Evolution in a toxic world

How life responds to chemical threats

Natural Defense: Introduction

How taking a more natural approach towards pest and pathogen management can help save our antibiotics and reduce our dependence on toxic pesticides

This is a book about solutions. A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation about the problems of modern agriculture and medicine—specifically, how we are losing our edge against pests and pathogens as they develop resistance to pesticides and antibiotics. Afterwards, an audience member asked, “So what can we do?” I shrugged and said, “Use less.” There was a little laughter and then an expectant pause, but I had nothing to more to say. How could we cure disease while reducing overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics? Or protect crops from bugs and weeds while using less pesticide? This book is how I would have liked to answered that question.

There is little doubt that chemicals have played an enormous role in growing food and protecting against disease over the last century. Pesticides and fertilizers (along with other agricultural practices) have helped farmers ramp up production to feed billions. Here in the United States, we are so certain of abundance that we throw away about 40 percent of all food produced, and we expect beautiful, blemish-free fruits to be available year-round. We have grown similarly accustomed to the miracle of antibiotics. Before the antibiotic age, infections—from meningitis to strep and staph—reigned as all-too-often-incurable killers. Penicillin saved countless lives, and when it failed another antibiotic took its place. Now we demand that our doctors prescribe antibiotics at the first sign of a cough.

Most of us alive today are beneficiaries of this chemical warfare waged by humans against pest and pathogen. It worked, for a while. Then came resistance and other unintended side effects, from altered ecosystems to the emergence of opportunistic diseases: a young man is left to struggle with a drug-resistant infection that has out-competed his normal intestinal flora; a blight responsible for the Irish potato famine now increasingly resists fungicides; aggressive weeds crowd out crops; and common pesticides kill off even the beneficial insects. How do we replace twentieth-century pesticides now fallen from grace, or save our antibiotics so that they are there for us when we most need them?

Fortunately, imaginative strategies are in the works. Some, like gene editing, are of the twenty-first century; others, such as the ancient practice of fecal transplants, are just now emerging from history’s shadows, made new again by advances in technology and a sense of urgency. Many strategies are borrowed from nature, one of our best allies against these age-old enemies…..

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