As intractable as synthetic pesticide use seems today, it is only within the last 80 years of agriculture’s rich and diverse 10,000–year history that synthetic pesticide reliance has become hallmark to agriculture, and the lynchpin of an industrial and chemical model of production.
Pesticide reliance in agriculture has been aggressively encouraged by multinational chemical corporations including Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow–DuPont, and others. This push toward large–scale industrial agricultural production reliant on corporate inputs, including chemicals, fertilizers and seeds, has displaced farmers across the countryside around the world, preventing diversified, ecological, and productive food and farming systems while threatening viable rural livelihoods.
The large chemical corporations exert significant influence as key agricultural, food, health, nutrition, worker and trade policies are created and implemented. Their influence dominates markets, the halls of government and many agricultural research institutions. Since the late 1950s, the use of synthetic pesticides has grown dramatically. Pesticides are now a $50 billion global industry, and more than one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States each year, touching all aspects of the industrial food system.
Since the 1950s, a wealth of scientific research has shown that pesticide exposure is linked to significant human health harms and ecosystem devastation, while providing precious little economic benefit to farmers, eaters or rural communities. Indeed, farmers that use pesticides become tethered to a pesticide treadmill: farmers pay rising costs for chemicals to multinational corporations each year, while finding it increasingly difficult to effectively manage insects, weeds and other pests, as the pests reliably become resistant to chemicals. Damage is most severe for those people and ecosystems on the front lines of pesticide exposure in rural communities, and for those people who face multiple exposures: at home, at work, at play, and at school.
Human health harm
Pesticide exposure can cause immediate illness and death, and long–term exposure is linked to several diseases, including various cancers, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays and cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s Disease, among others.
Pesticides wreak environmental havoc, threatening biodiversity and undermining the ecological systems upon which life depends. Amphibians, grassland birds, as well as honey bees and other pollinators such as monarch butterflies, are some of the species most obviously under threat from exposure to pesticides.
Protecting health, ecosystems and equity
Ceres Trust supports organizations and independent scientists in Hawai’i, the upper Midwest and the San Joaquin Valley of California that are part of movements to protect people, farms and ecosystems from pesticide poisoning.
Information about the human health harms of pesticides
- Agricultural Pesticide Use Near Public Schools in California – California Department of Public Health
- Kids on the Frontline and A Generation in Jeopardy: How pesticides are undermining our children’s health and intelligence – Pesticide Action Network North America
- Living Downstream, a book and documentary film that describe an ecologist’s work to break the silence on environmental pollution and cancer – Dr. Sandra Steingraber)
- Pesticides in Paradise: Hawai‘i’s Health and Environment at Risk – Center for Food Safety)
- Pesticide Use by Large Agribusinesses in Kaua’i– Joint Fact Finding Study Group)
Information about ecosystem harms of pesticides
- Pesticides and U.S. grassland bird declines, aquatic ecosystem biodiversity – American Bird Conservancy
- Preserving Biodiversity as if Life Depends on It, a report on how organic systems are key to re–establishing the biodiversity upon which all life depends – Beyond Pesticides
- Pesticides and Honey Bees: State of the Science, a report on the factors behind Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), with a sustained focus on the role of pesticides. – Pesticide Action Network North America
Stories from the Field
“This legislation represents the most comprehensive restriction of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on public lands in a major county in the US,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides. “It represents a clear commitment to the elimination of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers and an incredibly important effort to confront the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, and the protection of the health of workers and communities.”
SB 1602 is a compilation of legislative initiatives Beyond Toxics has introduced over the past five years. Based on a decade of grassroots organizing across Oregon, we brought forward a wide variety of pressing issues for legislative review and supported many dozens of rural residents in their efforts to testify at the State Capitol to demand protections from aerial pesticide spray. Our early wins to reform the Oregon Forest Practices Act set the stage for the passage of SB 1602.
The small but mighty Kern County town of Shafter (pop. 16,988) is savoring a hard-fought victory after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) agreed that pesticides would be included in plans to reduce air emissions in the highly impacted community. With an astonishing 3 million pounds of pesticides used each year within a seven mile radius of Shafter, it came as no surprise that residents put pesticides at the top of the list of pollutants of greatest concern to them – especially those that are classified by the state as Toxic Air Contaminants.
Mackenzie Feldman is a 23 year old from Honolulu, Hawaii, and is the founder of Herbicide-Free Campus, a campaign to ban herbicides at schools. Her campaign originated at UC Berkeley, was expanded to all UC campuses and then broadened to schools across the US. Her work is inspired by the fact that Hawaii— where she is from— is ground zero for industrial agriculture, and they do the most GMO seed testing in Hawaii out of anywhere in the country.
In 2019, the Protect Our Keiki Coalition hosted a speaking tour in Hawai’i featuring Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a former school groundskeeper from California who was regularly exposed to Monsanto/Bayer’s glyphosate-based herbicides. Lee shared his story with community leaders, policy makers, and government officials. After the Board of Education community meeting with Johnson, the Hawai`i Department of Education prohibited herbicide use on school grounds.
In 2015, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont and BASF successfully sued Kauai County for the right to spray poisons next to schools, and not tell us about it. Today, as a result of the passage of SB3095, they can no longer do this. Over the next 4 years the Restricted Use Pesticide and neurotoxin chlorpyrifos, will be phased out and its use totally prohibited. Though other States have tried, none have been successful and Hawaii is the first.
In 2017 and 2018, Beyond Toxics led the fight to challenge Oregon OSHA’s proposed new rules on farmworker pesticide protections. Beyond Toxics formed a coalition of Oregon’s farm and forestry worker unions and advocacy organizations, plus labor and social justice groups to force OSHA to reverse course. As a result, Oregon adopted some of the strongest pesticide protection rules for farmworkers in the nation.
Good Neighbor Iowa launched a statewide public education campaign on April 22, 2017 to significantly reduce and eliminate pesticide use in schools, parks, childcare centers, churches, businesses, and all other large expanses of turf in communities throughout Iowa.
Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action and Pesticide Action Network collaborated on an international food justice tour and summit, challenging the global impacts of the agrichemical industry and bringing together pesticide–affected communities from around the world into common cause.
Hawai’i SEED organized alongside mothers from across the Hawaiian Islands to meet with the Governor and staff, demanding that children be protected from the health and developmental harms related to pesticide exposure (2016).
The Hawai’i Center for Food Safety published a report, Pesticides in Paradise, Hawai’i’s Health and Environment at Risk, shared across the islands to engage communities in learning about pesticide use in Hawai’i, and taking steps to protect the health, sovereignty, and diverse ecosystems of the island chain.
When the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announced their draft regulation to protect schoolchildren from exposure to agricultural pesticides, the Safe Ag Safe Schools coalition in Salinas pressured DPR to ensure that a public hearing was added to the roster of events.
Beverly St. John acts on her concerns about illness and the environment through participation in the citizen’s group Toxic Taters. She is willing to confront the justification for agricultural chemicals. She is moved by a love of her culture and by a living compassion for the future of everyone’s children.