You might have recently seen campaigns about the temporary allowance of a type of bee-killing pesticide called neonicotinoid thiamethoxam. Farms to Feed Us joined a large community of scientific and interest groups to campaign against this decision, which was eventually overturned, not in response to public pressure however, but instead only because of a change in the virus model.
Catherine Chong, a sustainability adviser and co-founder of Farms to Feed Us, has shared with us the wider implications of supporting pesticide-free agriculture to help us understand what’s at play and find out more about how these chemicals impact our seasonal produce, ecosystems, and health.
Do follow Farms to Feed Us and Catherine @so_klim to find out the latest ecological and social concerns and how you can lend your voice and support.
HOW HARMFUL ARE PESTICIDES TO OUR ECOSYSTEMS?
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of pesticides: contact and systemic. Contact pesticides remain on the surface of the treated parts of plants. Systemic pesticides are taken up and transported throughout the plant – the flowers, leaves, roots, stems, pollens, and nectars - meaning they affect a plant’s entire ecosystem. They are chosen as an “effective” insecticide as they attack the central nervous system of insects, leading to paralysis or death. Scientists have found many systemic pesticides not only to have lethal and sub-lethal effects on “pests” but on beneficial insects like bees as well.
Bees have been given particular attention with this regard as they represent a group of beneficial insects that suffer from the ‘spillover’ effects of pesticides. Bees also recover slowly from contact with insecticides and are unable to reproduce rapidly or in great numbers, which makes them more vulnerable to local colony collapse or extinction. Hundreds of billions of pounds worth of annual global food production rely on the free pollinating services provided by bees but they are not the only “free” pollinators: Ten and thousands of species of wild insects like butterflies, flies, wasps, moths, and beetles make up the important pollinating groups that are adversely affected by systemic pesticides.
When systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) were introduced, they were marketed as low toxicity hence low risk to mammals. Yet, a wide range of studies has found that the decline in some aerial, terrestrial and marine biodiversity is linked to the use of systemic pesticides and because systemic pesticides are environmental contaminants they creep into the food chain. When animals consume smaller organisms such as the pollinators that have been exposed to pesticides, the toxic compounds in pesticides tend to accumulate in the bodies of the larger animals over time, this means that chemical pesticides deemed safe to mammals could lead to sublethal and lethal effects in animals and humans.
Not only this, but systemic pesticides can persist in soils for many years and can travel long distances through the air accumulating elsewhere. Migratory pollinators, such as bats and hummingbirds, also take the neurotoxins with them when they migrate hundreds and thousands of miles away. This means that systemic pesticides affect many habitats and living creatures through multiple channels and at locations far away from where they were originally used.
HEALTH PROBLEMS AMONG HORTICULTURAL WORKERS
There has been a wide range of research that looks at the impact of exposure to pesticides on workers across agriculture. Floriculture is largely an industry of intensive culture associated with mono crops and the use of a wide range of pesticides. However, unlike crops that are harvested for consumption, there is a lack of standards on pesticide use for flowers: Studies have revealed that flowers contain a cocktail of pesticides including systemic pesticides such as neonics that are banned for use in agriculture in the UK.
Health issues have been reported all over the world for workers exposed to pesticides, including dermatitis, endocrine disruptive, hepatotoxic, neurologic, hormonal, reproductive implications, neurologic, and more. Notably, as much as 70% of the workers in this industry, globally, are women and the studies investigating the effects of pesticide exposure to women and their children are chilling.
THE BANNING OF SOME SYSTEMIC PESTICIDES IN THE UK
We have stricter regulations on pesticide use in the UK than the US and some other major agriculture countries around the world however, it is still not enough. More than 300 types of highly hazardous pesticides are still in use around the world, and many of these are still in use in the UK.
Regulations on pesticide use have been largely decided at the EU level for the past few decades. From 1 January 2021, the UK is setting up its own pesticides regulatory regime. So far it is assumed that the UK will continue to apply ‘regularity alignment’, which means existing EU standards will be maintained so that we can sell our produce to Europe, however many scientists and campaigners believe that this an opportunity for us to go further than the EU: We need stronger pesticide regulations for food safety and for human, ecology, animal, and plant health and life. There is also a concern that we may regress - deregulate pesticide use in the UK.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: UNSUSTAINABLE FARMING PRACTICES
The large-scale use of systemic pesticides is directly linked to industrial monocultures - growing one type of crop at one time on a specific field on a large scale. The logic is actually pretty simple, when a certain type of insect finds a crop that it particularly likes and there is a lot of it, the insects thrive, meaning that monoculture farmers compensate with pesticides where as a regenerative, diverse system self regulates. We need to move towards a conservational agriculture system and find alternatives to the use of hazardous chemical pesticides.
The fact is that farmers and researchers have found nature-friendly alternatives to most agricultural applications of chemical pesticides. Some of the most promising alternatives include agroecological farming practices that focus on microbiology, in other words nurturing the soil.
Agroecology is a farming approach that attempts to understand and improve the relationships between plants, animals, people, and the wider ecosystems. As a continuous learning cycle, it is a scientific discipline as well as a collaborative social movement.
Our agriculture systems need positive disruption. We need not one, but many, different types of alternative solutions that will fundamentally change not just how we view, pay, and consume seasonal produce but how as a society we organise and regenerate the scarce natural resources we have been taking for granted. This requires many socioeconomic changes pursued by various stakeholders across our agriculture-produce-goods systems — farmers, landowners, scientists, policymakers, investors, wholesalers, retailers, restaurateurs, florists, chefs, cooks, and not least, consumers, to support large-scale transitioning into agroecology.
As a starting point, one could support nature-friendly farming communities by buying produce grown and farmed in agroecological manners and support social and business initiatives that contribute towards the socioeconomic sustainability and regeneration of agroecology.