Herbicides, insecticides and fungicides threaten the environment and human health in many parts of the world. But research is pointing to a better approach.
June 22, 2016 — In today’s globalized world, it is not inconceivable that one might drink coffee from Colombia in the morning, munch cashews from Vietnam for lunch and gobble grains from Ethiopia for dinner. That we can enjoy these products is thanks, in large part, to expanded pesticide use across the developing world.
Every year, some 3.5 billion kilograms (7.7 billion pounds) of pesticides — a catch-all term for the herbicides, insecticides and fungicides applied to crops from seed to harvest — are used to preserve the quality and quantity of fruits, vegetables and grains. Herbicides, such as Monsanto’s weed killer glyphosate, make up the bulk of the pesticides applied worldwide.
In the developing world, where swelling populations, increased urbanization and growing economies create a demand for ever-more food — produced quickly and inexpensively — pesticide application rates are rising. Bangladesh and Thailand have quadrupled their pesticide use since the early 1990s, while Ghana, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, countries newer to the pesticide game, have seen a 10-fold increase over the same period, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
But it’s Brazil that has become the developing world’s largest pesticide user, says Victor Pelaez, an economist at Brazil’s Federal University of Paraná who studies pesticides and their regulation in that country. “Brazil is [the] second largest consumer of pesticides after the United States,” he says. The global pesticides market is estimated to be US$45 billion.
“In 2015, US$9.6 billion of pesticides were sold in Brazil,” Pelaez says. “Compare that to US$14.9 billion sold in the U.S.”
Brazil is a top exporter of soybean, corn and cotton, Pelaez says, with soy being its top cash crop. During the 2014–2015 season, Brazil produced 97 million metric tons (107 million tons) of soybeans, just a hair shy of the U.S., the world’s leading soybean producer. And with booming agriculture comes a heavy dependence on pesticides. It is estimated that Brazil consumes around a billion liters (260 million gallons) of pesticides every year, and more than a third of that is applied to soybeans, according to a report from Brazil’s scientific research institute Fiocruz.
China comes in a close second among the developing world’s major pesticide consumers — in fact, some estimates have it, and not Brazil, in the top spot. It also manufactures tremendous amounts of pesticides. The country is estimated to have over 2,000 pesticide companies making more than 4.8 billion pounds (2.2 billion kilograms) of pesticides, some of which is exported. While Monsanto and Syngenta, two leading agribusiness companies, together hold close to one-third of the global fertilizer and pesticide market, experts say it is astounding that China is now rivaling the pesticide production of multinational corporations.