The dangerous dependence on pesticides

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Wed 12th Jan, 2022

Domestic apple production is impressive. Fruit growers in this country harvest more than one million tons in a good year. That is enough to cover almost 70 percent of domestic demand. This means that the degree of self-sufficiency for the Germans' favorite fruit is higher than for almost any other foodstuff.

But the success story has its downside: Apple cultivation is considered the crop in Germany with the most frequent use of pesticides. In 2020, apple trees in conventional cultivation were treated an average of 28 times, followed by vines with 17 times and hops with 14 times. That's according to the Pesticide Atlas, published Wednesday, which sheds light on the global use of crop protection products. The report is backed by the makers of the Meat Atlas: the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), the Pesticide Action Network Germany and the monthly newspaper Le Monde diplomatique.

Apple growing is also a vivid example of the dilemma facing agriculture. On the one hand, it has to supply sufficient food, while on the other hand protecting biodiversity and nature. And then there are consumers who are used to immaculate produce. Industrial agriculture without pesticides seems almost inconceivable. But toxic sprays destroy not only pests, but also indispensable beneficial insects such as bees and other insects. Traces of pesticides from agriculture can be detected in beer, in honey, on fruit and vegetables, in the grass on playgrounds, and even in urine and the air, among other things. According to the study's authors, this is a problem that forces politicians to take action, not least because efforts to reduce use have so far had little effect.

The alliance of environmentalists has clear demands of the new German government: "The total amount of pesticides must be reduced by 50 percent and particularly hazardous pesticides must be banned," says Katrin Wenz, an agricultural expert at BUND and co-author of the pesticide atlas. In addition, concrete interim targets would have to be defined to monitor the success of a reduction program. "Unfortunately, the coalition agreement is imprecise here and does not set clear targets," Wenz criticizes. She sees Federal Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir and Environment Minister Steffie Lemke, both from the Green Party, as having a responsibility.

Pesticide volume alone is not very informative

According to the Pesticide Atlas, sales of crop protection active ingredients have remained at a relatively constant level in Germany for 25 years. However, according to the Federal Environment Agency, the use of problematic pesticides such as insecticides that are hazardous to bees or herbicides that pollute groundwater actually increased slightly again in 2020, having previously stagnated. Between 27,000 and 35,000 metric tons of pesticide active ingredients in total are sold in this country each year.

However, the relatively constant amount of use in Germany does not mean that the also negative effects on the environment remain constant, according to the authors. "In terms of the toxicity of sprays, a trend toward agents that are very effective even at low doses has been observed for decades," the report says. So sales volume alone is not meaningful, it says.

Globally, however, pesticide use has increased sharply, by around 80 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to the report. According to the report, the amount of pesticides applied annually is around four million tons worldwide - a billion-dollar business for manufacturers. Estimates put pesticide sales at just under $85 billion in 2019. This is expected to rise to more than $130 billion by 2023. The climate crisis is seen as a major reason for this possible increase: for every degree of global warming, crop yields of rice, corn and wheat could fall by ten to 25 percent, according to researchers at Seattle University, for example. Extreme weather conditions, such as drought, put a strain on plants. They are then less resistant to diseases and pests, so more crop protection products have to be used.

This could further increase global pesticide use. This benefits manufacturer in an industry that has changed dramatically through acquisitions and mergers. Four major corporations - Syngenta, Bayer, Corteva and BASF - now cover 70 percent of the pesticide market, according to the report; in 1994, the four largest suppliers controlled just under a third of the market.

European agricultural companies play an important role in global pesticide production. The financial volume of exports from the EU has more than tripled over the past 30 years, according to the report. Highly hazardous substances are also exported, some of which are banned from use in European fields. A reduction in dependence on chemical crop protection - as required by European pesticide legislation - has not yet taken place, criticize the makers of the pesticide atlas. Among other things, they call on the EU Commission to do more to promote organic farming methods that largely manage without pesticides.

Image by Erich Westendarp


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Greg Hanger
2022-01-13 23:46:40

What’s really sad is that the author and most who work with NGO’s have no clue as to the pathogens and insect threats that have omniscient presence in agriculture. Follow their advice and fruits and vegetables would no longer be an affordable component of our diets. Follow their advice and cereals production in the EU would decline by nearly 50%. Follow their advice and the only people who could afford a balanced diet would be their elitist friends. Crop protection has advanced greatly since its early days but yet consumer ignorance on what it takes to provide an affordable and safe food supply has gone in the opposite direction. I support the hard working farmers that are producing food not only for us, but also for their own families.

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