The Huge Costs of Pesticide Use

by EUU Social Action Committee member Peter Jarrett, UUFP (Paris)

Recently I have been reading a number of media articles on pesticide use. I had already thought of these chemical agents as detrimental to human health as well as to the natural environment through their unintended impact on animal and plant species that happened to get in the way.

First, some facts. Pesticides have been around since the 1930s. Today, 2.7 million tonnes are used worldwide annually, about 57% more than three decades ago, in the production of about a third of the global agricultural output. And with Earth’s population still on the rise, most experts predict that growth will continue.

So what are the suspected or proven effects of pesticide exposure? The impact on honeybee populations through their loss of smell have been much discussed in recent years, and apparently the same process may be at work in salmon. Among us humans it is farm workers who suffer the most. One estimate is that 44% of them (385 million) per year suffer a case of acute poisoning  whose short-term symptoms range from headaches and nausea to skin irritations to seizures and respiratory problems like hypoventilation. But those nearby also suffer from “spray drift”. A well-known example can be found in the vision disorders suffered by farmers’ wives in Japan’s Saku region in the 1960s. In recent years evidence is accumulating that there is also an impact on our sense of smell.

But the really serious epidemiological research has been focusing on the possible links to neurodegenerative diseases, ADHD and Parkinson’s in particular, and even autism among children. More generally, children seem to be especially sensitive to pesticide poisoning, perhaps because they have a faster metabolism and ingest more food and liquids per pound of body weight or because, being smaller, they are closer to the ground. Close to home was the 2014 case of 23 Bordeaux-region school children who became ill from spraying at a nearby vineyard. But other cases – sometimes fatal – have occurred in India, Hawaii and New Zealand.

What are the implications for us ordinary consumers? It seems that we Europeans are less at risk than those residing in the United States. In 2022, the US Environmental Working Group found that over 70% of non-organic fresh produce contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides, while a 2020 European Food Safety Authority report found that 29.7% of produce contained one or more residues equal to or below permitted limits, while 1.7% exceeded the legal limit. Washing produce and cooking (preferably by boiling) it can greatly reduce the residues, though the latter can also lower nutritional content. Buying organic vegetables should avoid the problem entirely.

The European Commission is committed to halving pesticide use by 2030, but environmental campaigners want a tougher target cut of 80%. One award-winning UK farmer who practices regenerative agriculture has pointed out that we must heal the planet because there is no planet B.