture when she started, and as an African American person, she had her Southern grandparents in her ear telling her not to return to farming. Yet as an Army veteran, Lewis found gardening therapeutic and preferred growing food she knew was genetically unaltered and free of synthetics. 

Lewis and Watkins are both part of Green America’s Soil and Climate Alliance, a network that brings together farmers, food companies, retailers, soil scientists, NGOs, policy experts, and investors to scale equitable solutions for soil health, biodiversity, water, climate, and rural prosperity.

“Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are poisoning the planet and our bodies,” Lewis says. “They work together in tearing things down in a way where you need the other one.”

Lewis incorporates organic and regenerative practices into her farm, with her focus on managing the land without harsh chemicals to prioritize the health of microbes in the soil. She also works with local nonprofits to introduce people to growing food with limited space. Lewis believes that one of the solutions to climate change is having more urban farmers in the general population.

 “It takes a change in mindset, especially from my demographic being from up north with grandparents who feel like they escaped the South,” Lewis says. “That created a mentality where farming isn’t really an option—and I’m trying to change that. Because while there’s a palpable connection to slavery that a lot of Black people have relayed to me, you don’t have to relate it to that.”

Antoinette Lewis tending to her chickens in her backyard farm in Chicago, Illinois.
Antoinette Lewis tending to her chickens in her backyard farm in Chicago, Illinois.

Growing Healthy Roots

Studies show that gardening improves mental health by reducing depression and anxiety alongside improving physical health by consuming nutritious produce and exercising. Lewis and Watkins agree that when home gardeners avoid synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, they are growing food that is healthier for people and the environment. 

Synthetic fertilizers and weed and pest killers are found in more places than the food system—they are sold in stores to be sprayed on lawns, school grounds, and more—but we can take back control by growing our own food without toxic chemicals or purchasing foods that are certified organic. 

Creating a home garden without synthetics and with regenerative practices such as keeping the soil covered, cultivating diverse plants, and using compost as fertilizer can combat climate change. Called Climate Victory Gardens, these gardens prioritize soil health and the essential microbes within sequester carbon to cool the atmosphere.

Watkins is working to bring the regenerative solutions to scale on Pinhook Farms. Against industry norms, Watkins timed his farm to function in tune with the seasons for the betterment of the cows and the health of the land.

“I just wanted to do right by the cows,” Watkins says. “My productivity actually increased, and my costs greatly decreased. That’s the beauty of letting mother nature take the lead. Mother knows best.”

leaf vectorNatural Pest Control For Your Garden

Despite best efforts to cultivate a balanced ecosystem, pests are a natural part of the environment and may find their way into your garden or organic, regenerative farm. Organic pesticides derived from plants and bacteria can help in such situations. Be mindful of pollinators and know which moths, beetles, and wasps are beneficial.

Neem oil is made from the neem tree and its active ingredient, azadirachtin, makes insects lose interest in reproducing. It works gradually, so spray when you spot the first adult bug. Most neem oil is sold as a concentrate, so read the label for dilution measurements and safety instructions.

Insecticidal soaps contain fatty acids that dehydrate soft-bodied bugs like caterpillars and aphids. Insecticidal soaps only kill pests when sprayed directly. Avoid spraying beneficial critters like bees and spiders (which may be hunting down some of your pests). You can make your own with a tablespoon of dishwashing soap in a quart of water or you can purchase a concentrate from a gardening store. 

Diatomaceous earth is a fine dust made from the fossils of tiny aquatic organisms whose skeletons were made of naturally occurring silica. Use on plant leaves or powder a layer around the base of your plants to discourage slugs. The dust works best in dry conditions, so be sure to reapply after a rain. Be sure to read the label for safety instructions. 

Find more tips about Climate Victory Gardens and learn all about organic fertilizers and other natural pesticides

From Green American Magazine Issue