Pesticides: On borrowed time?

The explosion of intensive agriculture over recent decades has entrenched and universalised the use of pesticides. Often seen as allies in ensuring predictable, consistent and high-yield harvests, is our trust in such synthetic inputs proving to be misplaced? Ben Snelson reports.

Food security: A ticking time bomb

From the air that we breathe to the water and food that we consume, pesticides are everywhere. Our society’s insatiable obsession with economic growth at all costs has placed pesticides at the centre of this self-defeating cycle, with natural resources among the most consistent casualties. The more we over-exhaust these resources, the weaker our natural ecosystems will become, and the less food we will be able to grow. As such, the excessive and indiscriminate use of pesticides is risking the very future of our food security. 

The blanket use of toxic pesticides across European agriculture is crippling the population of pollinators, and with it our food architecture. A third of the world’s food depends on pollinating insects. With a rapid decline in insect numbers – wild bees in particular – we are on the precipice of a global food crisis of mammoth proportions. 

These synthetic chemicals are also harming the soil ecosystems that we rely on to continue to yield crops long-term. While environmental impacts on birds and mammals are easier to observe and respond to, the ability to gauge our impact on subterranean and often microscopic organisms is inherently more of a challenge. But while they may be out of sight, we cannot afford to have them out of mind. These armies of underground bugs and microbes are the unsung heroes without which our soils would be devoid of life, and supermarket shelves would lie empty. 

To reach a future in which pesticides are the relic of a bygone agricultural age, the movement away from pesticides must be part of a wider paradigm shift in the way we approach farming. The path towards a future of food that protects human health, supports natural ecosystems and guarantees long-term food security is one which champions agroecological solutions; a much-needed approach to farming that protects and embraces – and in turn benefits from – the surrounding natural environment.

The human cost of pesticides

Scientists across Europe agree on the effects that exposure to these substances can have on humans, with numerous epidemiological studies drawing explicit causal links between pesticides and various types of cancer (including in children), miscarriages, birth defects and respiratory diseases. Meanwhile, France has officially acknowledged Parkinson’s as an occupational illness caused by exposure to pesticides, and a 2021 report exposed the health impacts of “pesticide drift”, where the chemicals even permeate nearby homes.

Recent research carried out in Italy shows that, even when following measures to reduce pesticides, harmful chemicals are still being detected in non-agricultural public spaces hundreds of metres away from where they were applied. It also indicated consistent or growing levels of harmful chemicals known to be carcinogenic, disrupt endocrine systems, and cause infertility. Such revelations betray the simple truth that there is no “safe” or “sustainable” level of pesticide use.

A chance to turn things around

The EU’s revised Sustainable Use of pesticides regulation (SUR) plans to halve the use of pesticides in Europe by 2030. A crucial legislative component of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, the SUR seeks to promote a safer environment for all while ensuring greater protection of nature and supporting long-term food security.

Representing a €12 billion industry, it is unsurprising that the European pesticides lobby is bankrolling anti-SUR campaigns, pursuing a narrative structured around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and manipulating concerns of geopolitically manufactured food shortages. Such claims seek to derail Green Deal ambitions by labelling certain environmental objectives as bad for business.

However, far from suffering a food shortage, Europe is rather facing a crisis of logistical mismanagement and endemic inefficiency. According to an EEB report on food waste in 2021, the EU binned 151 million tonnes of food, of which 89 million tonnes were wasted on farms. Pouring more toxic pesticides onto European crops will solve none of these problems, but will add significantly to the problems of tomorrow.

What do we want?

Through a range of fora, scientists, experts and citizens of the EU have collectively expressed their support for a major reduction in pesticide use. We also call for an immediate ban on the use of pesticides in ecologically sensitive areas like Natura 2000 sites and near water bodies. These should include buffer zones (longer than three metres wide) to minimise pesticide drift.

Open, accessible and well-funded campaigns must inform and raise awareness on the dangers of pesticide exposure, including for farmers, farm workers and citizens living in agricultural areas. Occupational illness linked to exposure to pesticides must be recognized across the EU. 

Other measures to significantly reduce environmental (and therefore long-term agricultural) costs is through reducing synthetic inputs. In addition to promoting low-input and agroecological practices, a key component of the SUR must be Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which only condones pesticide use as a last resort. But given that an ill-defined IPM invites liberal interpretation, we stress the EU’s need to commit to a definition that is founded in agroecological principles.

Although the EU has banned some of the more hazardous pesticides from being used in the EU, it continues to export them across the world, including to low- or middle-income countries. As noted by Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, “exposure to pesticides has clear human rights implications”. If pesticides are too dangerous to be used in the EU, then they are too dangerous to be used elsewhere. This double standard must be addressed with coherent policy at EU level.

Pesticides are costly. These are costs on people’s health, costs on public finances, the cost of future food security, and the opportunity cost of the benefits we could all enjoy if we showed them the door. From healthcare to food safety controls to depollution of water sources, the burden of pesticides is heavy and extensive. But the cost is not borne by the companies that emit these substances into our environments. Far from adhering to the “Polluter pays” principle, those footing the bill once again are people and nature. As part of the European Green Deal’s “just transition”, the EU should alleviate the financial burden imposed on consumers and reapportion this to the industry actors that continue to profit from it.