By promoting soil health, minimising water use, lowering pollution levels and reducing the need for chemical pesticides, there’s no doubt that sustainable agriculture practices are better for the natural environment. Now, growing evidence shows that farming sustainably also results in better human health. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of these benefits in more detail.
The benefits of sustainable agriculture for human health can be loosely broken down into two categories:
- The benefits of people consuming sustainably-grown produce
- The human health benefits of using sustainable farming practices
Consuming sustainably-grown produce
Although ‘sustainable’ doesn’t mean ‘pesticide-free’, sustainable farming and organic foods generally contain fewer synthetic pesticides than conventionally-grown produce. Sustainable farming limits the use of inorganic resources in production. As a result, human health is enhanced through the availability of more chemical-free food. If a person eats sustainably-grown produce instead of produce sprayed with pesticides, they are going to experience less exposure to pesticide residues that have been tied to an increased risk of certain cancers.
Another benefit of organically or sustainably-grown produce is its nutritional benefits. Emerging science is revealing that, in addition to lacking the toxic residues of conventional foods, organic food is also more nutritious. A study published by The Organic Center reveals that organic food is higher in:
- total antioxidant capacity
- total polyphenols
- two key flavonoids – quercetin and kaempferol
A study published in 2015 showed the benefits of switching children to an organic diet in order to reduce their exposure to organophosphates – a class of pesticides that includes toxic chemical compounds. The study compared the concentrations of organophosphorus pesticides and their metabolites in the urine of children eating conventional vs. organic diets. The results indicate that for certain types of pesticides, diet is the primary route of exposure. This means that switching children to an organic diet decreases their exposure substantially, possibly improving health indicators as a result.
Human health benefits of sustainable farming practices
Looking at pesticide residues in food alone ignores the fact that many foods that do not end up with high pesticide residues still involve toxic chemicals in production processes, putting farm workers’ health at risk.
Farmers and other agricultural workers using chemical pesticides experience occupational exposure to these harmful substances; much higher exposure than the average citizen, no matter what food they’re eating. This has a number of negative effects:
- Some studies have reported increased risks of certain types of cancers among farm workers who spend years exposed to toxic chemicals.
- Endocrine-disrupting pesticides reveal another chronic health effect of pesticide exposure.
- Children are highly susceptible to pesticides, and those living in areas with high pesticide use are at risk of adverse health effects.
- There can be devastating effects on the unborn babies of pregnant women exposed to pesticides.
When using sustainable farming methods, farm workers are exposed to fewer pesticides and benefit from better health as a result. Families of farm workers and local communities who are at risk of harmful exposure from pesticide drift and water contamination also benefit from sustainable agriculture and less exposure to toxic pesticides.
How to support sustainable agriculture as a consumer
- Purchase organically-produced foods
- Shop at farmers’ markets
- Grow your own veggies in home, school, and community gardens
- Participate in community-supported agriculture
How to start farming more sustainably
With increasing consumer pressure to produce in a more sustainable way, many farmers around South Africa – and around the world – are seeking ways to implement long-term sustainability measures.
The best place to start is with better soil health, which naturally decreases (and can even eliminate) the need for harmful pesticides. At Zylem, our team is passionate about bringing sustainability to the people – both the producers and consumers. Get in touch for more information.