Pesticides: Economic nonsense?

Pesticides may generate significantly higher costs than benefits. [CGP Grey/Flickr]

The cost of pesticides may far outweigh their benefits, according to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), which has conducted a study on the external costs of these products. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

The news will not please advocates of conventional agriculture, many of whom tend to admit that pesticides do cause damage to human health and the environment, but who tend to argue that this is more than balanced out by the benefits they bring. But INRA researchers Denis Bourguet and Thomas Guillemaud have found evidence that the costs my significantly outweigh the benefits.

Published in the Sustainable Agriculture Review, their study examined data from 61 scientific publications. The researchers analysed four types of cost: regulatory (decontamination, surveillance, etc.), human health, environmental and defensive. This last category includes “the extra cost of the part of organic food consumption due to aversive behaviour linked to pesticide use”.

Underestimated costs

The first observation the researchers made was that it is highly likely that each of these costs had been significantly underestimated by proponents of pesticide use. The figures for human health costs are particularly striking: according to the new research, if the cost of medical treatment for the effects of chronic exposure to pesticides is taken into account, the health costs of pesticides increase by a factor of ten. Based on their findings, the researchers adjusted their estimate for the health cost of pesticides in the United States from $1.5 billion to $15 billion in 2005 alone.

Many environmental costs for animals, plants and microbial life forms in the soil are hard to quantify and have never been properly evaluated. One American study from 1992 made the (probably very conservative) estimate of $8 billion for this kind of damage.

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In the first decade of this century, the regulatory costs associated with pesticides in the US reached $4 billion. If all the regulatory procedures had been respected, they would have reached $22 billion. And the INRA researchers estimated the global cost to consumers of avoiding pesticides, based on the extra cost they pay for organic food, at $6.4 billion in 2012.

Cost-benefit ratio of 0.7:1

According to Bourguet and Guillemaud, pesticides caused a total of $39.5 billion of damage in 1992, for a cost-benefit ratio of 0.7:1. This means that the financial advantages gained from using pesticides, in terms of agricultural productivity, are 30% lower than the external costs they generate. Without more recent data, it is impossible to know if this is still the case. But the experts think it unlikely that the situation has improved.

The publication of this report on 20 March came in time for the 11th Pesticide Action Week, which ends on Wednesday 30 March. François Veillerette, the spokesperson for the French NGO Générations futures, said, “This study shows that the discourse surrounding the supposed economic rationale of an agricultural model dependent on the massive use of pesticides is largely based on incomplete studies that do not take into account the reality of health and environmental costs.”

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Following the adoption of France’s biodiversity bill, the French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll announced on Friday (18 March) that he would charge the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) with finding alternatives to pesticides. “Based on the opinion of ANSES, France will call upon, the European Commission to apply any potential restrictions across the EU,” the minister said.

As part of the biodiversity bill, French MPs last week voted to ban neonicotinoid pesticides, known to kill bees and other pollinators, from 2018. This ban must be adopted by the French Senate before it can be written into law.

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