Pesticides are even worse than you thought

  • Published on October 3rd, 2017

Ian Boyd is the chief scientific adviser to the UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. He and his colleague, Alice Milner, have just published a paper rebutting the idea that pesticide use on a massive scale is safe. Laboratory tests on a new pesticide are all well and good, they argue, but cannot assess what happens when millions of tons of the stuff are used in the real world.

fresh local produce vs pesticidesBy Steve Hanley 

No Long-Term Monitoring Of Pesticides

“The current assumption underlying pesticide regulation — that chemicals that pass a battery of tests in the laboratory or in field trials are environmentally benign when they are used at industrial scales — is false,” the pair writes. The lack of any limit on the total amount of pesticides used is absurd, they say. Worse, there are no procedures in place to monitor the effects they have on the environment. Taken together, that means it can take years for the impacts to become known.

Boyd and Milner write, “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems. This can and should be changed.” They point out that long term monitoring of new drugs is commonplace. Why are there no similar provisions for pesticides?

“Vigilance on the scale that is required for medicines does not exist to assess the effects of pesticides in the environment,” they say. The UK “has no systematic monitoring of pesticide residues in the environment. There is no consideration of safe pesticide limits at landscape scales.”

Starting The Discussion

Milner tells The Guardian, “We want to start a discussion about how we can introduce a global monitoring program for pesticides similar to pharmaceuticals. It can take years to fully understand the environmental impact.”

“Any chemical you put into the environment has the potential to be widely distributed. We’ve known this for decades, particularly through the early work in the 1960’s — the Silent Spring, DDT and so on — and you can find chemicals in places that have not been treated because of the connectivity of ecosystems. There are often quite unexpected effects [and] you often don’t see them until the pesticide is used at more industrial scales.”

The Pesticides Myth

Earlier this year, a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council denounced the idea that massive pesticide use is essential to high crop yields, an idea it termed a “myth.” It criticized global pesticide manufacturers for a “systematic denial of harms,” “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics,” and lobbying governments heavily to “obstruct reforms and paralyze global pesticide restrictions.”

The report says pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole,” including an estimated 200,000 deaths a year from acute poisoning. “It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

Pesticides Are Big Business

Pesticides are a $50 billion a year business. Does all that money sloshing around impact how they are regulated? Listen to the words of Sarah Mukherjee, chief executive of an industry group called the Crop Protection Association. “As [Boyd and Milner] themselves acknowledge, crop-protection products are a fundamental component of a sustainable, productive agricultural sector which seek to strike the right balance between protecting the environment and providing a reliable supply of safe, healthy, affordable food.” Spoken like a true industry flak.

“Pesticides are amongst the most heavily regulated products in the world,” she says. “It takes up to 12 years and costs over £200 million to bring a new product to market. This process, involving rigorous scrutiny by independent scientific experts, ensures plant protection products are safe before they reach the market.”

Matt Shardlow, a member the conservation group Buglife, has a different perspective. “Pesticides have got big on society — the thin veil of science around the approvals process has been exposed and the marketing strategies are stronger than the products they tout(emphasis added).

“If you think the biggest governments in the world are wrapped around the pesticide industry’s fingers, that’s nothing compared to the 35% of countries that have no regulation at all. It looks as if only an international convention can get pesticides back into a box that helps rather than harms us. It can’t come soon enough.”

Keith Tyrell of the Pesticide Action Network agrees. “We don’t know how a pesticide will really impact the environment until it is too late. It can take years before enough scientific evidence is collected to persuade regulators to take action, and they will be fought every step of the way by pesticide manufacturers who make millions from these products” (emphasis added).

The Less Is More Approach

Boyd and Milner advocate in their article for a completely different approach to pesticides — one that emphasizes their use sparingly and then only when needed, as opposed to a massive, one size fits all program.

Part of their concern and that of other scientists is similar to that of medical professionals — that too much of a good thing can lead to new diseases that are resistant to modern treatment methods. So-called “super bugs” then need ever more powerful drugs and pesticides to combat them. That’s a good thing for pesticide companies, not so good for farmers and the people who eat the food treated with more powerful pesticides.

The role of governments in this area is much the same as it is when it comes to fossil fuels and emissions regulations. The sheer size of the lobbying efforts available to corporations simply overwhelms the regulatory process and converts what is supposed to be a process to protect citizens into one that protects profits instead.

The process is the same in all countries, although it seems to have reached its pinnacle in the United States, where every facet of government is for sale to the highest bidder. Unless citizens find a way to rein in the flood of money and lobbyists attacking the process of government from all sides, corporations will continue to gorge themselves on profits to the detriment of society until there are simply no people left to buy their products. By then, it will simply be too late to do anything about it.

The scientists’ article also criticizes the widespread use of pesticides as preventive treatments, rather than being used sparingly and only when needed.

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.