By Layla Liebetrau
NAIROBI – A mounting body of evidence suggests that industrial agriculture is failing the planet and its people. In particular, harmful chemical pesticides increasingly threaten the environment and public health.
Along with synthetic fertilizer, pesticides fuel the industrial agriculture system – and their use is steadily increasing in almost all regions of the world. The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s latest Insect Atlas shows that annual global pesticide use has risen from about three million tons at the start of the millennium to more than four million tons today. Global pesticide sales totaled €56.5 billion ($65.4 billion) in 2018 and could climb as high as €82 billion by 2023.
Although some national regulators are increasingly concerned about the health risks arising from pesticide residues in food, governments everywhere underestimate these products’ effect on non-target organisms. Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and threaten entire ecosystems. Their excessive use and misuse results in contamination of soil and water resources, which reduces biodiversity, destroys beneficial insect populations, and makes our food less safe.
Declining insect populations have become a hot topic in Europe since a study in 2017 revealed that, in some parts of Germany, more than 75% of flying insects had disappeared over the previous three decades. Soon afterward, researchers at the University of Sydney estimated that 41% of all insect species worldwide were declining, and one-third were threatened with extinction.
These studies offer a first glimpse of a worrying environmental trend. Long-term scientific data on insect populations is rare, and it is virtually non-existent in regions where the pace of agricultural industrialization is accelerating, such as Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is precisely these regions that are particularly vulnerable to dangerous pesticides.
In the last two decades, following public protests and campaigns, the European Union has banned many harmful pesticide active ingredients. The overall trend in pesticide use in Europe, however, is not uniform: Some European countries, such as Denmark, use pesticides less, while others, such as Poland, use them more. Still, overall, tougher regulations and reduced demand have made the European market less profitable for leading global pesticide producers.
The four largest producers – BASF and Bayer in Germany, the Swiss-based but Chinese-owned firm Syngenta, and Corteva Agriscience, formerly the agriculture division of DowDuPont – together account for two-thirds of the global pesticides market, and are seeking new revenue sources. They are targeting developing countries, where agriculture sectors are under pressure to feed growing populations while adapting to the effects of climate change.
Here, the major producers benefit from fact that the relatively strict pesticide standards enforced by European governments are used only within their borders. They have not translated into restrictions on the manufacture and export of harmful pesticides from the EU to other countries. As long as the ingredients are approved in one OECD country, EU companies may produce and export pesticides containing them – regardless of whether they are scientifically proven to be harmful to human health or the environment.
In Kenya, for example, one-third of registered active pesticide ingredients are not approved in Europe because of their negative health or environmental impacts. According to the Pesticide Properties Database maintained by the University of Hertfordshire as part of the EU-funded FOOTPRINT project, 77% of pesticide products in Kenya are classified as either carcinogenic, mutagenic, endocrine-disrupting, or neurotoxic, or have clear effects on reproduction. In addition, 32% of available pesticides in the country are toxic to bees, and more than half are toxic to fish.
Europe is the second largest exporter of pesticides to Kenya, behind China, and nearly 60% of European products registered in the country are made by BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta. A Public Eye investigation revealed that more than a third of the pesticide sales made by BASF, Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, FMC, and Syngenta contain chemicals that are highly toxic to health or the environment.
Unfortunately, pesticide regulation is weak in many countries of the Global South. And because these products are increasingly available, local farmers tend to use them without considering safer alternatives.
Even if pesticides could be used safely, farmers, operators, and traders often lack the literacy skills to follow the guidelines and labeling, especially if these are not printed in local dialects.
Such obstacles, along with the high cost of personal protective equipment, can render “safe use” instructions useless. In addition, many developing countries’ poor laboratory infrastructure risks undermining consumer food safety further.
Through a petition in the Kenyan parliament, environmental and health organizations have demanded stricter pesticide controls and the withdrawal of active ingredients that are proven to be harmful. Industry actors label these groups’ efforts anti-science, claiming that pesticides are indispensable to combating global hunger – a narrative as catchy as it is wrong. Facile arguments that disregard evidence-based concerns about pesticides will simply enable leading producers to continue profiting from business as usual.
Instead, we need a serious discussion about alternative approaches to growing safe food in a sustainable agriculture system that makes public health and environmental protection the highest priority. As EU regulations and the Kenyan petition have shown, meaningful change will require concerted political leadership. Everyone’s rights to safe food and a healthy environment are at stake.
Layla Liebetrau is the Project Lead of the Route to Food Initiative, supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, in Nairobi.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.