by: Lynn Stratton
You have to love summer in Florida, the season of fresh fruit and vegetables overflowing from displays at supermarkets and produce stands around the state. What most of us don't think about when we reach for those gorgeous blueberries or that perfect peach is that we wouldn't have them at all if not for the insects, the bees, moths, butterflies, and wasps, that pollinate those crops.
And what do the growers do to protect those precious (and expensive) crops? They use pesticides, and increasingly a class of pesticides known as mycoinsecticides, those containing live fungus spores. Pesticides are meant to kill off, one way or another, the insects that damage our crops, and fungus spores are no different. Many such products are currently in use throughout the world, but I'll focus on one popular one, Mycotrol-O, made and sold by Laverlam International.
Why? Because the company notes on its website that Mycotrol-O is "specifically formulated for use in organic agriculture and is OMRI certified." OMRI is the Organic Materials Review Institute, which as its tagline has "OMRI listed, naturally trusted." (It should be noted that, no, they don't indicate trusted by whom.)
Mycotrol-O contains a fungus known as beauveria bassiana, strain GHA. The Integrated Pest Management site of the University of Connecticut says it "causes a disease known as the white muscadine disease in insects. When spores of this fungus come in contact with the cuticle (skin) of susceptible insects, they germinate and grow directly through the cuticle to the inner body of their host. Here the fungus proliferates throughout the insect's body, producing toxins and draining the insect of nutrients, eventually killing it."
Doesn't sound too bad, does it? Well, there are (of course!) several problems. Here's one, also from UConn: "Once the fungus has killed (its) host, it grows back out through the softer portions of the cuticle, covering the insect with a layer of white mold (hence the name white muscadine disease). This downy mold produces millions of new infective spores that are released to the environment (emphasis mine).
Here's another problem. The company's website notes that such products "are generally non-toxic to beneficial insects, however, applications to areas where bees are actively foraging should be avoided." And the labeling information for Mycotrol-O does indeed note that the product is "potentially pathogenic to honey bees." Users should, Laverlam notes, avoid applying it to areas where honey bees "are actively foraging or around bee hives."
And one more problem: Laverlam notes that the product is a potential allergen and harmful if swallowed. "Do not contaminate water, food, or feed by storage and disposal," the label adds. So, spray it on food crops, but it will contaminate them? Pretty much, it appears. And here's a fun fact, the caution notice on the label: "Causes moderate eye irritation. Harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing. Avoid breathing spray mist. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, using tobacco or using the toilet. Remove contaminated clothing and wash clothing before reuse." (Really? The toilet?)
But a common problem with this and other pesticides is something called spray drift, which refers to pesticides applied via airplane that go where they're not intended to go because of wind conditions. In fact, it's so common that we have a Spray Drift Task Force (www.agdrift.com) doing studies to "quantify the relationships between the application conditions and the magnitude of off target movement of pesticides during application." Of course, ever-helpful, the folks at Laverlam have added this to their label: "Avoiding spray drift at the application site is the responsibility of the applicator." In other words, don't blame us if it goes off-target!
With that in mind, let's look at the EPA's factsheet on the fungus in Mycotrol-O (at http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides
/ingredients/factsheets/factsheet_128924.htm). It says this: "There is a potential for the pesticide products to harm bees, so the products must not be applied near beehives or where bees are actively hunting for food. If the pesticide products are used as labeled, no harmful environmental effects are expected." (I'm deliberately leaving out the massive hive destruction caused by what's being called "colony collapse disorder" because the debate is ongoing and the cause is far from being determined, although most experts agree that pesticides are definitely a part of it.)
To recap, the manufacturer says it might kill bees, and the EPA says it might kill bees, and both say, hey, if it kills bees, it wasn't our fault; we warned you not to spray this stuff near them. So the fate of pollinating insects everywhere depends on the weather, not to mention on a pilot who may or may not be meticulous about where the stuff is sprayed.
The irony is, at least for me, inescapable: Organic crops are supposed to be safe for us, yet the pesticides being used on them not only might harm us as consumers, they definitely harm the insects that produce the crops in the first place. But it gets better; the EPA also says this: "There are no expected health risks to humans who apply this fungus as a pesticide or who eat crops treated with the fungus."
Can anyone say unexpected health risks? The EPA tells us that pesticide products containing beauveria bassiana strain GHA have been approved since 1995 for use on all food and feed crops, so we've been consuming the stuff inadvertently for some time now. If you're like me, you might not take as much time as you should in washing produce, especially if you're in a hurry. You might even, dare I say it, not wash some produce at all. And who knows how careful a company is in making prepared foods, or the cook at your favorite restaurant.
And really, aren't most health risks, you know, unexpected? How many products are approved for not only organic use but for general use as well that are later recalled because of those pesky health risks that no one expected?
When I was very young, my parents tried unsuccessfully to keep me from seeing news photos of babies born with terrible deformities, a result of the drug called thalidomide that pregnant women took for morning sickness. It's only now that scientists are beginning to figure out why the drug caused babies to be born with flippers instead of arms and legs, a risk of taking the drug that was very unexpected indeed.
So I have to ask, as you might: What is it that we don't see coming at us right now, as we spray live toxin-producing spores on our food, spores that produce millions more identical spores and release them into the environment to kill more insects that, by the way, produce our food crops?
What new health risks are we not expecting?
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