Thursday, 16 October 2014

Depression Down on the Farm

The other day, the DomPost[i] ran an article talking about how farmers have higher rates of depression and suicide than the general public, and that more farmers died from suicide last year than from traditional “occupational” hazards. There are some obvious factors that were pointed out in the article: the financial ups and downs of commodity prices and bank interest rates, unexpected weather events, the stress of running one’s own business and having to make sound business decisions, and of course the isolation of rural life.

The story began with the “human interest” real-life example of Steve Thomson in Tainui who collapsed one day on his farm and was rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack. When nothing obvious was found wrong with his heart, medical staff re-diagnosed the event as a panic attack and said he was suffering from stress. He went on to become “horribly depressed” and ended up on antidepressants. [I haven’t been able to find this particular story online, but others published the same week include Farmer Suicides Raise Alarm and Feeling Down on the Farm.] Those stories all advised farmers to “seek help”. Is it that simple?

I wondered, as I read the paper over my morning coffee, if there wasn’t something else going on here. I wondered if working with agrichemicals had anything to do with Thomson’s abrupt and unexpected heart-attack/panic-attack event and subsequent depression. Synchronicity must have been in play because that morning when I logged onto Facebook, there was a link to a just-published article about how pesticides and herbicides are implicated in the surprisingly high levels of depression and suicide been reported by agricultural workers. (See High Rates of Suicide, Depression Linked to Farmers' Use of Pesticides, published in Scientific American.)

The articles were eerily similar, this second one also beginning with a “human interest” real-life example, this time of Iowa farmer Matt Peters who developed a severe and agitated depression seemingly out of nowhere. Unlike Thomson, he took his own life.

Peters’ wife Ginnie went public after he died to not only raise awareness of the farm-depression-suicide link, but also of the growing evidence of the role pesticides and some herbicides play in mental health down on the farm.

According to the article, long-term or high-exposure use of pesticides and herbicides by farmers have been linked to increased rates of depression and suicide within that sector in numerous studies in the US and elsewhere. (Also see Herbicides Linked to Depression Among Farmers and Pesticides, Depression and Suicide: A Systemic Review.)

The large and increasing role of pesticides and herbicides in agricultural use in New Zealand was highlighted here just recently when Southland dairy cows got sick and some died after eating swedes that were grown from herbicide-resistant seed and, probably, heavily dosed with chemicals prior to grazing. (See my blog post Cows, Swedes, and Dodgy Seeds).

Although farmers are generally advised to keep stock off newly-sprayed pasture, agrichemical manufacturers have sometimes claimed that their sprays are “practically non-toxic to animals” or that they have little or no effect (see here). We cannot know, of course, how the cow or sheep feels after grazing on sprayed pasture, and little if any routine testing is done of meat or milk for herbicide or pesticide residue in animal products intended for human consumption, so we don’t know how much of the residue might be lurking in our foods either.

Desiccated potato plants awaiting harvest (photo from Wikipedia)
Likewise, many food crops are sprayed with herbicides in preparation for harvest. Potatoes, for example, are often sprayed to kill the plants and make harvest easier—they call it desiccation. Other commonly desiccated crops include maize, flax, sunflowers, and linseed. If the spray is systemic—and many are--they cannot be washed off as they have been taken up into the plant structure.

The more I look into this stuff, the more uncomfortable I become. Not only is the use of all these agrichemicals bad news for farmers’ health, I suspect it’s ultimately pretty bad news for consumers’ health too. Unless you grow your own food, or have access to—and can afford—organic products, you are undoubtedly being chemicalized by not only those processed foods with nasty numbers on the labels (additives, colourings, flavourings, flavour enhancers, preservatives, etc.) but even when you go to buy supposedly healthy stuff like potatoes, lettuce, milk and meat at the supermarket.

And lastly, I find myself wondering, with the pesticide/herbicide link to depression down on the farm so easy to research, and with a major article on it out in journals this week, why the New Zealand articles in the paper and online make no mention of the connection, especially given the size of our agricultural sector. Is this a matter of ignorance and writing to a tight deadline, or a deliberate attempt to ignore or cover up the connection for financial or political reasons? I wrote a letter to the editor of the DomPost on the subject, but it was not published.

[i] Daily newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand

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