By Dana Drugmand, a freelance journalist specializing in climate change, clean energy, and citizen activism. She holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Law & Policy with a certificate in Climate Law from Vermont Law School. Originally published at DeSmog.
As chemicals designed to kill insects and weeds, fungi and rodents, pesticides are among the most toxic and damaging substances on the planet. Their harmful impacts on human and ecosystem health are generally well understood. What receives far less attention, however, is the climate impact of these agrochemicals. Not only do pesticides directly contribute to the climate crisis, but a changing climate is likely to intensify pressure from agricultural pests and decrease plant resiliency, resulting in greater pesticide usage and therefore further greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report.
This “vicious cycle” of pesticide use fueling climate change, and vice versa, is examined in a report published Tuesday by the advocacy group Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). According to PANNA, the assessment is the first in-depth scientific review of the relationship between pesticides and climate change.
“The fossil fuel industry, pesticides, and industrial agriculture are inextricably linked,” explained Asha Sharma, PANNA organizing co-director and co-author of the report. “Pesticide companies are complicit in the climate crisis, and further the agricultural sector’s dependency on fossil fuels.”
Nearly all synthetic pesticides are derived from fossil fuels, and like other petrochemical products such as plastics and nitrogen fertilizer, they emit greenhouse gasses throughout their manufacturing and use. But while the climate impacts of plastics and fertilizers have garnered more attention in recent years, the climate emissions associated with pesticides have received relatively little consideration or study. “Virtually no studies calculate the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions of pesticide use over the full life cycle of the chemicals,” the report notes. Production emissions, for example, are difficult to quantify due to commercial confidentiality, allowing manufacturers to avoid disclosing complete information on pesticide ingredients.
While precise figures may be lacking, research does indicate that pesticide production is especially energy-intensive, and there are estimates of energy use associated with the production of certain pesticides. These calculations can be used to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from pesticide production. According to the report, insecticide production on average generates between around 15 and 19 kilograms CO2-equivalent per kilogram of pesticide, while herbicide production results in between 18 and 27 kilograms of CO2-equivalent per kilogram on average — more than double the amount of emissions (in kilograms of CO2) from burning one gallon of auto gasoline. In terms of energy usage, manufacturing one kilogram of pesticide requires an average of 10 times more energy than producing one kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer, which is made from natural gas. Fossil fuels are therefore integral to the production of pesticides, both as an energy source and as chemical feedstock. Through their chemical divisions, major fossil fuel companies produce pesticides or their chemical precursors.
Pesticides further contribute to climate emissions once they are applied to agricultural fields. Many pesticides release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a precursor to ground-level ozone that acts as a powerful greenhouse gas. In addition, they disrupt soil microbes, which play a critical role in the ability of soils to sequester carbon. By degrading soil health, agrochemicals limit the capacity of soils to store carbon. Furthermore, a form of gaseous pesticides called fumigants may generate emissions directly, as some like sulfuryl fluoride are themselves greenhouse gases, or indirectly by stimulating soils’ production of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Pesticides therefore release climate-warming emissions across their life cycle, but research indicates that climate change itself is likely to lead to further increases in pesticide use. As climate change intensifies, rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are expected to make crops more vulnerable to pests as these plants lose their ability to withstand stressors. Higher temperatures are likely to boost insect development, exacerbating pressure from pests such as corn borers. Farmers also can expect worsening wars with weeds because these unwanted crop competitors tend to be more adaptable to changing climate conditions, giving weeds a leg up under a less stable climate.
The report calls for putting an end to this noxious nexus between pesticides and climate change by shifting farming away from the chemical-intensive industrial model and towards agroecology. This latter approach eliminates chemical and corporate dependency and integrates ecological principles into food production.
“Agroecological farming is also more resilient to climate change effects,” the report notes. Its key recommendations include increasing technical assistance and direct incentives for farmers to adopt agroecological practices, and setting pesticide use reduction targets within climate policy.
Avoiding False Solutions
However, according to the PANNA report, current climate mitigation discussions and policies tend to ignore the role of pesticides — a lynchpin of chemical-dependent industrial agriculture — and overlook alternative farming models like agroecology that minimize the ecological and climate damages of industrial agriculture. Many of the proposed solutions to agriculture’s climate footprint instead consist of technological or efficiency improvements that maintain dependency on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These purported solutions, promoted by big agribusiness interests like the pesticide industry, fail to confront the underlying system of chemical-intensive farming.
As DeSmog previously reported, the pesticide industry is now marketing itself as climate-friendly and pushing high-tech innovations such as “precision agriculture,” which the report calls a false solution because it “maintains a system dependent upon chemical and energy-intensive technologies and materials, while diverting attention from and investment in more effective climate-friendly strategies in agriculture.”
Promoting tech-based fixes that preserve business interests is the same strategy the fossil fuel industry has used, campaigners say.
“Our new report reveals how oil and gas companies and pesticide manufacturers have followed a similar playbook — strategically promoting flawed solutions to the climate crisis, like carbon capture and storage and new digital agriculture tools, which in reality offer minimal climate benefits,” PANNA’s Sharma said in a statement. “Corporations tout these novel technologies to protect their reputation, while they continue to profit from fossil fuels. We need deeper, transformative approaches to actually solve the root problems of our broken food system.”
And as with the fossil fuel industry, lower-income and communities of color tend to bear the brunt of negative impacts, such as health impairments due to pesticide use and production. Moreover, climate effects like high temperatures can exacerbate the health risks from pesticide exposure. This is especially concerning for farmworkers, who tend to be immigrants or from minority populations, and who directly handle the chemicals and often work under sizzling temperatures.
“The compounded effects of climate change and pesticide use primarily fall on the shoulders of people of color — a climate and racial injustice,” the report states.
Sharma told DeSmog that more work is needed to raise awareness of the inextricable links between pesticides and fossil fuels, and to build grassroots power to counter the enormous influence of the $200 billion agrochemical industry. As DeSmog has previously reported, the industry plays a substantial role in working to block the transition to more sustainable farming models, with heavy lobbying that threatens policy efforts to reduce pesticide use.
“The only way to combat industry’s political influence given the amount of resources at these companies’ disposal is through collective movements that center the people most impacted by the health effects of industrial agriculture and climate change,” Sharma said. “These broader movements that bring together advocates across the food system demonstrate the public’s overwhelming support for more sustainable and equitable farming systems to policymakers while also working to shift systems of power in the food system, which is ultimately what’s needed if we are to make any real progress.”
> The man from the poor country, looking at affluence and being told it is due to improved varieties throws out a workable if low-yield system in exchange for an incomplete part of an agricultural system that cannot even operate without the full support of the industrial fossil-fuel inputs and management.
[HT Odum, 1971]
Of course now, 50 years after this Odum quote, ” poor country ” persons are seeing bad side effects and outcomes of the factory-in-the-fields food system and are looking for ways out, even going so far as to give a second and third look at their own inherited legacy systems.
Vandana Shiva’s recent founding of Navdanya Farms in India is an example of this kind of movement.
An ongoing movement to repair and revive the ancient Waru Waru earthworks/ canalworks around Lake Titicacac to revive the ancient Waru Waru agriculture is another such movement under way.
Does “Western Civilization” itself offer any such old or ancient legacy systems to turn back to and mine for real-time actionizable knowledge? Maybe yes. After all, ” Western Civilization” is more ancient than many current participants care to acknowledge, and has many roots and many branches. The Amish, for example, have been preserving quite a bit of the old German ” multi-year cycle-agriculture” concepts. And those themselves are pretty recent as far as Western Civilization goes, if we admit to the truth of Western Civilization’s multiple ancient roots and branches. There was a “West” even before there was a “Christianity”.
Reading this post made me think of the Terry Pratchett quote: “Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
I believe that quote best characterizes u.s. altruism.
however long, or short, that may be…
yet another connection showing integrated systems – yet we keep considering only single pieces of the puzzle. this must only be my design, as so many comments speak to unwanted unintended (or perhaps intended) consequences of a more narrow view.
When we poison or ruin our air and water and ability to nourish ourselves, what then?
Case in point. If we got behind a revolution in agriculture with research and funding we could improve lives and strengthen the grass roots economy which in turn serves as bedrock for new industrial economies. For an example of this look at the Great Depression. Most of the population was becoming urbanized which coincided with the entire economy getting out of whack in the 20s. A little too exuberant about big industrialization. With enough infrastructure and good social distribution policies we could create widespread small farming and even promote efficient gardening, even in inner cities, etc. The rationale behind this is solid because many small systems are more resilient and manageable that big industrial enterprises. Any organic system is almost by definition small and self contained. No?
https://stephenskolnick.substack.com/p/thousand-secret-ways-ii Nice article on links between glyphosate and all sorts o chronic health problems. Some correlation =/= causation there but worth a read
I believe the reliance on pesticides and the other features of Big Ag agriculture — reliance on farming machinery, and fertilizers was a deliberate effort to create a larger demand for pesticides, farming machinery, and fertilizers. The long term dependence on these items along with their impacts locking in that dependence are fully intended consequences. The additional impacts of climate change in worsening wars with weeds and insects is an unanticipated but hardly unwelcome follow-on impact.
Looking on the bright side — the deleterious effects of industrial farming may not be a problem in a few decades as the cost of petroleum products increase. The real unintended consequences will have their impacts during the transition from Big Ag agriculture back to some new form of agriculture. I believe the consolidation of agriculture through Big Ag activities, especially the consolidation of land holdings, assure that the transition to a new form of agriculture will be problematic, perhaps violent, and painful. The markets for petroleum have not proven smooth and well-behaved and I suspect neither will be their impacts on agriculture.
Looking at matters from a skew direction — I fear the difficulties of transition from Big Ag to sustainable Ag will be dwarfed by the difficulties of transition from Holocene climate to the Anthropocene climate which the near future promises. Buckle your seatbelt and add a notch before the innermost notch on your belt. Past foraging societies could rely on a much larger diversity of plants and animals for their sustenance than than our children may find growing in the growing wilds around them. To add to the fun, the rate that the climate is changing outpaces the ability of many species to [survive] — make a smooth transition to their ever changing new habitats.
This post is disturbing to me for its naivete, whether intended or — as I suspect –unintended. I grow sad contemplating what I perceive as the state of the opposition to our present Elite. Humankind will wander into the never-never-land of post petroleum, post fossil fuels, with no plan ‘B’ and no plan for a transition to something we can all live with — I think that is essentially what sustainable means. The transition I anticipate at this point will be needlessly catastrophic. Neoliberal Capitalism has no category or place-holder for the decimations of the decimated I foresee in the Dark New Age for Humankind.
Since agroecology was referrenced in this post, here is a series of images related to “agroecology”. Each one has its own URL. This may offer some interesting url diving on the topic of agroecology.