The United States uses over a billion pounds of pesticides each year, many that contain chemicals banned in other countries. These toxic chemicals have major impacts on both people and the planet. US regulation has fallen behind other major agricultural producers to side with the agrochemical industry at the risk of our health.
Brazil, China, the European Union, and the United States are the world’s four largest agricultural producers, growing over half of the world’s food; they’re also the biggest pesticide users. Of these four, US regulation is lagging the most, still allowing 85 pesticides that are banned in at least one of these other nations.
Impact on People and Planet
Regulation isn’t improving. Over the past ten years, the US has even increased the use of some of these pesticides banned in other countries. We’ve seen an increase in impacts on human and environmental health as well.
Many pesticides are linked to acute poisonings. These chemicals are used to prevent certain pests—weeds, insects, fungi, and bacteria—but they also affect humans and non-target species like bees. Some of these pesticides contain known neurotoxins with over 2,000 reported health incidents annually—and many cases go unreported due to farm workers’ worries of retaliation and language barriers. Antibiotics are also used in agriculture as pesticides, contributing to antibiotic resistance that impacts over two million people annually, with 23,000 cases of death each year.
Maybe you’ve seen the news around the controversial pesticide RoundUp? There are currently over ten thousand cases against this Bayer/Monsanto product, which contains glyphosate. The World Health Organization has deemed glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. It’s also listed under California’s proposition 65 as a chemical known to cause cancer. It’s the most commonly used pesticide in the US and the world. And, while the lawsuits largely involve those using the chemical in agriculture and landscaping, residues are also found on foods and at alarming rates in honey. Yet US regulating agencies refuse to step in.
Farms and their surrounding ecosystems are negatively impacted by pesticide drift and runoff. Deep in the soils, pesticides kill the life needed to grow healthy foods, leading to soil degradation that has some scientists saying we have less than 60 years of farming left. High in the air, pesticide use and production contribute to climate change and kill pollinators. Streams become polluted, and diversity is lost. These chemicals leave a lasting impression on all aspects of the natural environment.
The State of US Regulation
Pesticides in the US are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is closely linked with the very industry it’s meant to oversee. On top of that, regulation can vary widely depending on the current administration. When regulating the chemicals in agricultural pesticides, the agency determines risk using a cost-benefit analyses, attempting to put prices on human and environmental health in order to measure the risks worth taking, an analysis fraught with issues and influence.
In the US, bans on these chemicals are extremely rare. Instead, the EPA relies heavily on industry-initiated, voluntary cancellation of pesticides, making this a business decision that keeps the most profitable chemicals on the shelf, regardless of their toxicity. Voluntary cancellation does not happen often either, but when it does, companies are given eight years to phase chemicals out, leaving many more opportunities for harm.
The US still has access to some of the most harmful pesticides because they didn’t sign the Rotterdam Convention, which allows countries to block trade of these toxic chemicals and effectively ban them from their country. The US is only one of six countries in the world who did not sign this treaty, essentially keeping our markets and fields open to harmful pesticides. Some states—including California, New York, and Washington—have adopted their own protective regulations that are more stringent than those at the federal level.
And, while the EPA is mandated to regulate the amount of pesticides found on food once it gets to consumers, residues almost always remain. For example, research from the EPA shows that kale—once the posterchild for healthy eating—can have up to 30 pesticides found on it in the US market.
Putting People and Planet First
Ten percent of the US’s pesticide use contains chemicals banned or unapproved in all three of the other top agricultural producers. That’s a sign that our regulatory agency isn’t putting people and planet first. It doesn’t have to be like that.
The EPA, agrochemical companies, and some producers will claim that these chemicals are necessary to feed a growing world. But, the European Union can be looked to as an example that toxic pesticides aren’t necessary to be a successful agricultural producer. Despite their limited arable land and some of the world’s tightest pesticide regulations, their agricultural exports are worth more than China, Brazil, and the US combined. More people- and planet-centric agriculture is not only possible but profitable.
This can be done in the US as well, and some Soil SuperHeroes are already using regenerative agricultural practices that reduce the need for chemical pest management. But, the reality is that US is currently a laggard in this field, allowing widespread hazardous use of chemicals that other agricultural nations have deemed unsafe.