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Daily News Blog

09
Dec

The Expense of Pesticides Significantly Outweigh Economic Benefits

(Beyond Pesticides, December 9, 2021) The cost to maintain crops using conventional pesticides outweighs the economic benefits from crop production and yield, according to a reportPesticides ‘cost double the amount they yield,’ by the French-based organization Bureau for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information (BASIC). Moreover, the annual cost of increasing organic farms three-fold by 2030 is less than the cost of pesticides to society (i.e., adverse health and ecological effects from pesticide use and contamination). However, the price to pay from pesticide use encompasses much more than the products themselves. Researchers point to the need for government and health officials to consider the billion-dollar costs associated with adverse health effects from pesticide use, especially as studies confirm that pesticides cause cancer, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that are increasing. Thus, this report adds to the growing body of research demonstrating the unsustainability of conventional, chemical-intensive agricultural practices. The National Academy of Sciences identifies four goals of sustainable agriculture—productivity, economics, environment, and social well-being for future generations. However, current chemical pesticide use threatens sustainable agriculture. Although the primary concerns about pesticide usage centers on health and ecological concerns, including food security, this report provides an economic assessment that offers an important holistic perspective on real costs and food sovereignty.

The report notes, “In a few decades, and thanks to the constant support of public authorities, the agricultural world has invested massively in the use of pesticides. While the profits of this sector are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few multinationals, society faces a considerable bill to pay each year to cover the costs linked to pesticide use. But even those amounts will not be able to repair the irreversible damage caused to humans and the environment. In contrast, the varied agroecological models have proven to be more sustainable. While transition to these also requires investments, the latter will be smaller and above all more sustainable… [I]n 2022, Member States will have to assume their responsibility and choose between a costly, polluting model concentrated in the hands of a few players whose decision-making centers are outside Europe, and a sustainable agro-ecological model championed by citizens and farmers. It is the future food sovereignty for the EU – and, more broadly, for the planet – that is at stake.”

The study offers insight into the social and economic costs and benefits of the pesticide industry (i.e., production and use). The BASIC NGO investigated the current agricultural model that relies on conventional toxic chemical use involving four primary manufacturers: BASF, Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva, Syngenta/ChemChina. Although the study’s focus is the European market, pesticide exposure is widespread, and residues can travel across the globe. Thus, researchers analyze new pesticide data to evaluate the repercussions on the ecosystem, including effects on species health, diversity, and services (e.g., pest control, pollination, water/soil/climate regulation). The researcher then established the cost from pesticide use and paid for by European citizens regarding these repercussions. Lastly, the organization evaluated the profits of the four major pesticide producers through pesticide use.

The study finds that Europe pays nearly twice as much (2.3 billion Euros) in subsidies than is generated in economic return to sustain pesticide production and use in 2017. The profit generated by industry that same year was 900 million Euros. The report notes that without subsidies, lobbying, and payment of expenses associated with the adverse effects of pesticides, the pesticide sector would lack profitability. Moreover, the reports confirm intense pesticide use produces multiple harms. Declines in insect populations, birds, and sensitive organisms are prevalent among regions with extensive chemical use. The researchers warn that insufficient pesticide regulations do little to protect the occupational and general population from various toxic substances.

The United Nations’ 1987 report, Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report), outlines the benefits of sustainable agriculture in protecting the Earth’s natural resources for future generations, advancing equal income allocation from food production, and supporting small-scale farming. The report emphasizes the challenges of sustainable agriculture, highlighting, “[it] is to raise not just average productivity and incomes [from resources], but also the productivity and incomes of those poor in resources… Land use in agriculture and forestry must [use] scientific assessment of land capacity, and the annual depletion of topsoil, fish stock, or forest resources must not exceed the rate of regeneration.”

However, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report establishes that pesticide use does not adhere to sustainable agriculture goals. Toxic pesticide residues readily contaminate soils, water (solid and liquid), and the surrounding air at levels exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set standards. Scientific literature demonstrates pesticides’ long history of adverse effects on the environment, including wildlifebiodiversity, and human health. Pesticides can present acute and long-term health impacts worldwide, especially to farmers, 44 percent of whom experience pesticide poisoning every year. Furthermore, a 2020 study attributes ~385 million cases of non-fatal unintentional poisonings and 11,000 deaths annually to pesticides. Thus, increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers—driven by rising demand for food, fiber, fuel, and feedstock crops—puts public and environmental health at risk.

Not only do pesticides impact ecosystem and species health, but also essential ecosystem services such as pollination and nutrient availability. Over the last decade and a half, increasing scientific evidence shows a clear connection between the role of pesticides in the decline of honey bees and wild pollinators (i.e., wild bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, bats, etc.) alike. The agricultural industry relies on insect pollinators to aid in plant pollination and sustain annual crop yield. Globally, the production of crops dependent on pollinators is worth between $253 and $577 billion yearly. Moreover, conventional pesticide use contaminates soil and their respective Critical Zone (CZ) compartments, especially within monocrop (single crop) agriculture systems. It is critical for plants to allocate resources for reproduction or seed-bearing. Commercial, chemical-intensive agriculture has implications on a much grander scale as farmers more frequently apply pesticide treatments to larger, monoculture crop areas. Scientific literature supports that larger, monoculture croplands contain higher pest concentrations. These regions can foster pests that persist as they have ample quantity of the same food source, thus resulting in greater insecticide use. Perversely, monoculture crops induce biodiversity and pollinator loss from exposure to these chemical applications. Pesticides can drift from treated areas and contaminate non-commercial landscapes, limiting pollinator foraging habitat. Considering commercial agricultural management has become more chemical-intensive and less diverse, agricultural and economic productivity and social (human/animal) and environmental well-being are at stake.

Despite an increase in agricultural activity since the 1950s, crop yields are declining. Moreover, scientists cited in the report point to previous studies on lower yields in specialized crops—such as monocrops. The current agricultural production system relies on pesticides that researchers attribute to the “growing phenomena such as pest resistance, soil and biodiversity degradation, and also the destruction of natural resources needed for agricultural production (soil, fauna, and flora required for crop development, etc.).” A 2003 report on pesticide caused damages, estimating a total cost of $10 billion to society. However, the BASIC report finds the number of pesticides used in agriculture doubled in the past 20 years, and so the economic damage is much greater than previous figures demonstrate. Although the pesticide industry carries out large-scale lobbying to defend current pesticide use, total costs for lobbying approaches 10 million euros per year, which is greater than the pesticide regulation budget for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Traditionally, tradeoffs between productivity and environmental benefits focused on productivity and overlooked hazards to the environment and general population. Scientists suggest payment incentives to compensate for any reduction in yield, helping farmers to reconsider excessive pesticide use to sustain profit. Considering studies find that toxic pesticide use does little to benefit farmers through productivity or economic means, the primary focus on yield in agriculture is unsustainable. However, agricultural systems that commit to regenerative organic agriculture and land management can meet future, long-term sustainability goals. Past research shows that organic farming can help address economic insecurity, the climate crisis, and public health disparities. Although there are claims that organic agriculture cannot sustain global crop production, scientific studies argue organic yields are comparable to conventional and require significantly lower chemical inputs. Furthermore, the report reveals the cost to convert to organic farming is much less than the cost to sustain current pesticide use. Therefore, the study researchers advocate for the organic solution to eliminate the economic costs of pesticide damages on society. Organic agriculture can and must feed the world.

Organic farming is increasing globally and on track to meet the European Union sustainability goals. However, the number of organic farms remains under two percent. Increased global participation in organic agriculture can protect human and animal health, promote biodiversity, improve the global socioeconomic status, and eliminate toxic chemical use in agriculture. Organically managed systems support biodiversityimprove soil healthsequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. Everyone plays a key role in promoting a sustainable future through organic practices. Therefore, purchasing organic food whenever possible—which never allows synthetic pesticides—can help curb exposure and resulting adverse health effects. A common misconception is that organic products are “too expensive,” but low-cost organic products exist in the marketplace. Education about organic agriculture, buying organic products (food and non-food items), growing your own organic produce, creating marketplace demand, and advocating for organic regulations in the marketplace can aid in the global transition to organic agriculture. Learn more about how consuming organic products can reduce pesticide exposure and the harmful health and environmental impacts of chemical-intensive farming produces.

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

Source: Bureau for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information (BASIC), EU Observer

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