‘A Vicious Cycle’: How Pesticide Use and Climate Change Make Each Other Worse, and What We Can Do About It
The energy required to produce all of the glyphosate used worldwide in 2014 was as much as the yearly energy needed to power 6.25 million cars.
That’s one of the striking findings from “Pesticides and Climate Change: A Vicious Cycle,” a first-of-its-kind report from the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) detailing how these two environmental problems interact to make our food system less just and resilient.
“We found essentially that climate change impacts are predicted to make pest pressures worse and make pesticides less effective, ultimately increasing pesticide use due to climate change, while at the same time pesticides release greenhouse gas emissions,” PANNA organizing co-director and report co-author Asha Sharma told EcoWatch in an interview.
A Vicious Cycle
From discussions surrounding factory farming and meat consumption to Amazon deforestation, increased attention has been paid in recent years to the ways in which the dominant industrial agricultural system contributes to the climate crisis. More than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and 31 percent of those emissions are generated by agriculture. Yet, while pesticides and fertilizers are essential for conventional farming, these synthetic chemicals have largely been left out of the climate and agriculture discussion.
This omission can actually make things harder for the people pushing for a more ecologically friendly and just food system. Sharma said she and her co-writer and PANNA senior scientist Margaret Reeves were partly motivated to write the report because they were having a hard time getting pesticide reduction plans included in California climate regulations.
“We wanted to kind of pull together all the research that we could to make a convincing argument to policy makers,” she said.
At the heart of the argument is the fact that pesticides and the climate crisis come from the same source.
“It’s all related to the fossil fuel industry,” Reeves told EcoWatch.
Ninety-nine percent of all synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, are made from fossil fuels, and major oil companies ExxonMobil, ChevronPhillips Chemical and Shell all either manufacture pesticides or their chemical precursors. Turning petrochemicals into pesticides also requires a massive amount of energy.
“Other chemical inputs in agriculture, such as nitrogen fertilizer, have rightly received significant attention due to their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet research has shown that the manufacture of one kilogram of pesticide requires, on average, about 10 times more energy than one kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer,” the study authors wrote.
Pesticides generate emissions not only when they are made, but also when they are transported, applied and dispersed into the environment.
“The whole life cycle is important to consider,” Reeves said.
Some pesticides — like fumigant sulfuryl fluoride — are themselves greenhouse gases. Releasing one ton of the stuff is like emitting 4,780 tons of carbon dioxide. Others can interact with nitrogen oxides and ultraviolet light to form ground-level ozone, an air pollutant and greenhouse gas.
Another important link between pesticide use and the climate crisis is the way they can interact to make our food system less resilient. Warmer temperatures and drought conditions are expected to make plants less resilient to stresses like pests, as well as expand the range of pest species in some areas and harm helpful pest predators. At the same time, pesticides are more likely to drift away from their intended target under hotter conditions and to degrade faster, which will lead in turn to more pesticide use.
Pesticides that volatize — or turn into a gas — in hotter weather are more likely to pollute the surrounding environment and harm public health, exposing farmworkers and agricultural communities to even more hazards.
“It’s a double whammy for the people who we’ve been supporting for a long, long time,” Reeves said.
A Vivacious Cycle
The report authors assembled their findings from peer-reviewed scientific studies, reports from other non-profit organizations, the websites of regulatory agencies and the self-reporting of fossil fuel and pesticide companies. They also completed some of their own calculations to put the data into perspective — such as comparing the energy demand of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer and glyphosate production and vehicle fuel.
The purpose of all this wasn’t simply to outline the problem but to advocate for solutions that PANNA believes will address both the climate crisis and the overuse of pesticides. The major solution the organization advocates is “agroecology.”
“Generally it means working with nature rather than against it,” Sharma explained.
This includes using as few synthetic inputs as possible and listening to the perspectives of those most impacted by agriculture, such as farmworkers and Indigenous or local communities. It also means relying on biodiversity to boost soil and crop health and generate “a vivacious cycle of nutrients and pest prevention,” the study authors wrote.
They further expressed concern that, if pesticides were not included in the climate and agriculture conversation, governments might turn to solutions like no-till or precision agriculture that either still rely on synthetic chemicals or give large agribusiness companies too much control over food production.
In contrast, the study authors called for three major solutions:
- Including pesticide reduction targets in government climate goals: PANNA advised reducing pesticide use by 50 percent by 2030 and by 90 percent by 2050, as well as setting targets to cut pesticide toxicity, phase out highly hazardous pesticides and transition 30 percent of farmed land to agroecology or organic agriculture by 2030.
- Boosting funding for agricultural research and alternative agriculture: The report called on governments to invest in programs that encourage knowledge sharing between farms, increase technical assistance and financial aid to farmers currently practicing or hoping to practice agroecology and procure products from agroecological or organic farms.
- Support the rights of agricultural workers and other frontline communities: The report authors recommended measures including providing a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, protecting their rights to collective bargaining, helping them to access and own land and centering their leadership in crafting pesticide policies.
On the Frontlines in Fresno
One example of a frontline community whose efforts might be aided by the new report is the Central Valley in California. The eight counties of this agricultural hub are where more than 61 percent of the more than 200 million pounds of pesticides used in the state are applied, Executive Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) Nayamin Martinez told EcoWatch. Fresno County, where she lives, is the leader in application.
This has serious health consequences for both farmworkers and local communities — some of whom live 50 to 200 feet from orchards where pesticides are sprayed. This can lead to acute poisonings but also chronic exposure, with locals developing cancers after 30 years of living and working around pesticides that are hard to definitively trace to the chemicals. While incidents in which farmworkers are directly “drifted” — or accidentally inundated with pesticides in the field — are decreasing, they do still occur. In one recent incident in Fresno, almost 40 workers were drifted by mistake.
“We would really want pesticides not being used,” Nayamin said.
The Central Valley is also extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis.
“You name one example and I’ll give you ten ways,” Nayamin said.
Hotter summers and more extreme wildfires make outdoor agricultural work more dangerous, while the ongoing drought is depleting aquifers, leaving communities without access to water and farmworkers without work when water-stressed farmers chose to let some fields lie fallow.
The two problems can also interact.
“Pesticides, as the pesticide report pointed out, are really exacerbating other problems that we have, especially here in the Central Valley,” she said.
One main example is ozone pollution, which is worsened both by pesticide emissions and high heat. However, it has been a struggle for Nayamin and CCEJN to get pesticides included in state-wide air quality and climate regulations. For example, ozone emissions in the Central Valley are currently higher than they should be, yet when reviewing the State Implementation Plan (SIP) for air quality under the Clean Air Act, CCEJN found no mention of pesticides.
It’s gaps like this that Nayamin hopes the report will help them fill going forward.
“I think my only concern is that it didn’t come out last year,” Nayamin said.
That was when she and other advocates were working with the California Air Resources Board on the 2022 Scoping Plan for Achieving Carbon Neutrality.
“We were pushing for the Scoping Plan to include pesticides, because for us it was like, how are you talking about climate change and not including pesticides?” Nayamin asked.
Advocates managed to get targets for the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene (Telone) written into the plan, but in general, Nayamin expressed hopes that future California climate regulations would include more pesticide targets and that the report would help her and other advocates bolster the case for including them.
Beyond pushing for regulations, CCEJN is also in step with the report’s support for agroecology. With other organizations, it has secured funding to launch a demonstration farm in southwest Fresno in two months that will teach agroecological practices to farmworkers and low-income families in the region. Eventually, Nayamin hopes that the center will develop into a cooperative where farmworkers and community members can grow and sell their own produce.
“It’s a way of demonstrating that there’s another way of growing food,” Naymain said.
Another Way: Genuine Faux Farm
Rob Faux, who runs Genuine Faux Farm in northeast Iowa, is living proof of this truth. Faux, who acted as first reader on the report, has been farming “a whopping 15 acres” without pesticides of any kind since 2004. Faux told EcoWatch that his farm “follows agroecological practices,” though he acknowledged that he does not have access to the traditional, inherited knowledge that Indigenous farmers do.
Surrounded by large farms of row crops, Faux said he had been successful with his alternative approach, producing up to 15 tons of food in a single growing season. How does he manage this without pesticides?
“Our biggest tool on this farm is diversity,” Faux said.
In addition to growing as many as 35 crops per season and raising turkeys and chickens, Faux has also encouraged the natural biodiversity of his plot by leaving some areas to grow wild and planting native prairie plants. When Faux first started, he inherited land that had been conventionally used to grow row crops of soybean and corn. During the first five years of a different approach, pests would devour between 70 to 90 percent of his squash plants, forcing him to overplant to have any harvest at all. But, five years into his approach, Faux noticed an improvement.
“As time went by and as we built the ecosystem, the natural predators started moving back in,” Faux said. “And suddenly we weren’t getting these monstrous peaks of the pest. They were there still, and they’re still there today, but they’re in numbers that do not cause us economic harm. So now when I want to plant squash, I actually find that I overproduce more often than not.”
In another example, in around 2015, Faux decided to remove 33 percent of his melon plants and replace them with flowering plants including borage, zinnias and calendulas. The experiment didn’t just create a “beautiful field” full of pollinators, it also yielded 33 percent more melons than previous years. When Faux repeated the experiment the next year, he got the same result. A true diversity win.
Faux has faced many challenges in his nearly 20 years of farming. He noticed the impacts of the climate crisis began to intensify following 2008, with extreme storms, one-in-1,000-year rainfalls, droughts and visits from out-of-range pests.
“One of the things we started saying is we wish we could have a season where we didn’t set some sort of record,” he said.
He has also noticed overall that the area looks less healthy than in his youth.
“Trees don’t look as green, the leaves aren’t as big. It doesn’t look right. It looks like we’re getting sick. The whole landscape feels like it’s getting sick around me,” he said. “And that’s partly climate change. But we need to address the fact that climate change and pesticide use and the farming practices that go with it are a large part of what’s driving all these changes.”
But he has also noticed signs of hope, and not just on his small, alternative farm. One of his neighbors — a conventional roll cropper — chose three years ago to devote 50 acres of their farm to creating pollinator habitat. Since then, Faux has noticed that the number of pollinators has increased in his own farm and wildflowers have begun blooming from neighboring ditches.
This has taught Faux two things, he said. The first is that conventional farmers are open to new ways of doing things. The second is that nature remains extremely powerful and resilient when left to its own devices.
“When we talk about how, ‘Oh, how bad things are,’ we also need to talk about, ‘Oh, how good can things be?” he said.
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