The Unintended Consequences of Pesticides

March 8, 2020

Allen R Williams, Ph.D., Soil Health Academy

Continuing the discussion around unintended consequences, all we have to do is look around us and the evidence is staring us in the face. We simply have to recognize and acknowledge the facts before us.  In the process of doing that though, we also have to admit that we have not been the land stewards we should have been. Most of us do not believe we were being poor stewards. As a matter of fact, we have defended ourselves as being excellent stewards.  But the evidence says otherwise. Let’s examine it.

Where have the birds gone?


An article published in National Geographic on September 19, 2019 titled, “Three billion birds have been lost in North America since 1970,” points to one of the most significant indicators of ecosystem health and that the ecosystem is showing signs of collapsing.  The details are staggering and concerning. The hardest hit species of birds have been, not surprisingly, grassland and ground nesting birds.  This includes bird species such as sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, finches, quail, prairie chicken, and grouse. Populations of these birds have declined 53% or greater in the last 48 years.  

Why have these populations declined so far and so rapidly?  The answers are really quite clear and quite obvious IF we simply observe and honestly assess the evidence before us.  Habitat loss is one of the major reasons. This is because, for the last several decades, farmers have felt compelled to plow and plant “every available acre” in an attempt to be profitable.   This has resulted in fence rows, hedge rows, buffer strips, wood edges, and even buffers between roads and ditches being cleared and plowed under. Where are the birds supposed to take shelter, find food, secure nesting and brooding habitat, and other things they need for survival? 

Second is the ever-increasing use of toxic pesticides.  Many of these pesticides have direct effects on bird physiology, reproduction, and overall health.  The article reports that a recent study shows that birds eating neonicotinoid-treated seeds experience rapid weight loss and a significant reduction in migratory capability.  

Third, the heavy use of pesticides has led to a huge drop in insect populations—the very insects that are an important prey for these birds.  Birds have served for many thousands of years as a biological control to keep pest insects in check. Routine spraying to keep the pest insects “in check” actually has created a conundrum where we are now killing the biological controls and creating ever greater opportunities for pest insects and, therefore, greater pest pressure.  It is another unintended consequence.  

Birds are absolutely crucial to a fully functional ecosystem.  They control pest insects, keep many species of insects in check, distribute seeds, dispose of carrion, and play a vital role in pollinating numerous plants.  In our work with regenerative agriculture, bird populations are one of the premier indicators we monitor to determine progress in restoring a healthy ecosystem.  

I have to relate a story from a visit with a farmer just this week. He is in his late 70’s now and was proudly showing me around his farm.  He spent considerable time telling me what a good farmer he had been. However, during his dialogue he lamented the fact that the quail populations had declined to the point that he had not seen a covey in more than a decade.  During his youth and younger adult life he pointed out that the quail hunting had been excellent. There would be many coveys jumped during an afternoon hunt and he would always come home with a bag limit. I simply listened to him talk and realized that in the course of our dialogue he was providing the very reason the quail were no longer there.  He related that because he was such a “good” farmer he learned how to squeeze production out of every single acre and even every portion of every acre. In doing so, he started clearing brush, fence rows, hedges and every space that could possibly be planted. He also was proud of the fact that he was able to clear right up to the edge of a very large creek and plant “every square inch possible.”  He also proudly declared that the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is what allows farmers to grow bounteous crops and he used those routinely.  

In listening to him, I knew that he was giving me the reason why the quail disappeared.  He was the cause of their demise and did not even realize it. When I asked him why the quail disappeared, he simply said, “The fire ants are the cause.   They kill all the newly hatched quail. If we could just get rid of the fire ants the problem would be solved.” Never mind that we have had fire ants in the southern U.S. for a long time and that there are vibrant, thriving quail populations around the south where habitat is available, and folks are managing regeneratively.  He could not see that his own management had caused the crash of the local quail populations. Note that all the other surrounding farms are managed similarly to his.  

This life-long farmer truly believed he was a good steward of the land and the soil and that he could in no way be responsible for habitat loss for other creatures.  He believed he was doing his part to “feed the world.” More unintended consequences.  

What About Insects?


Another study published in the Smithsonian magazine on August 7, 2019 titled, “Toxic Pesticides are Driving Insect ‘Apocalypse’ in the U.S,” suggest that the U.S. agricultural landscape is 48 times more toxic now to insects than it was 25 years ago.  The article in Smithsonian is based on a study published in the journal PloS One.  The study claims that one class of pesticides has been far more toxic to insects that any other.  That class is neonicotinoids, otherwise known as “neonics” by most farmers. Their study concludes that neonics alone have been responsible for up to 92% of the insect population decline.  

The study is a compilation of data from four different research institutions and examined the amount of pesticides used in the U.S.; length of time these pesticides remained in the environment; and levels of the toxins in honeybees.  The study revealed a correlation between the rapidly increasing toxin levels in the environment and neonic use by farmers.  

Neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990’s as a direct result of rising insect resistance to existing pesticides.  At the time neonics were introduced they were lauded for their supposed low toxicity. They have since been used on more than 140 kinds of crops including corn, soybeans, rice and even apples.  Now we know that neonics are very toxic and persistent. The evidence reveals that neonics can remain in soil, waterways and wetlands for at least 1000 days, or almost three years.  

What is even more insidious about neonics is that they are a systemic insecticide.  They are absorbed into crops and spread their toxin to plant stems, leaves, pollen, nectar and sap.  At planting time, neonic dust can drift from corn seeds and onto flowers that bees are feeding on—with lethal effects.  

The EU banned neonics of all types in 2018 and Canada took similar steps in 2019.  The U.S. EPA has banned 12 types of neonics but has not taken any further steps regarding the dozens of other neonics.

The good news is that we know you can farm without neonics.  We, and many others, are doing just that. Neonics have become a security blanket to many farmers and are used “just because,” resulting in, you guessed it, more unintended consequences.  

Are People Living Longer?


Another incident occurred recently with yet another farmer regarding his defense of conventional farming and heavy synthetic and chemical use.  He had heard me speak at a conference and I was then doing a field day for another occasion. He cornered me after the field day and started saying that my comments about food nutritive value related to soil health, synthetic and chemical use, and ecosystem health had to be completely wrong.  He contended that foods farmers produce today are healthier than ever and that people in the U.S. are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. But is this really the case?

A recent report released by the Journal of the American Medical Association titled, “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959 – 2017” indicates that life expectancy has declined rapidly in the U.S. during that time period.  The study takes into account racial and ethnic factors and states that the U.S. has the worst life expectancy among the 17 highest income countries in the world. This, in spite of the fact that we lead the world in per-capita spending for health care.  

Life spans have increased in other industrialized nations, but the average American can now expect to live 78.6 years.  In contrast, the average life span in similar countries is 82.2 years. In Japan, people live an average of 84.1 years, in France it is 82.4 years and in our next-door neighbor of Canada it is 81.9 years.  So, we are not living longer. Our average life span is decreasing.  

If we look at food nutritive value trends over a similar time period, we see a steady decline in value.  Table 1 shows the nutritive value of broccoli between 1975 and 2010. Many other vegetables and fruit have seen similar declines in total nutritive value during the same time period.  The problem is that nutritive values had already declined in the decades prior to 1975, so what we see in Table 1 represents even further decline.  

Table 1.  Nutritional Changes in Broccoli Between 1975 and 2010.  

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A choice and a better way


The unintended consequences are all around us and staring us in the face.  Will we open our eyes and admit our role, or will we continue to farm as we have been doing, in spite of the evidence that conventional agricultural practices are doing significant harm?  Will we be like the two farmers whose stories I related? As farmers we hold the power of life and death in our hands on a daily basis. What will we choose? At Soil Health Academy we do take our role as stewards of the land very seriously and know we have an obligation to those around us.

Kathy Richburg

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