Pesticides and environmental regulations are common topics in conversation here in rural agricultural Minnesota. The general sentiment is twofold: government hands off or anti-regulation and that pesticides are necessary. I agree that pesticides and herbicides play a role in our agricultural system even though I strive to eat organic food to the extent that it is possible. However, I find the lack of environmental standards or regulations and the cavalier use of pesticides alarming.
Last week I returned home from a trip to Vietnam with my family. One of the things that stood out the most for all of us, my kids included, was the effect of Agent Orange on the country. Applied during the 1960s and early 70s during the Vietnam war, this herbicide and defoliant was used by American forces to expose Vietnamese troops in the jungle and to destroy their food sources.
In Saigon we visited a museum that displayed the effects of the war, including Agent Orange. We saw disturbing graphic photos, documents and even stillborn fetuses. On the streets we encountered many disabled children and adults. We heard stories of cancer. And, when we drove into the countryside we saw land that had previously been forested but now is bare. The impact of Agent Orange was right there before our eyes.
Statistics vary, but according to the Vietnam Red Cross three million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange through death, miscarriages, stillbirths, a variety of cancers, nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders and birth defects, like cleft palates, mental disabilities, spina bifida, hernias, and extra fingers and toes. Because the soil is heavily contaminated, the food chain continues to be poisoned. High concentrations are still found in breast milk today. These statistics don’t even address the number of American veterans and their offspring who have also had similar afflictions.
The effects on the environment have been devastating. The land is ecologically degraded. There are places where nothing will grow or where other, less favorable species of grasses have invaded. The loss of timber has led to decreases in biodiversity, poorer soil quality, increased water contamination, increased flooding, draught and a loss of topsoil and erosion. The term ecocide has been used to describe the situation.
Rats and mice, previously rare in the forested areas, have thrived as a result of the deforestation. This, in turn, has led to crop damage and the spread of diseases. Other animals were heavily affected by Agent Orange, like water buffalo, gibbons, cranes, leopards, elephants, and tigers. Some animal species have been wiped out.
The effects of this herbicide are glaring even now some forty to fifty years later. Often, it’s a challenge to pin down just how a pesticide, herbicide or other chemical impacts the ecosystem. We are slow to react even when the evidence starts to emerge. While sometimes the effects are subtle, examples like Agent Orange should make us take notice and change our way of doing business. Our lives, the lives of animals and the health of the environment around us are at stake.
My kids were horrified by what they saw and learned about Agent Orange. It’s my hope they won’t forget that shock and that it will inspire them to stand up against the blatant disregard of our environment and human health for the rest of their lives. It’s also my hope that we will be mindful that our actions today can have serious implications for our world for years and years to come.