Solving the Problem of Pesticides: Implications for Natural Products

With GMO labeling issues now at the forefront, ingredient transparency is an industry-wide concern.

Natural products in all categories may need to take a fresh look at the issues regarding contaminants attributed to or related to pesticides. An expanded vision and broad comprehension of the problem is vital to meet the highest standards as well as current consumer trends.


Today, the majority of natural products are in the category of food, are food-based, or are sourced from foods e.g. fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and herbs. A timely review of natural and organic food trends can provide manufacturers with some of the facts they need to make intelligent sourcing and production choices. A recent survey conducted by Fortune magazine found that consumers are actively seeking whole, unadulterated foods and that fresh "real" (not synthetic or artificial) foods and ingredients are currently a higher priority than packaged and low calorie foods. 77.1% of the consumers surveyed said that they are trying to eat healthier than they may have in the past and 68% want to be able to recognize every ingredient on the label. Because consumers want their foods to be as pure as possible, surveyed food shoppers say that they are extremely concerned about pesticides (64.2%), hormones (56.5%), antibiotics (52.2%), and GMOs (45.9%), and 85.5% feel that it is important to label GMOs.

A recent Nielsen's survey polled 30,000 online respondents in 60 countries regarding the steps they are taking to become healthier. Findings confirmed that consumers are seeking fresh, natural, and minimally processed foods with beneficial ingredients that promote good health. The 2015 statistics also point to increasing concerns about the origin of food sources as well as the degree of sustainability involved in producing and manufacturing the products. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals, superfoods, healthier oils, and nutrient dense vegetable proteins were ranked as some of the "healthy food" priorities. These trends have caused organic food sales to more than triple over the past decade, increasing by 11% in the last year to $35.9 billion according to the Organic Trade Association.

The natural foods label should in theory protect against artificial colors and flavors, artificial preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, growth hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs, as well as the class of agricultural contaminants commonly known as pesticides. Unfortunately, current regulatory guidelines may not require that natural products meet the same standards as certified organic products. Ongoing consumer health and environmental concerns require that the industry take a closer look at how ingredients are sourced and how natural products are formulated, to ensure availability of products which meet the highest industry standards. This includes products in the categories of supplements, nutraceuticals, personal care products, cosmetics, disinfectants, room deodorizers, and cleaning products, as well as all food products.

What Are Pesticides?

A pesticide is anything used to prevent, repel, or kill any type of pest. Pesticides most often refer to products known as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides as well as products targeting rodent or animal pests. Pesticides also include substances used as plant regulators or defoliants – defined as chemicals sprayed or dusted on plants to cause the leaves to fall off. Most pesticides used today are extremely toxic for humans. Pesticides are a type of pollutant, polluting the air, the water supply, the food supply, the eco-system, and are a threat to animal and aquatic life. Pesticides are dangerous for human health and are not considered sustainable.

The pests targeted by pesticides are defined as living organisms that cause damage to crops, humans, or animals. Examples of pests include insects, mice and other unwanted animals, unwanted plants (weeds), fungi, and unwanted microorganisms including viruses and bacteria. Weeds are a debatable class of pests, since many herbalists have suggested that the majority of common residential and agricultural "weeds" are in fact helpful foliage and often beneficial medicinal herbs.

History of Pesticides

One of the main problems facing agriculture today is the loss of crops due to pests. Organic agriculture makes use of natural pest control, integrated pest management and biologically based pest control to produce pesticide-free food and crops. However it may be useful to consider the history of pesticides.

DDT, considered an organochloride pesticide, was discovered in 1939 by a Swiss chemist. It was originally praised as a miracle substance to boost crop yields by reducing insect pests. Conversely, the research of Rachel Carson, published in 1962 in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, gave serious warnings about the safety of pesticides. She predicted extensive destruction of the world's ecosystems unless steps were taken to halt what she called "the rain of chemicals." Her controversial work led to the current ban on the use of DDT.

With the advent of the first World War, chemical warfare was introduced. Following World War II many of the same chemicals were used as agricultural pesticides, including organophosphates which are highly toxic to bees, humans, and wildlife. Organophosphates (OP) are nerve agents and examples of OP pesticides include parathion and malathion. Malathion is widely used not only in agricultural settings, but also in public recreation areas and parks, residential lawn care and landscaping as well as in public health pest control programs to control for mosquitoes. These pesticides have been under constant review by both scientists and regulators because they seem to block an enzyme that is important for nerve function in both insects and humans. Even at relatively low levels, OP pesticides can be extremely hazardous to the brain development of fetuses and young children. For this reason, prenatal pesticide exposure is a growing health concern, with monitored declines in cognitive development for children exposed in proximity to agricultural fields, school playgrounds, and urban dwellings.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency has banned most residential uses of organophosphates in the last fifteen years, they are still sprayed in agricultural settings on fruits and vegetables as well as being used to control mosquitoes. OP pesticides can be absorbed through the lungs as well as by eating them in non-organic food. Neonicotinoids, commonly attributed to the declining bee populations, have also been found in fruits and vegetables. In the biotech category, consumers and manufacturers should not overlook the health and environmental hazards of the widespread application of genetically engineered glyphosate.

Pryethroids are the most common insecticides and are considered by some users as the least toxic. Nonetheless they cause havoc to the nervous system and the environment. Chemical manufacturers extract pyrethrin as an ingredient in a variety of brand name products. The fact that they are derived from plants has caused some formulators to promote them as being safe. Symptoms of pyrethroid exposure include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and difficulty in breathing. Skin contact can include rash and itching. Long term exposure is said to promote a change in hormone balance, tremors, aggressive behavior and thyroid imbalance.

In addition to the most prevalent agricultural pesticides, many commonly used household products are also health and environmental hazards. This includes synthetic or chemically derived home insect repellants, mice/rat poisons, flea/tick sprays and pet collars, cockroach sprays and baits, kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants and sanitizers, products which kill mold and mildew, synthetic room deodorizers, laundry and cleaning products as well as some chemicals used in swimming pools. As a result, today's urban dwellers and modern households may also be "swimming in a sea of chemicals."

Reviewing the health and environmental research can be alarming. Research studies cite health hazards including Parkinson's disease, cancer, autism, hormone disruption, cognitive declines, memory loss, Alzheimer's, and ADHD to name a few. Fortunately, recent studies emphasize the nutritional advantages of eating organic while confirming that choosing certified organic foods significantly reduces consumer exposure to pesticides.

Are Pesticides A Part of Sustainable Business?

The rising trend and importance of sustainability in business points to progress in corporate settings. Growing numbers of businesses are making the commitment to conduct business in an environmentally conscious and responsible manner, with a minimal negative impact on the globe, the local environment, the economy, and society as a whole. The ideal of a sustainable business is that it incorporates principles of sustainability into every business decision. From this perspective businesses in the natural products categories can be leaders in upholding the highest standards of sustainability when sourcing ingredients and formulating their products. Pesticide use, by definition, would not seem to fit into the common understanding of sustainability in business.

Are Toxic Substances Really Necessary in Natural Products? A Vision for the Future

Are toxic substances and pesticides really necessary to produce nutritious food and effective natural products in all categories? Certified organic regulators and producers seem to be the "proof of the pudding" as to what is possible in the name of effective product purity. From all perspectives, it is now an urgent health and environmental need for natural products manufacturers to make use of sourcing and formulation solutions which agree with the fundamental intelligence of nature, offering healthy product choices, free from unwanted side effects in all of the natural product categories. This will also address the needs of the growing body of organic consumers who want to see natural products manufacturers step up to meet the higher standards of certified organic non-GMO products.

If today's most enlightened natural products industry members can see the problem of food purity and contaminants as having its basis in the quality of collective consciousness of society, the industry will take a giant step forward. Improving the quality of collective consciousness may involve not only increasing educational outreach to consumers and manufacturers, but may require a major shift in the mental framework and perception of every individual involved. The quality of the individual consciousness of every farmer, natural products producer, and consumer contributes directly to the quality of  the collective consciousness of the natural products industry, the nation, and the world. Understanding these mechanics of natural industry change can empower those individuals dedicated to protecting and preserving the food supply and the integrity of the natural products industry.

Today's urgent health and environmental solutions are obvious and evident to many of us but we have not yet created the world we really want. We must step forward to implement and make choices in favor of mother nature. Today's need is for decision makers, industry leaders, regulatory bodies, and legislators alike to expand their vision to embrace life-supporting solutions which meet the global requirements for nutritious food and safe natural products while upholding the highest industry standards. Unfolding full human potential and the development of individual and collective consciousness within the natural products industry may be fundamental to achieving this goal.

Simi Summer, PhD is an organic advocate, independent researcher, educator, and freelance writer. She is a strong proponent of organic consumer education and informed consumer choices.


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Published 6/5/2015