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Daily News Blog

26
Feb

Current and Projected Patterns of Global Pesticide and Fertilizer Use Are Not Sustainable, Says UN. . .Again

(Beyond Pesticides, February 26, 2021) The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the environment arm of the highest-profile international organization (the UN), has issued a draft report whose top finding is this: “The global goal to minimize adverse impacts of chemicals and waste by 2020 has not been achieved for pesticides and fertilizers.” Increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers — driven by rising demand for food, feed, fiber, fuel, and feedstock crops — is cited as causal, at least in part. Those factors no doubt contributed to the failure, but Beyond Pesticides asserts that such increased uses are symptomatic of the larger issue: in the U.S. and globally, chemical agriculture is a dangerous dead-end for public and environmental health. According to Beyond Pesticides: With this dominant system in place, “reductions” in use and impact are laudable but wholly insufficient. The whole system of petrochemical farming needs to be transitioned to organic, regenerative practices in agriculture, and in all land management. Such systems do not cause health and environmental harms, but are beneficent, viable, and profitable. The report warns that, going forward, “Business-as-usual is not an option.”

The UNEP draft report was produced just ahead of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5), which met virtually on February 22 and 23. The International Institute for Sustainable Development, or IISD, writes that the UNEP report “aims to improve the understanding of current practices and drivers of pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as identify knowledge gaps regarding environmental and health risks. The report addresses current management practices, legislation, and policies. It also identifies opportunities for transformative actions and enabling policies to minimize adverse environmental and health impacts.”

Background on this report includes multiple conferences, documents, and commitments that fall under the broad Agenda 21 umbrella. Pointedly, the 2012 Rio+20 conference produced an outcome document, The Future We Want, through which member states “reaffirmed their commitment to achieve, by 2020, the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle and of hazardous waste in ways that lead to minimization of significant adverse effects to human health and the environment.” In 2015, via Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, members “re-confirmed to ‘reduce the negative impacts of urban activities and of chemicals which are hazardous for human health and the environment, including through the environmentally sound management and safe use of chemicals.’”

The UNEP report notes the global failure to live up to these goals, given that in 2020, production and use of pesticides and fertilizers continued to increase, with combined sales growing at about 4.1% per year and projected to reach $309 billion by 2025. It also acknowledges the ubiquity of pesticides and their degradates in the global environment: “Pesticides are omnipresent in the environment, including in soils and surface and groundwater, and are frequently detected at levels that exceed legal or environmental standards.” And it nods to the myriad health harms they cause: “acute and long-term health impacts, with an estimated 385 million cases of non-fatal unintentional pesticide poisonings every year and approximately 11,000 deaths. Pesticide exposure is associated with cancers and neurological, immunological, and reproductive effects, among other health impacts.”

In addition, the UNEP notes the adverse impacts of pesticides on nontarget species, which exacerbate the biodiversity crisis — the subject of a UN 2019 report, the IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers; and the climbing rates of resistance to pesticides in organisms and weeds (as the UN has done previously), as well as fertilizers’ degradation of ecosystems, pollution of water systems from runoff, and contributions to climate change. Beyond Pesticides has reported, additionally, on the UN’s identification of pesticide use as a human rights violation.

The report recommends a series of actions, including:

  • minimizing adverse environmental and health impacts generally by: incentivizing sustainable consumer purchasing and consumption; changing crop management systems to ecosystem-based ones; using economic instruments to level the playing field for sustainably manufactured products and “greener” processes; using direct financing to encourage sustainable framing; strengthening standards; and adopting policies for sustainable corporate supply chain management
  • strengthening pesticide management by: strengthening regulation of pesticide distribution and use; enforcing legislation; prioritizing development of “low-risk” pesticides; cracking down on pesticide “black markets” (trading in substandard, illegal, and/or counterfeit compounds); and supporting extended product responsibility laws governing pesticide manufacturers and sellers
  • beefing up management strategies for fertilizers: enacting national policies for quality fertilizer control; strengthening global policies on sustainable and safe fertilizer use; scaling up training of all relevant stakeholders in fertilizer and nutrient management; and ensuring accessibility of suitable and affordable fertilizers

The UN Environmental Assembly’s Nature for Food project asserts that humanity is at a crossroads of “human, animal, economic, and environmental health. On land and at sea our food and freshwater systems depend on natural resources, but population growth, dietary changes due to growing wealth, and agriculture-related pollution are degrading natural resources faster than they can reproduce.” With world population likely to swell to 10 billion by 2050, food demand and pressure on these resources will increase.

Thus, the draft UNEP reports asserts that, given the projected growth of markets for pesticides and fertilizers, as well as prevailing deficiencies in current management systems, adverse impacts of the use of these products will continue to increase unless “a fundamental change in the course of action takes place.” It summarizes its recommendations with this: “To achieve a chemical-safe future with minimal adverse impacts from pesticides and fertilizers, both incremental and transformative actions are required that tackle root causes and shift market demand, coupled with supportive and enabling measures. While stakeholders in the value chain and agri-food system are contributing to minimize adverse effects of pesticides and fertilizers, there is further need to scale up their commitment through targets and road maps.”

The UNEP reports cheers: “Together we can achieve a world without adverse impacts from pesticides and fertilizers by taking ambitious and urgent action. But it goes on to acknowledge reality: “Despite a suite of international agreements and management schemes, and national policies and legislation, put in place to minimize the adverse impacts of pesticides and fertilizers, their effective implementation is lacking, particularly in low and middle income countries where there are prevailing capacity gaps. The benefits of pesticides and fertilizers come at the cost of a range of adverse impacts on the environment and health throughout their life cycles. In light of these impacts, current and projected patterns of global pesticide and fertilizer use are not sustainable.”   

The recommendations of the report all sound encouraging, and may lead to some more incremental changes over the next few years, perhaps followed by more reports of failures to meet standards or, in a rosier picture, some moderate successes. Yet while forwarding concerning warnings — “the adoption of risk reduction strategies has been slow,” “ambitious collaborative action by all stakeholders is needed,” and “business as usual is not an option” — the report nevertheless appears to collude (via its legion of stakeholder recommendations that would take many years to enact fully in the best scenario) in the plodding tactics of “reducing” and “minimizing” uses of toxic chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers.

The report says the quiet part out loud when it writes, “Despite the risk assessment and management procedures in place . . . adverse environmental and health impacts occur even in the case of authorized uses [of pesticides].” The superseding realities are these: (1) pesticides are toxic and dangerous now; (2) in the world of governments, the wheels of change tend to grind very slowly; and (3) “mitigation” of harms of pesticides is a doomed-to-failure strategy.

Advocates say that there is an urgent need to stop “digging the hole” of pesticide use. They say, the notion of reducing associated risks and harms of more than 17,000 pesticide products on the market in any gradient way is an illusion — particularly because the agrochemical industry is “all in” on developing new compounds, chasing the next “fix” for what no longer works in the field.

The changes that are needed to protect human and environmental health from the endemic threats of pesticide use (and secondarily, use of synthetic, petrochemical fertilizers) must be far bolder than the mitigating (and relatively anodyne) measures the report recommends. Beyond Pesticides has written about the folly, in the U.S., of “attempts to ‘mitigate’ risks of pesticide exposure through small and piecemeal rules. Given the many thousands of chemical pesticides on the market [and] the complexity of trying to ensure “relative” safety from them . . . there is one conclusion. ‘Mitigation’ of pesticide risks is a nibble around the edges of a pervasive poison problem.” The conclusion is even more valid when the problem is considered at a global scale.

Reduction of harm is always desirable. But the solution to the gradual and inadequate “minimization of risks and harms” strategy is a wholesale transition away from the chemical “addiction” in agriculture (of which most farmers are victims more than perpetrators). In addition to being genuinely protective of human health, organic management systems support biodiversityimprove soil healthsequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality.

UNEP has elsewhere endorsed the efficacy of organic agriculture as a remedy to the variety of harms of the petrochemical-based approaches that dominate globally; see Envisioning a Chemical-Safe World, Section 3, page 39. A year ago, Beyond Pesticides covered a global survey report indicating that the growth of organically managed farmland, across 180 countries, demonstrated some headway on the necessary transition. The UN would do well to heed its own warnings, recognize the shortcomings of approaches that may reduce some harm but do nothing to supplant the problematic system, and recommend that across the globe, governments work to achieve the organic transition.

Sources: https://sdg.iisd.org/news/unep-report-identifies-top-actions-to-minimize-adverse-impacts-of-pesticides-fertilizers/ and https://wedocs.unep.org/xmlui/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/34463/JSUNEPPF.pdf?sequence=3

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

 

 

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