Amid Trump's Deregulatory Bonanza, UN Report Details 'Catastrophic' Impact of Pesticides
Study accuses agro-chemical industry of ignoring scientific studies on toxic impact while pushing 'myth' that pesticides are aiding world hunger
Taking the global pesticide industry to task for its "systematic denial of harms" while, at the same time, perpetuating the "myth" of aiding global hunger, a United Nations food expert has put forth a new report on the "catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health, and society as a whole."
The report (pdf), which will be presented to the UN's human rights council on Wednesday, comes amid a widescale rollback of regulations in the United States, which could include important constraints on a host of toxic pesticides.
Speaking with the Guardian on Tuesday, UN special rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver, who led the study, emphasized the collusion between governments and multinational chemical companies that has led to the lax regulation of pesticides.
"The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important," Elver said. "If you want to deal with pesticides, you have to deal with the companies—that is why [we use] these harsh words."
"Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger."
—Hilal Elver, United Nations
Indeed, the study, co-authored by Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on toxics, does not hold back. The report accuses major pesticide manufacturers of ignoring scientific studies on the dangerous impacts of the chemicals while also employing "aggressive, unethical marketing tactics" to push the idea that pesticides are necessary to feed a growing population.
It states: "While scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fueled by the pesticide and agro-industry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics."
And despite links to "cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders, and sterility," the study notes that "the industry frequently uses the term 'intentional misuse' to shift the blame on to the user for the avoidable impacts of hazardous pesticides."
Elver further debunked the "myth" that pesticides are necessary. "Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger," she told the Guardian. "According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are able to feed 9 billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality, and distribution."
And pointing to the fact that most pesticides are used on commodity crops, she added: "The corporations are not dealing with world hunger, they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales."
As for the study's recommendations—that nations "transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production," such as agroecology, and, in the near term, that governments use the "precautionary principle" to pass stronger regulations on chemicals—it remains to be seen whether those ideas will pass muster in the current political climate.
In the United States, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, science has been largely overruled by political rhetoric.
Currently, there are some unsettling indications that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led by Administrator Scott Pruitt, a known foe of environmental and public health protections, will work to undo existing and pending pesticide regulations.
Danya Hakeem, program director for the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, and Michael Shank, sustainable development professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, wrote last month that "[o]ne clear indication that the EPA could increase chemical use is that the EPA transition team was led by Myron Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose known sponsors included Monsanto and Dow Chemical. It's clear that this will be a pro-chemical EPA."
Further, while serving as Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt had a record of going to bat for Big Ag interests, including vocally supporting a failed "Right to Farm" measure, which stipulated that "no law can interfere" with the right to make use of agricultural technology, livestock procedures, or ranching practices.
Oklahoma, where Pruitt served as state senator until being elected AG in 2010, led the nation in pesticide-related illnesses and deaths from 2000-2010, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And as Civil Eats' Elizabeth Grossman recently pointed out, there are some major pesticide decisions in the pipeline.
In the final days of the Obama administration, Grossman noted, the EPA "issued a flurry of reports on some of the country's most widely used pesticides," a number of which are currently under review by Pruitt's EPA, including "atrazine, chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, malathion, and the insecticides known as neonicotinoids."
"Decisions made on the basis of these environmental and health assessments will likely determine the level of pesticide residue allowed on the food we eat," Grossman wrote. "They will affect children’s neurological health and development, particularly in agricultural communities. They will determine how farmworkers are protected from pesticide exposures. And they will affect the fate of threatened and endangered species across the country."
"So," she concluded, "the stakes are high."