The Disastrous Impact of the Green Revolution’s Agrochemicals on the Global Increase in Cancer Prevalence | by Pritam Kumar Sinha | Jan, 2024

“The Green Revolution, has inadvertently cast a long shadow over public health, particularly in the realm of oncology. The extensive use of agrochemicals has been increasingly implicated in the rising tide of cancer cases across the globe. The legacy of the Green Revolution is reminding us that progress in food production must be balanced with the imperative of safeguarding human health.”

The prevalence of cancer globally has witnessed a significant and continuous rise, becoming a major public health concern across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global cancer burden grew to 19.3 million new cases and 10 million cancer deaths in 2020, up from 18.1 million new cases and 9.6 million deaths in 2018. This upward trajectory is not restricted to any single region but is observed worldwide, affecting both developed and developing countries. The most common cancers globally include breast, lung, colon, and prostate cancers, with lung cancer being the leading cause of cancer death. The increasing global cancer burden underscores the need for international collaboration in cancer research, prevention, and control strategies to effectively address this growing challenge.

In the mid-20th century, the Green Revolution emerged as a groundbreaking shift in agricultural practices, aiming to significantly increase sales of agrochemicals industries, particularly in developing countries. This transformation was primarily driven by the introduction of high-yielding varieties of crops, massive water intensive agriculture, and the extensive use of agrochemicals, including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, its heavy reliance on agrochemicals has raised substantial health concerns, notably its potential link to the rising incidence of cancer and NCDs globally.

Pesticides, which include toxic insecticides, herbicides, and poisonous fungicides, have been a cornerstone of the Green Revolution’s strategy to control pests and diseases and thereby increase in crop yields. However, the prolonged and intensive use of these toxic chemicals has led to widespread environmental contamination and human exposure, raising serious concerns about their potential carcinogenic effects. A study by Alavanja et al. (2004) in the ‘Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’ highlighted that prolonged exposure to certain pesticides is associated with an increased risk of several cancers, including Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, prostate, breast, and lung cancer. These findings are corroborated by a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified several pesticides used during the Green Revolution as “probable” or “possible” human carcinogens (IARC, 2015).

One of the primary mechanisms by which pesticides exert their carcinogenic effects is through genotoxicity, the ability to damage DNA, a well-established precursor to cancer development. Organophosphates, a class of pesticides widely used during the Green Revolution, have been shown to induce oxidative stress and DNA damage, as documented by Bolognesi (2003) in the ‘Mutagenesis’ journal. Furthermore, organochlorine pesticides, another major group used during this period, have been linked to hormone disruption and immunotoxicity, both of which can contribute to cancer development. A study by Hardell and Eriksson (1999) in the ‘Journal of Environmental Science and Health’ reported a significant association between exposure to certain organochlorine pesticides and increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The impact of pesticide exposure is most acutely felt among agricultural workers and populations living in close proximity to farmlands. These groups are often directly exposed to high levels of pesticides through inhalation and skin contact during their application. A study by Merhi (2010) in the ‘International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health’ revealed a higher incidence of various cancers among agricultural workers exposed to pesticides compared to the general population. This elevated risk can be attributed to both the intensity and duration of exposure experienced by these individuals.

In addition, the general population is exposed to these chemicals through the consumption of food containing pesticide residues. The cumulative effect of long-term, low-level exposure to pesticide residues in food has been a growing concern. A comprehensive review by Mostafalou and Abdollahi (2013) in the ‘Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology’ journal outlined the potential health risks associated with chronic exposure to low doses of pesticides, including cancer. This is particularly concerning given the global nature of food distribution, which means that the impact of pesticide use in one region can have far-reaching effects on populations elsewhere.

Moreover, another significant aspect of the Green Revolution’s impact on health is the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers, particularly artificial nitrogen-based compounds. These chemical fertilizers, while instrumental in increasing crop yields, have contributed to disastrous environmental pollution and severe health hazards. Nitrate contamination of groundwater due to fertilizer runoff has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly gastric and colorectal cancer, as evidenced by a study by Weyer et al. (2001) in the ‘Epidemiology’ journal. This contamination poses a risk to populations relying on groundwater for drinking and irrigation purposes.

The environmental dispersal of agrochemicals has also led to numerous health effects, as these chemicals can enter the food chain and accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals. A study by Schinasi and Leon (2014) in the ‘International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health’ discussed the bioaccumulation of organochlorine pesticides in the food chain and its potential link to an increased cancer risk. This bioaccumulation is particularly concerning for top predators, including humans, who may consume a variety of contaminated foods.

The interplay between agrochemical use and cancer risk is further complicated by factors such as genetic susceptibility, lifestyle, and exposure to other environmental carcinogens. A study by Rusiecki et al. (2004) in the ‘Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention’ journal emphasized that genetic factors can modulate an individual’s susceptibility to pesticide-induced carcinogenesis. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption can interact with pesticide exposure to influence cancer risk, as discussed by Alavanja et al. (2004).

In light of these serious concerns, there is a growing call for a shift towards more sustainable and health-conscious agricultural practices. Integrated pest management (IPM), organic farming, Biodynamic farming, Zero budget farming, permaculture, agroforestry and the use of biopesticides, mulching and natural fertilizers are being advocated as safer alternatives to conventional agrochemicals. A study by Pretty and Bharucha (2015) in the ‘Annual Review of Environment and Resources’ highlighted the potential of these sustainable practices to reduce the reliance on harmful poisonous chemicals while maintaining or even increasing crop yields naturally.

In conclusion, the evidence presented in this review indicates a significant correlation between the Green Revolution’s reliance on agrochemicals and the increased incidence of cancer. While the Green Revolution played a crucial role in addressing global food security, its legacy is marred by the unintended health consequences of its practices. A reevaluation of agricultural policies and practices is urgently needed to mitigate these health risks. Future research should focus on developing and promoting safer, more sustainable alternatives to conventional agrochemicals to safeguard public health and the environment. The shift towards sustainable agriculture is not only a necessity for environmental preservation but also a crucial step in protecting human health from the carcinogenic effects of agrochemicals.

1. Alavanja, M. C. R., Hoppin, J. A., & Kamel, F. (2004). Health effects of chronic pesticide exposure: Cancer and neurotoxicity. Annual Review of Public Health, 25, 155-197.

2. Bolognesi, C. (2003). Genotoxicity of pesticides: A review of human biomonitoring studies. Mutagenesis, 18(3), 251-272.

3. Hardell, L., & Eriksson, M. (1999). A case-control study of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and exposure to pesticides. Cancer, 85(6), 1353-1360.

4. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). (2015). IARC monographs evaluate DDT, lindane, and 2,4-D. World Health Organization. Retrieved from [link to IARC website/publication].

5. Merhi, M. (2010). Occupational exposure to pesticides and consequences on male semen and fertility: A review. Toxicology, 276(2), 64-73.

6. Mostafalou, S., & Abdollahi, M. (2013). Pesticides and human chronic diseases: Evidences, mechanisms, and perspectives. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 268(2), 157-177.

7. Pretty, J., & Bharucha, Z. P. (2015). Integrated pest management for sustainable intensification of agriculture in Asia and Africa. Insects, 6(1), 152-182.

8. Rusiecki, J. A., Matthews, R., Sturgeon, S., Sinha, R., Pellizzari, E., Zheng, T., & Baris, D. (2004). Patterns of pesticide exposure and DNA damage in peripheral mononuclear cells from farmers and non-farmers. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 13(6), 1046-1052.

9. Schinasi, L., & Leon, M. E. (2014). Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and occupational exposure to agricultural pesticide chemical groups and active ingredients: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(4), 4449-4527.

10. Weyer, P. J., Cerhan, J. R., Kross, B. C., Hallberg, G. R., Kantamneni, J., Breuer, G., Jones, M. P., Zheng, W., & Lynch, C. F. (2001). Municipal drinking water nitrate level and cancer risk in older women: The Iowa Women’s Health Study. Epidemiology, 12(3), 327-338.

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