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The use of agricultural pesticides is widespread. Countries all around the world utilise hundreds of different chemicals in their pest management plans and while pesticide use is sometimes necessary, especially in the case of large insect outbreaks like locusts, the effects on human health and safety have long been debated. Research is increasingly showing that many pesticides cause a wide array of health issues, including cancer and birth defects.

Regulation plays a key role in the issue of pesticide safety. The four largest agricultural producers are the United States, the European Union, Brazil and China. Each of these countries holds different standards of pesticide safety protocol and adheres to various regulations.

The US has some of the most lax restrictions in terms of pesticide safety regulations; in fact, several of the pesticides used in the US are banned in the EU. In Brazil, pesticide regulation is primarily managed by the federal government, making it difficult to affect change in response to safety concerns. The current administration in Brazil, under President Bolsonaro, has approved thousands of pesticides that are currently banned in other countries.

While there may certainly be a positive correlation between higher pesticide usage and agricultural exports, strict pesticide regulations do not equate to lower food exports. The EU, for example, which exports more agricultural products than China, Brazil and the US combined, has the most stringent pesticide laws.

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Researchers are just beginning to study the long-term effects of pesticide use. The climate crisis plays a significant role in the increased risk of pest pressure, especially in areas experiencing substantial temperature changes and shifts in weather patterns. Studies show that climate change is exacerbating pest occurrence in some regions, such as ticks in the northeast US due to milder winters and mosquito-borne disease in the southern hemisphere. The current crisis of desert locust swarms throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East are also theorised to be due in part to recent record levels of rainfall.

More pests is only one symptom of a changing climate that’s making many crops around the world vulnerable to disease. Increased pest pressure may cause crop failure, but pesticides are not necessarily the solution. For example, spraying pesticides to kill “bad” pests may be a short-term solution, but it also reduces the ecosystem’s capacity to be resilient to future threats of disease, by harming soil organisms, impacting on water quality and eradicating beneficial insects. 

Pesticide Use and the Climate Crisis

Pesticide use in agriculture has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Pesticides were invented in the 1930s and were used widely after World War II. Many synthetic chemicals, such as DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), were invented as weapons to mitigate insect-borne diseases during times of war, such as malaria. The discovery of the ill-effects of these chemicals on insects instigated deeper investigations into how insecticides could be applied in agriculture. DDT was first used in agricultural applications in 1945. 

The role of agricultural pesticides in exacerbating the climate crisis is controversial. Many growing practices that require the regular use of pesticides are likely to be ecologically detrimental since they require removing valuable nutrients from the soil for crops to thrive.  Synthetic chemicals remain in the environment, which can negatively impact the environment even after their use is banned. Some pesticides have shorter lifespans, but there is still ongoing research into how they impact the mycorrhizae within the soil, which keep soil healthy. 

The climate crisis has a two-fold effect on how farmers respond to pesticides. On one hand, increased severe weather and pest pressure push farmers to “control” conditions more stringently. On the other hand, many farmers are realising that pesticides have a negative effect on the resiliency of an ecosystem to respond to unprecedented conditions. For example, pesticide use may increase yield for a few years despite high temperatures or drought, but they also may cause irreparable damage to soil nutrients, beneficial insects, and irrigation sources. 

That said, the growing issue of climate change may lead to positive adjustments within the agricultural realm. For example, many farmers around the world are learning the impact of pesticides on their health, community and the environment. As more options become available, they seek out sustainable alternatives to synthetic chemicals.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural communities worldwide are feeling the vulnerability of food insecurity, lack of access to necessary supplies and changes in the global economy. Trade regulations and travel restrictions are impacting the import and export of pesticides. Timeline delays mean that farmers are not able to access chemicals when they need them. A lack of labour is also making it more difficult to spray at the correct time, forcing farmers to look for alternative methods.

Significant delays in the global pesticide market are inspiring many farmers to consider natural alternatives to control pests, such as beneficial insects. Additionally, with the global economy temporarily slowed down, many farmers are looking for localised crop technology to incorporate into their integrated pest management plans. Many farmers are familiarising themselves with more regional solutions that take into account local climate, soil type and other considerations that can increase yields. For example, more farmers are using cover crops and intercropping to cut down on weeds, reduce pest pressure and save water.

 Pesticides and Genetically Modified Seeds

Safety concerns regarding pesticide use extend far beyond spraying crop fields. Many seeds are now genetically modified to withstand potent chemicals, neutralizing  pesticide efficacy. RoundUp Ready corn, engineered by Monsanto, is specifically designed to be resistant to chemical sprays. Crops like soy, corn and rapeseed are the most common genetically modified crops on the market, and there is growing controversy over their safety.

The effects of genetically modified seeds on human health are still widely unknown, but the lack of regulation on their distribution raises concerns from environmentalists worldwide. In Chile, agricultural communities and environmentalists have come together to protect the expansion of a new seed production factory owned by Bayer-Monsanto. Monsanto has seen its fair share of criticism. Bayer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, purchased Monsanto, one of the largest agricultural companies in the world, in a $66 billion merger that was finalized in 2018.

Monsanto has a long history of accusations against their purported “safe” pesticides and production of genetically modified seeds. The corporation is integral to global agriculture today, as the largest producer of pesticides and the inventor of genetically modified seeds. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against them, claiming that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling pesticide, RoundUp, causes cancer. The latest lawsuit was settled in 2020, with Bayer-Monsanto settling to pay over $10 billion, only two years after the corporation paid $289 million to a school groundskeeper who got cancer after regularly spraying RoundUp on school grounds.

In addition to pesticide health concerns, there is also growing concern over the widespread use of genetically modified crops in Brazil, as there is little to no regulation of their standards in comparison to many other countries. Many small farmers who save their own seeds say that genetically modified crops are cross-pollinating and tainting their seed genetics. Because of the lack of protection for non-GM crops, many farmers fear that modified genes in corn and soy, specifically, can breed with heirloom varieties, ruining their own genetics. Monsanto controls the majority of the GMO market, and has set restrictive measures for farmers who have voiced concern over seed breeding.

Chile is the largest exporter of seeds in the southern hemisphere, and the distribution of genetically modified seeds threatens the sovereignty of regional farmers who have cultivated specific genetics for decades. The use of pesticides contributes to the contamination of local seeds, whose genetics are not protected.

Safety Use of Pesticides in Agriculture

Pesticide safety continues to be an issue around the world, especially as more companies incorporate genetically modified crops into their growing plans. The four largest agricultural exporters, China, the EU, Brazil and the United States, are responsible for the vast majority of agricultural pesticides.

With this responsibility comes an opportunity to improve regulations. When it comes to the United States, regulations are lax because of the high level of dependence of American farmers on genetically modified seeds and pesticides. The US agricultural exports are mostly non-human consumptive products, such as soy fodder for livestock or corn for ethanol production.

In the face of the climate crisis, finding sustainable alternatives to heavy pesticide use is vital. Research confirms that pesticides are dangerous for the environment and human health, but few safety regulations are in place mostly due to a lack of consumer awareness and lack of commitment from governments to change the status quo. The levels of pesticides in food are significant, but no labeling is necessary when consuming food items that are genetically modified or heavily sprayed with chemicals, depending on your country’s allowable pesticide residue regulations.

As concerns over carcinogenic chemicals and unregulated seed engineering grow among consumers, increasing awareness of potential health issues and consumer demand for stricter regulations is the only way to potentially change the future of pesticides in farming.

Imagine starting out the year having to pay your property taxes, your car taxes or any other taxes. Imagine getting to the supermarket and receiving a 40% discount on shampoo and 30% on tomato sauce. Imagine being able to take out a bank loan with interest well below that of the market. This is more or less what companies that manufacture and sell pesticides operate in Brazil, protected by a package of benefits that, counting just tax exemptions and reductions, add up to nearly R$10 billion (US$ 2.2 billion) every year, according to an unprecedented study carried out by ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Collective Health, executed by researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz foundation and the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro.

The amount that the Brazilian government fails to collect because of tax exemptions on pesticides is nearly four times as much as the Ministry of the Environment’s total budget this year (R$2.7 billion, or US$ 600 milllion) and more than double what the nation’s national health system [SUS] spent to treat cancer patients in 2017 (R$4.7 billion, or US$ 1 billion).

“Our study clearly showed that it’s time for society to begin to reflect on subsidies for pesticides. First, because we are in the middle of a fiscal crisis in which many sectors are re-evaluating subsidies. But mostly because of the high amount the State is unable to levy,” affirms study coauthor, Wagner Soares, economist and graduate level professor in the Sustainable Development Practices program at UFRRJ.

The “pesticide grant” even includes public funding in the millions for transnational giants in the sector. The study carried out by Repórter Brasil and Agência Pública shows that over the last 14 years the BNDES (Brazilian National Development Bank) granted loans of R$ 358.3 million (US$ 80 million) to companies in the sector (interest was also subsidized by the government). They also found that FINEP (the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Funding Authority for Studies and Projects) transferred R$ 390 million (US$ 86 million) to large pesticide manufacturers for research and development.

The investments and maintenance of the exemptions contradict promises made by Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes that fiscal incentives would be reviewed  in order to reduce the deficit on government balance sheets. During the 2018 presidential campaign (when President Jair Bolsonaro was elected), Guedes proposed up to 20% cuts in exemptions. The proposed scenarios include reintroducing taxation on food given out in the cesta básica [basket of basics] federal food distribution program. When asked if it intends to review the tax waivers, the Ministry of the Economy did not respond.

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Brazil pesticides
A worker spraying pesticides on crops (Source: Pixabay).

Supreme Court Queries

The exemptions and other benefits granted the pesticides sector are a point of question among those who keep a watch on the Brazilian public budget. “It is as if you lived in a condominium and your neighbor didn’t have to pay the condominium fees. And that they got the pool dirty, and the shared gym space, generating costs for everyone else. These benefits give large agribusiness companies a break while throwing the cost back on society,” explains Marcelo Novaes, São Paulo State public defender, who has investigated the issue for years.

The fiscal waivers are upheld by laws implemented decades ago that consider pesticides as fundamental for Brazil’s development and that for this reason, need stimulus—as is provided for the cesta básica [basket of basics] federal food distribution program.

But this scenario of benefits for pesticide manufacturers could change starting February 19, when the Federal Supreme Court (STF) decides on a Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (ADI 5553) questioning the logic of considering pesticides fundamental for the nation’s development. The Action compares pesticides with products like cigarettes, considered harmful to health and which generate costs that are paid by the entire population—and for which reason are subject to extra taxes instead of tax breaks.

The comparison with cigarettes—where up to 80% of the price is composed of taxes—is precise according to Professor Andrei Cechin from the Economics department at the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). “Cigars are bad for those who smoke them, and smokers will rely on SUS [public health system] to treat them for resulting illnesses. This cost comes back on society, because the population pays for SUS. So high taxes on cigarettes are justifiable,” explains the professor.

The same logic holds for pesticides, says Cechin, because the costs of treatments for contamination cases are also paid by SUS, justifying extra taxation for the sector: “But instead, we give them exemptions and even foment farming with pesticides.” The Ministry of the Economy has already endorsed extra taxation for cigarettes and alcohol, called “the sin tax”. However, no such word has come out about pesticides.

In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office emitted a statement about the Direct Action of Unconstitutionality in which then-Attorney General Raquel Dodge defends the unconstitutionality of granting tax benefits and exemptions for pesticides, as the “international constitutional order shows concern with the use of agrochemicals, imposing severe restrictions on production, registration, marketing and handling, with a view to protecting the environment, health and, above all, workers.”

In addition to whether or not they fall under the legislation, economist Cechin also warns that, as with cigarettes, more money is spent on treating pesticide poisonings than on purchasing the product itself. A study published in Saúde Pública magazine reveals that for every US$ 1 spent on the purchase of pesticides in the state of Paraná, US$ 1.28 is spent on the SUS public health program for the treatment of acute intoxications poisonings—those that occur immediately after application. The calculation left out spending on chronic diseases, those that appear over time due to constant exposure to pesticides, such as cancer.

2.2 Billion Dollars a Year

Even in the face of pesticides’ impact on the  health of the population and the environment, companies ceased to pay nearly R$ 10 billion (US$ 2 billion) in federal and state taxes in 2017—and the ones that most failed to collect were the states, according to the study “ “Tax incentive policy for pesticides in Brazil is unjustifiable and unsustainable” by ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Collective Health.

Renouncement of only the ICMS (VAT on goods and services) waiver in the state of Rio Grande do Sul would be generate enough to cover over half of the state budget in 2017. In the state of Mato Grosso, the amount would represent 66% of the entire state health budget.

State ICMS tax exemptions, which were introduced in 1997, account for the largest slice of the exoneration pie, with 63% of the total; it is followed by the IPI (tax on Industrialized Products) with 16.5%; the PIS/PASEP and COFINS (Federal Unemployment and Social Security funding contributions) with 15.6% and, lastly, the II Importation Tax with 4.8%, according to the ABRASCO study, also signed by Marcelo Firpo, FIOCRUZ National School of Public Health researcher and by environmental scientist Lucas Neves da Cunha.

According to the authors, the thesis that reducing the value of pesticides is necessary to maintain the price of food doesn’t hold up. “It would be more reasonable to subsidize not the use of pesticides, but directly the consumption of food,” concludes the study, which considered pesticide-related expenses reported by rural producers in the 2017 2017 Agricultural Census.

Buddy Loans

Although direct federal investment to the sector amounts to considerably less than the tax exemptions, it is noteworthy that the giant pesticide producers benefit the most. Between 2005 and 2019, the federal government invested R$ 749 million (US$ 165 million) through BNDES and FINEP in 18 pesticide manufacturers, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Ourofino and Dow Agrosciences (today Corteva).

Of the resources invested in research in the entire pharmaceutical industry since 2005, pesticide manufacturer Ourofino was the third most benefited, behind only Hypera Pharma and Aché, which produce medicines for human health. Manufacturer of more than 30 pesticide products including glyphosate and fipronil, the company received R$ 334.6 million (US$ 74 million) in public resources for their pesticides and agricultural research divisions. Ourofino had not responded to inquiries for comment when this article was concluded.

FINEP, on the other hand, recognizes direct financing in pesticides, but also says it selects projects that seek to replace pesticides with biological products and supports “innovative projects with the premise of increasing their efficiency.” See FINEP’s full response here. The BNDES (Development Bank) did not comment.

More Expensive Food?

Entities representing the pesticide industry argue that suspending tax exemptions for the sector would lead to higher food prices and lead to inflation.

“The end of the benefit will impact the prices of inputs and, consequently, increase the cost of the cesta básica. The exemption, therefore, is much more beneficial to society than to industries,” says Christian Lohbauer, president of CropLife Brasil, an association that represents pesticide-producing companies such as BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC and Syngenta.

According to APROSOJA (Brazilian Soy Producers’ Association), the end of tax benefits would increase production costs. “Part of the Brazilian production of grains, fruits, fibers and vegetables would be rendered unfeasible, because when computing the tax increase in the costs of agricultural pesticides, added to the cost of transportation logistics, climatic risks and other taxes and contributions from the sector, many inland regions would no longer be viable,” was the written statement.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply informed that it will wait for the decision of the STF to manifest itself. The National Agriculture Confederation (CNA) declined to comment. Meanwhile the National Association of the Vegetal Defense Products Industry (SINDIVEG) stated that “taxation would increase food costs and reduce the competitiveness of Brazilian products on the international market.” See the full statements of the Association, of Croplife and of APROSOJA.

For economist Cechi from UnB, it is difficult to affirm that reducing pesticide industry benefits would be felt at Brazilian tables, as a large part is used for commodities like soybean and not food items.

“Pesticides are used mainly in non-food crops, that is, commodities whose prices are set by the international market. It is not the producers who choose the price. If the benefits are lost, producers will have to spend more on pesticides, meaning a lower profit margin. The impact [of the reduction in benefits] would be for agribusiness companies.”

Soybean plantations were the destination for 52% of all agrochemical sales in Brazil in 2015. Corn and sugar cane ranked second, with 10% each, followed by cotton, with 7%. These four agricultural commodities alone represented 79% of the pesticide used in the country, according to data from SINDIVEG.

The “pesticide grant” is more controversial if one considers that Brazil is the world’s largest consumer of pesticides in terms of value, and that the sector grew 190% between 2000 and 2010, while on the global market this number was 93%. In addition, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government approved a  record number of these products in 2019, benefiting mainly multinationals.

All this within the context where there is a market concentration that, in the view of public defender Marcelo Novaes, harms public coffers, since without competition, companies can manipulate prices and increase their profits. “We are dominated by five large multinationals—Syngenta, Bayer-Monsanto, BASF, Corteva (ex-Dow) and DuPont—who rule over everything because they own 80% of the sector,” says Novaes, who denounced what he considers to be an oligopoly at the Administrative Council for Economic Defense (CADE).

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Mariana Della Barba, Diego Junqueira and Pedro Grigori, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


Industrial agriculture and food production is the second biggest contributor of global carbon emissions behind the energy industry. The 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on land-use suggests that the key to reducing agricultural emissions is through changing current land use, mainly by reducing fertilisation and by planting a variety of native crops that are suitable for that environment. 

The re-adoption of native crops to improve agro-biodiversity is another way to bring about a sustainable change in food production. In most developing countries, several indigenous crops were, and are still being, abandoned or their cultivation threatened by the adoption of high-yielding varieties as part of so-called ‘green revolutions’ powered by large-scale industrial agriculture, often involving multinational corporations. These corporations are generally unconcerned with their high carbon footprint and soil is saturated with chemicals which damages the crops and the soil itself. 

In recent years, there have been numerous movements in countries like India, Mexico and Malawi by a consortium of farmers, environmentalists, scientists and other stake-holders to revive the fading agro-biodiversity and move towards sustainable agricultural methods. 

Save Our Rice

The Save Our Rice campaign, launched in 2004 in India, is one such movement that aims for sustainability and self-sufficiency in rice production by reviving and popularising native rice varieties that were abandoned in the decades following India’s ‘green revolution’ in the 1970s.  

In Panavally, a village in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, is the Rice Diversity Block (RDB), made of around 300 indigenous varieties of rice, maintained by the green NGO, Thanal’s agro-ecology centre. Most of these were collected from individual farmers who had conserved the seeds that they had traditionally cultivated. “We produce more seeds for our seed banks from RDBs. Interested farmers can visit our centre, see the paddy varieties in all their glory and get the seeds from us for their own sustainable cultivation of native varieties,” says Ushakumari S., the executive director of Thanal and the national coordinator of the Save Our Rice (SOR) campaign.

The campaign was launched as a statement against the introduction of Golden Rice- the genetically modified high-yielding rice aimed to reduce Vitamin A deficiency. Initially focused on training farmers, it has developed into a full-fledged seed conservation and sustainability movement, spread across several states, linking seed conservators to farmers and farmers to consumers. Usha, a trained horticulturist, says, “India used to be home to more than 100 000 native varieties of paddy and Kerala alone cultivated more than 3 000 landraces. They are not only more nutritious than white rice, but they offer more medical benefits in some cases. Today less than 4 000 varieties are being raised by farmers in the entire country. That is a serious loss of diversity and something that needs to be reclaimed, especially in the current context of the food security threat we are facing from the climate crisis.”

Resisting the Climate Crisis

SOR participants first noticed the resilience of indigenous rice during the early years of the last decade when rice-growing regions in South India were struck by untimely dry spells. “It is something that has become evident to us in the last few years when we had severe variations in temperature and rainfall here in Wayanad. Native varieties weathered the storms while the conventionally-cultivated hybrid paddies suffered,” says Rajesh Krishnan, a former Greenpeace campaigner who is now a farmer of an indigenous paddy. 

“Hybrids, or what we call ‘semi-dwarf’ paddies, were developed for fertiliser and pesticide-aided agriculture for higher yields. They performed well during the early years. But then overuse of chemicals began to maximise the yield. This is counter-productive as it makes the plant more succulent, thus attracting various pests, not all of which can be effectively controlled using pesticides. Higher levels of fertiliser and pesticide use can also severely impact organic matter in the soil, which is necessary for nitrification,” says Dr. Leena Kumari, former head of Kerala Agricultural University’s Rice Research Stations. However, most native varieties, she adds, are resistant to local pests as well as adverse local climatic conditions. In that regard, indigenous crops have a clear advantage over the hybrids. 

Also, since these landraces are grown without the usage of synthetic fertilisers on a relatively smaller scale without any machinery, the greenhouse gas emissions are far less than conventional industrial agriculture. For rice cultivation, going native means reduction in pesticide use since native paddies are naturally resistant to pests. This reduction is a major achievement considering rice ranks higher than any other crop in pesticide use.

Going native also sustains local economies. “There is an attempt to sell the produce to the local community itself rather than try to export it to faraway places. It is similar to the 100-mile movement in the US where people try to buy food that has been produced within their own locality. Such a focus to produce as well as sell locally helps cut transportation- a major factor in agricultural carbon emissions,” adds Usha.

Support and Yield

Farming of indigenous crops using traditional organic methods is widely acknowledged by mainstream agro-researchers to be more eco-friendly than industrial agriculture. However, it has yet to receive significant institutional support. Dr. Leena says, “This is the biggest challenge that farmers transitioning into cultivating native paddies face. There needs to be a proper system for procuring produce at a fair price and processing it. There used to be several small mills for processing local varieties. Today most of the big mills are geared for processing hybrid grains and mill owners won’t buy native breeds.”

This could be overcome by farmers organising themselves like in Wayanad, where 10 farmers who cultivate landraces have formed a company, the Thirunelly Agri Producers Company, to procure and process the grain at a decent minimum price. 

Then there is the question of yield. The popular argument is that landrace crops cultivated organically yield less produce than hybrids. “This is a myth from what we see here in Wayanad. We have noticed that careful simultaneous cultivation of various native breeds through traditional methods provides consistently better yields than conventional mono-culture of hybrids,” says Rajesh. Farmers from across India side with Rajesh’s observation. 

Dr. Leena strikes a cautious tone when it comes to yields. “There aren’t enough studies that confirm the high yields of landraces, so I can’t say for sure if we can completely replace hybrids with native paddies. The key is to adopt the right method along with the right variety depending upon the local climate and pest and soil type.” However in many regions, native breeds suitable for the local setting, can no longer be found. 

Similar Movements

The story of SOR is not an isolated one. There are multiple movements across the world with similar aims. Corn farmers and activists in Mexico have been fighting for years to protect the highly diverse native corn varieties. This is in light of agrochemical company Monsanto’s years-long attempt to introduce their hybrid corn variety in Mexico; farmers say that this would threaten the 23 000 native corn varieties of Mexico. It would also mean heavy use of the fertilisers and pesticides also produced by Monsanto, which has been fiercely resisted for years by a network of farmers, environmentalists and lawmakers.

The Local Seed Restoration Project by the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation in Malawi is another movement that encourages farmers to cultivate local seeds using natural fertiliser like cow dung and crop residues.

In light of the ever-growing global population and fast-approaching food insecurity faced by many regions, going native could be the way forward. 

Featured image by: StateofIsrael

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