Pesticide-intensive agriculture has become the default for how food is grown in the United States. Did you know agriculture uses more than one billion pounds (1,000,000,000 lb) of conventional pesticides in the US each year? Failures abound. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) biomonitoring has found pesticide residues in the bodies of 90% of Americans studied. Lots of scientific research connects pesticide exposures to many harmful human health effects, including cancer, birth and developmental defects, liver and kidney disease, and obesity.
We need to provide every consumer with food that doesn’t contain pesticide residues. We should protect agricultural workers and communities of color from exposure to agricultural pesticides. Let’s stand up against pesticide-intensive agriculture, shall we?
In the most recent year of data, Americans spent almost $9 billion on pesticides for agricultural use. Benchmarks outlined in a new report from As You Sow, titled “Pesticides in the Pantry: Transparency & Risk in Food Supply Chains,” identify the degree to which major food manufacturers have adopted practices to measure and mitigate risks related to the use of synthetic pesticides in agricultural supply chains.
The following 17 companies are included in the review: ADM, B&G Foods Inc., Campbell Soup Company, Cargill, Conagra Brands Inc., Danone SA, Del Monte Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., The Kellogg Company, The Kraft Heinz Company, Lamb Weston Holdings Inc., Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International Inc., Nestlé, PepsiCo Inc., Post Holdings, Inc., and The J M Smucker Company.
Each company was given the opportunity to review the information compiled in the report and to provide additional information or clarification.
Overall, food manufacturers’ assessment and mitigation of pesticide risk in their agricultural supply chains is improving but only slightly. General Mills scored the highest of all companies surveyed for a second time, earning 16 out of 27 possible points. The company’s approach to shifting key supply chains away from pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture and toward regenerative agriculture practices has become a model for other food manufacturers. The company’s pesticide risk reduction strategy is particularly notable for the following components:
- General Mills clearly outlines its strategies for pesticide reduction.
- Its regenerative agriculture initiative is robust, growing, and thoroughly outlined in public disclosure.
- The initiative includes data collection to measure progress, including data collection on pesticide use.
- The company is demonstrating a commitment to advancing sustainable agriculture solutions by increasing organic agriculture acreage and investing in soil health research.
What’s the Problem with Agricultural Pesticides?
This widespread use of agricultural pesticides causes mass exposure and loss. Pesticides are incredibly effective at killing unwanted species of plants and insects, but they frequently harm myriad other forms of life in their path. Widespread pesticide use seriously threatens the health of fish and aquatic life, insects, and mammals, including many endangered species. Conclusive evidence demonstrates that pesticides are a primary contributor to the rapid decline in pollinator species, which are essential to agricultural production.
The sum of these impacts is reduced biodiversity, which is rapidly becoming a serious global threat. The World Economic Forum names biodiversity loss as a top global economic threat in 2021, based on both likelihood and harmful impact.
- 100% of US streams have detectable levels of pesticides, and 56% exceed at least one aquatic-life benchmark.
- US agriculture is 48 x more toxic to insects than 25 years ago.
- 41% of insect species face extinction.
Due to the wide use of so many pesticides, science has hardly begun to understand the health implications of combined exposures, including interactions between chemicals and long-term impacts of small dose exposures over the course of a lifetime.
- Farm workers face the most acute exposures when applying pesticides. Due to regular exposure to pesticides and acute poisonings, farm workers face the most chemical-related illnesses of any occupation in the US and suffer between 10,000 and 20,000 pesticide poisonings per year.
- Communities near farms can also be exposed due to pesticide drift. In particular, those living, working, or attending school near larger farms using elevated spraying equipment or crop-dusting planes that apply chemicals to crops and fields face exposure.
- Children are especially vulnerable to these airborne pesticides, given that their young bodies are still growing and developing.
- Consumers imbibe pesticide residues variously through exposure from drinking water, soil, rainwater, and a wide range of food products — it’s almost unavoidable.
- Food products contain pesticide residues can be found across the supermarket; they include many produce items from spinach to cherries, cereal and oatmeal, grains, beans, and even flours and cooking oils.
What are the Alternatives to Pesticide-Intensive Agriculture?
Certified organic farming is the most well-known and well-established system for growing food without the use of synthetic pesticides. In organic practices, natural substances are permitted while synthetic substances are prohibited (including pesticides) in most instances. Instead of relying on synthetic chemicals, organic farmers rely primarily on ecological practices such as rotating crops, increasing crop diversity, fostering natural predators of pests, and building soil health to improve plant immunity to control pests naturally. Organic farms protect farmworkers and consumers from the health harms of pesticides and support pollinator health. Research has shown that these goals can be met without sacrificing productivity and profitability.
Regenerative agriculture seeks not only to avoid or reduce the environmental and social harms of conventional farming, but also to reverse them by replenishing soil health, improving biodiversity, and increasing farmer profitability. Meaningful regenerative farming systems are built on a holistic set of principles, which include considering and respecting natural ecosystems, restoring biodiversity above and below ground, improving soil health, enhancing the wellness and financial stability of farmers and farm communities, and improving soil capacity for carbon storage. Common practices in regenerative systems include cover cropping, minimizing or avoiding tilling of the soil, integrating livestock, and crop diversification. Regenerative systems reduce topsoil loss and degradation and can improve soil’s ability to pull carbon from the air into the soil, reversing some of agriculture’s contribution to climate change.
Jose Ramirez, a research entomologist at ARS’s Crop Bioprotection Research facility in Peoria, IL, says that “the persistence of chemical-pesticide toxicity in the environment, their effects on non-target organisms, including humans, and the increase in insecticide resistance demands the need for alternative methods of control that are pest specific, non-harmful to humans, and do not develop resistance.” Ramirez calls for microbial pesticides and parasitic insects, which offer an environmentally-friendly alternative with the “potential to alleviate huge economic losses to US agriculture and benefit public health.” Through such biological control, pests’ natural enemies, which can be other insects, bacteria, virus, nematodes, or fungi, manage the pest population.
Biopesticides are living things or compounds derived from living things that deter pests, and many of these pest deterrents are naturally found in the environment. Biopesticides can be microbial organisms such as bacteria and fungi. A Food Technology article describes how plant-derived substances such as corn gluten, black pepper, and garlic compounds can be used as biopesticides to control insects. Other types of biopesticides are naturally occurring insect hormones—which can repel bugs, disrupt their mating habits, or stunt their growth—and synthetic substances that have the same molecular formulas and use the same modes of action as their natural counterparts. Genetically modified plants are also considered forms of biopesticides because they have been engineered with pest-deterring genes and proteins from natural sources.
To get to the point where such alternatives to pesticide-intensive agriculture become adopted on mass, two important advocacy actions need to happen:
- Meaningful corporate sustainability commitments can clearly and fully define expectations and how progress toward pesticide-free agriculture is evaluated and measured.
- Investors can encourage corporations to invest in robust strategies to reduce the use of chemical pesticides in agricultural supply chains, thereby reducing social and environmental risk.
Infographic provided by As You Sow
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