An unlikely pesticide alternative shows how effective working with, rather than against, nature can be.
A recent study found that, under certain conditions, ants can be more effective than pesticides at pest control and increasing crop yields over time. This is exactly the kind of practice we should be thinking about more seriously to reduce our need for dumping toxic chemicals on plants—a practice which is helping to drive the chronic disease epidemic.
The study’s authors looked at 17 crops in the US, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Brazil and 26 species of ants which nest on plants or the ground. They concluded that “with proper management, ants can be useful pest controls and increase crop yield over time,” with some ant species doing so at a similar or higher efficacy than pesticides at a lower cost. Ants are predators that hunt pests that damage fruits, seeds, and leaves, which helps increase crop yields. The greater diversity of ant species present, the more protection against a wider range of pests.
There is still much to learn about ants’ role in agriculture, the authors note, because ants can also be a disservice to crops. For example, they can spread pathogens and reduce the abundance of pollinators, which can detect and avoid flowers if ants are present. Decreasing the activity of pollinators compromises fruit formation. The researchers found that these effects were far outweighed by the “biological control ecosystem services” provided by the ants.
We could use more ants: about 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the US. Many of these chemicals are banned in other countries. In 2016, US farmers used 322 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in the European Union, 40 million pounds of pesticides banned or being phased out in China, and 26 million pounds of pesticides banned or being phased out in Brazil.
This reliance on chemicals to grow our food is not sustainable. The writing is on the wall that we’re nearing the end of the “pesticide treadmill,” a term coined decades ago referring to the slow escalation in the strength and quantity of the chemicals needed to control pests. A new chemical is developed to kill weeds, weeds become resistant to that chemical, so a new, more potent chemical is developed, and so on and so on.
The consequences of industrial agriculture and the “pesticide treadmill” are enormous. Resistant weeds have been estimated to cost $43 billion in crop losses each year for corn and soybeans alone. This has a cascading effect that drives up food prices: more expensive corn means more expensive feed which means more expensive meat, and on and on.
There’s also a cost to our health. We’ve reported previously on the depleted nutrient content of our food. You would need to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from just one. A landmark study in 2004 compared nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different fruits and vegetables, finding a “reliable decline” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and vitamin C.
Our reliance on chemicals to grow crops is partly to blame for this nutrient-depleted food. Pesticide use increased 222% between 1960 and 1981. Pesticides damage the organisms that live in soil, which are crucial to the soil’s health and, of course, the plants that grow in the soil. Chemical fertilizers make plants grow faster and bigger, but not healthier.
Industrial agriculture leads to nutrient depleted food, then nutrient-depleted humans who are more susceptible to chronic disease. We will need creative solutions, like cultivating ants to help with agriculture, to reduce our reliance on chemicals to grow crops. But many farmers are already out there doing the right thing, such as those who are part of the Real Organic Project that arose in response to the watered-down standards and corporate takeover of the USDA’s organic program.
Our healthcare system is overburdened trying to address chronic ailments with pharmaceutical drugs that are dangerous, expensive, and often don’t work. At the same time, our food system relies on dangerous chemicals that degrade human health and prioritizes subsidizing mono crops like corn and wheat with low nutritional value. We need to shift to a regenerative approach to human health as well as agriculture. This means reducing toxic inputs into our soil, water and air, and increasing the availability of nutrient-dense foods. Healthy food can support a regenerative approach to healthcare where diet, proper supplementation, and the avoidance of toxins and pollutants address key sources of our chronic disease epidemic. Until we make this transition, we will continue to pay more and more for healthcare that doesn’t optimize our health.