A new report by Unearthed — Greenpeace’s “investigative journalism” platform — claims that a large chunk of pesticides sold to farmers are “highly hazardous”. Their claims are highly misleading and outright wrong, and can have potentially life-threatening consequences.
Together with the NGO Public Eye, Unearthed collected “a huge dataset of $23.3bn agrochemical sales for sales (sic) of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs)”. The highly mediatised headline coming out of the report: 35% of the top pesticide sales are HHPs, and therefore dangerous to human health, animals, and the environment.
Combined with Greenpeace’s effort to phase-out all use of pesticides altogether, no wonder that the conclusion from this report is “more bans”.
Thus, before we dive into the fundamental flaw of Greenpeace’s report, let’s establish the basic rules of acquiring scientific evidence: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis or testable explanation, make a prediction based on the hypothesis, and test the prediction.
Greenpeace is an activist group that seeks to ban the use of all pesticides, since it wholeheartedly endorses agroecology, so it already violates these rules by starting with its assumption, not by establishing a hypothesis and testing the prediction.
Greenpeace claims that a third of top pesticide sales are highly hazardous. That is simply untrue.
The Unearthed report relies on a list of pesticides by the Pesticides Action Network (PAN), an association of NGOs. PAN is not a government agency, nor is it a research institute mandated or qualified to establish these lists. In fact, there is a list of criteria of Highly Hazardous Pesticides established by World Health Organization (WHO), but PAN applied its own spin, distorting the reality of official criteria.
For instance, its list includes glyphosate — a herbicide classified as safe for use by government food safety agencies — despite none of the WHO criteria applying. Using the classification of “highly hazardous” is completely arbitrary and thoroughly misleading.
Greenpeace’s aim is to get individual governments to outlaw the listed herbicides. Curiously, organic farming would be affected by this as well, since PAN’s list includes, Lambda-Cyhalothrin, which is part of the organic compound pyrethroid, which is allowed under the EU labels for organic agriculture (25 substances are allowed in the EU to be used in the treatment of organic crops).
Bans by individual governments or the European Union as a whole would have far-reaching consequences.
On one hand, it would set the precedent that any compound can be outlawed without prior scientific evidence that finds it to be a risk to human health or the environment. In fact, this could easily trigger (and has already) a witch-hunt on scientifically sound research, and distort reality for the sake of ideology. Furthermore, a ban could trouble the agricultural supply chain, and increase prices for consumers.
As food security is a vital factor in the well-being of developing countries, EU pressure for different food standards in Africa and Asia (through trade negotiations) would be devastating for affected rural communities.
The bottom line is this: consumers and producers need herbicides to protect against invasive species. Is it possible to rid one’s self of biochemicals without sacrificing major losses in crop yield? Yes, but technologies such as gene-editing – which offer promising alternatives – are highly restricted in Europe, as the Consumer Choice Center and the Genetic Literacy Project have revealed in their first gene-editing regulation index.
If farmers are restricted from using these products, they will seek refuge in the black market. The trade in counterfeit and bootlegged pesticides is already a dangerous game played by farmers who are overburdened by regulation, and a real threat to consumer safety. The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute describes illicit pesticides as “a lucrative activity for organized crime and a concrete threat to security, development, health and the environment, and consequently require urgent response from the national and regional authorities, as well as the international community and the United Nations.”
Further bans would increase this problem.
We should rather endorse safely produced and tested herbicides that guarantee food security and human health, rather than promote unscientific “research” at the back of consumer choice and the security of developing nations.
This article was first published on the Consumer Choice Center blog.
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