Pesticides or Agroecology?

A new study suggests we need to majorly dial back pesticide contamination – to protect not only biodiversity, but our own food security

by Stephen Leahy

In March, Canada’s pesticide regulator decided to allow the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides – linked to songbird declines and the "insect apocalypse" – to continue. Parliament Hill, Ottawa | Photo: © andrewghayes

The majority of the world’s agricultural land is contaminated by multiple pesticides, a landmark global study has recently revealed. “Multiple” means 11 or more pesticides currently contaminate 68% of food producing lands in Europe and 58% in North America.

In terms of where the worst impacts on biodiversity are, the study, published in Nature Geoscience in March 2021, identified South Africa, China, India, Australia and Argentina. These are regions with high levels of pesticide pollution and poor water resources, a particularly lethal combination for native plants, birds, animals and other species.

Pesticides do not stay in the soil; they move into surface and groundwater and also are blown into the air. Their adverse impacts on water quality, plants and animals are well-documented, as are their negative human health effects, from short-term sickness to numerous cancers.

To summarize: Not only does intensive agriculture lead to deforestation and habitat loss, the damage to ecosystems continues as fields are soaked in pesticides year after year.

The authors of the study warn this will only worsen with a warmer climate and growing population. To prevent this worsening toxic future, they call for a reform of our global food production system:

“Although protecting food production is essential for human development, reducing pesticide pollution is equivalently crucial to protect the biodiversity that maintains soil health and functions, contributing towards food security. We recommend a global strategy to transition towards a sustainable, global agricultural model that reduces food wastage while reducing the use of pesticides.”

The IPCC for agriculture

In 2008 a multi-year assessment was completed, involving more than 400 experts (including farmers), about how to feed the world now and in the future in an era of climate change and declining water and other resources. That multi-year assessment was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Insiders called it the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) for agriculture.

This first ever global Ag Assessment recommended a global shift to agro-ecological agriculture, with minimal use of pesticides, as the way forward to feed the world, protect waterways and ecosystems, and help farmers.

What’s agro-ecological agriculture?

Agro-ecological agriculture (or agroecology) mimics nature, replacing external inputs with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees, and animals can enhance the productivity of land.

Agroecology doesn’t require expensive inputs of fossil-fuel-based pesticides, fertilizers, machinery, or hybrid seeds. It’s a knowledge-intensive system that’s been used by small farmers around the world for decades. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food says this about research investigating its ability to feed people in Africa: “Yields went up 214% in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques over a period of 3-10 years … far more than any GM crop has ever done.”

That 2008 report was supposed to be the world’s roadmap for producing enough healthy food for all, but it never received any real public or policymaker attention.

Outrage is a reasonable response when Canadian officials continue to allow use of an insecticide that’s been linked to widespread bird and insect declines.

The Ag Assessment’s recommendation for a global shift to agroecology is what the authors in Nature Geoscience are calling for 14 years later. Year after year, major international science-based organizations, including the IPCC, say we have to get off the industrialized, chemically-dependent food production treadmill, yet government policies still continue to favor that unsustainable system.

Meanwhile, Ottawa cancels cancellation of neonics

Here’s a recent illustration of this. On March 31, 2021 Canada’s pesticide regulator, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), decided to allow the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides to continue.

I’ve written lots about scientific studies looking at neonicotinoids or “neonics” over the past six years. Here are some things you should know:

  • Neonics are the world’s most widely used insecticide. Buy a plant or a seed and it’s likely been treated.
  • Neonics are systemic pesticides. A plant that grows from a treated seed incorporates toxins into pollen, nectar, sap, and even dead leaves, making it poisonous to any insect that nibbles on it, and carrying toxin into streams, ponds, and groundwater.
  • Neonics are very good at destroying the nerve cells of anything that ingests them.
  • Neonics have been linked to the huge decline in songbirds.
  • Neonics are believed to be the main cause of what’s known as the Insect Apocalypse – the enormous decline in insect life, including pollinators.

Neonics have largely been banned in Europe. Under the Trump administration, the US continued to allow their use. In Canada, PMRA was going to prohibit outdoor use of the two main neonic chemicals but has now done an about-face.

Environmental organizations were rightly outraged. Given the fact of widespread insect and song bird declines, outrage is a reasonable response when Canadian officials continue to allow use of a powerful insecticide that’s been linked to those declines. That decision reveals the power of agribusiness – and explains why the shift to agroecological food production that international organizations call for year after year never happens.

“If we don’t radically transform the direction of the global food system, we will never feed the billion who are hungry,” De Shutter told me way back in 2011.

“Nor will we be able to feed ourselves in the future,” he warned.

Stephen Leahy is an award-winning environmental journalist and a contributor to National Geographic, The Guardian, and the Atlantic. He also publishes Need to Know: Science and Insight, a weekly newsletter.

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