All of that has changed in recent weeks. It turns out caterpillars love corn more than a Monsanto stock holder pumping ethanol into the tank while drinking high fructose syrup. They love the stuff. But not the cobs we like to munch on. No, they like the leaves and all the green parts. And they especially like the plants nice and tender right when they emerge from the soil. Caterpillars like to eat baby corn! It's horrifying.
So the cute little green guys decided to have a all-you-can eat contest with my second field site. They chowed down like they only lived for less than a year (which is true, but still). It was complete annihilation. I came to the field one week after planting, and only a few scraggly plants had survived. And even these were sickly, brown, and withered. I gave everything another week to see if a miraculous come back was in store, but that only served to finish off most of the stragglers. So we scrapped the entire field and replanted the following week.
The new plants are coming along quite nicely (see third picture below), thanks to one big difference; pesticide was applied on time this time and knocked out any caterpillars that might have been still hanging around looking for round two of the buffet. Which brings me to my existential crisis.
Throughout my 3 years at Rollins School of Public Health, I can't tell you how many times I've been told about the myriad of long term health effects of pesticides. I've heard lectures on how they cause neurological damage, read papers on the detrimental effects on fetal development, and know researchers who receive lots of cash to research these issues around the globe. The overwhelming message is that pesticides are bad. Period.
But as I watched my plants and half of my experiment shrivel up under the Great Caterpillar Assault of 2018, I couldn't help thinking,"Pesticides can't be that bad, can they?" And I just lost an experiment. What about if this corn was what my income depended on. Or what if this crop would keep my family from being hungry. Would I care about increased risk for abnormal sensory nerves or decreased sperm count? Would I care about possible liver cancer in 20 years if I couldn't eat today? I don't know.
I don't think there's an easy answer. Some middle ground of figuring out safer pesticides that can still protect crops is probably the closest thing. But that's tricky in an age of climate change and pest resistance. We could get there, but for now we are stuck with a tough choice. Weighing the immediate benefits versus the long-term detriments. It's a tough choice. But one we need to think about.