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26 February 2024

ORFC24: How Corporate Power and the Pesticide Industry is Blocking Progress

On the 4th of January 2024, as part of the 15th Oxford Real Farming Conference, leading voices on exposing the corporate power of the pesticide industry, Clare Carlile from DeSmog, Eve Gleeson from ShareAction, and Crispin Dowler from Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative journalism branch, were in conversation with Amy Heley from The Pesticide Collaboration. This session was hosted by PAN UK (Pesticide Action Network) and the RSPB. 

Oxford Real Farming Conference · ORFC2024 Follow The Money- How Corporate Power And The Pesticide Industry Is Blocking Progress

The damage of pesticides 

The destruction of our natural world is one of the most pressing crises we face today. Climate change, pollution, over-exploitation, the intensification of agriculture, and invasive species are the main drivers of biodiversity loss. Whilst the media and governments are focusing on net zero and carbon budgets, we are currently losing species at a faster rate than in any of Earth’s past extinction events. Within this, the UN has stated that hazardous pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole”. 

Pesticides which contain chemical ingredients used to kill pests and control weeds can also be toxic to other organisms, including birds, fish, beneficial insects, mammals, non-target plants, as well as air, water, soil, crops, and human health. This puts long-term food security at risk by compromising key ecosystem functions such as pollination, natural pest predation, and soil fertility, which are essential for maintaining the health and productivity of agricultural land. Some chemicals are more damaging than others yet despite the scientific research, many are still used widely. Pesticides play a key role in the system of fossil fuel-dependent farming that dominates the globe today and have created complex ecological problems while boosting yields. Moreover, many pesticides are directly derived from fossil fuels. 

Market domination 

The market is dominated by the six largest pesticide producers, BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC Corporation, Syngenta and UPL, which account for almost 80% of global pesticide production. The pesticide industry sits within powerful industrial agriculture, or ‘BigAg’, and throughout the session, the parallels between this industry and the fossil fuel industry were regularly drawn. For starters, they form powerful alliances and trade associations to masquerade behind and legitimise their position, such as CropLife and Copa-Cogeca, which attempt to hide their industry-driven nature by portraying a varied membership. CropLife International is an influential trade association and lobby group consisting of the five biggest pesticide companies in the world by agrochemical turnover including Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Corteva, and FMC. Moreover, we are increasingly seeing BigAg ‘farmer washing’ to keep their industrial nature hidden and continuously pushing forward an industry-friendly agenda. This is the case with Copa-cogeca which attempts to present itself as “the united voice of farmers and agri-cooperatives in the EU” however, the number of small farming operations within it has been found to be grossly overestimated. So, when talking about pesticide companies, we are talking about a select few who hold a monopoly on global pesticide production, companies who masquerade as unions and cooperatives, and who pretend to represent small farms: we are talking about BigAg. 

Policy Influence within the EU context

Similar to strategies mobilised by the fossil fuel industry, BigAg uses a variety of narratives to delay nature-friendly legislation, fueling fear and doubt. These include claims that these regulations ‘ignore science’ and will ‘jeopardise food production’, while also promoting techno-managerial ‘solutions’ such as ‘innovative climate-smart agriculture’ which continues to rely on heavy inputs so these companies can continue to make a profit, while failing to address the problem. They fund ‘independent’ scientific research that supports industry interests, including ghostwriting, as well as presenting articles to MEPs that have not been peer-reviewed and don’t meet academic research standards. For example, the claims made about the EU’s green reforms have been contested by over 6,000 scientists. All of these rhetorics are mobilised by conservative MEPs to continue business as usual. 

The impact of this misinformation should not be underestimated. This has resulted in a situation where we have regulations being drafted by industry. Copa-Cogeca has publicly admitted that it drafts laws on behalf of politicians, proposing amendments to weaken Farm to Fork, some of which are copied and pasted by right-wing politicians. Within the EU, these trade associations and conservative politicians have very close ties. DeSmog mapped these deep ties that lawmakers have with BigAg. 

Weakening critical EU Policy 

In the spring of 2020, the European Union announced an ambitious plan, Farm to Fork, to overhaul farming practices, reduce fertiliser and pesticide use, and promote more organic production. As part of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the EU planned to reduce pesticide use by 50% and fertiliser use by 20% by 2030. 

Against this political backdrop, the four largest pesticide firms and their trade association, CropLife Europe, spent over 35 million (£30 million) lobbying the EU between 2020-2023. Moreover, in the same period, the farmers’ union Copa-Cogeca spent somewhere between 4.3 and 4.8 million (£3.7 and 3.2 million) on EU lobbying, admitting publicly that they drafted laws on behalf of politicians. 

DeSmog found that between January 2020 and July 2023, over 400 meetings took place between agriculture lobby groups representing industry and key members of the European Parliament following the launch of the Farm to Fork strategy. In that period, lawmakers met industry-linked groups eight times as often as NGOs representing public interests. These meetings were held in private, some were not registered as meetings with lobby groups, and some meetings were not declared at all – breaking EU guidelines and highlighting the deep lack of transparency. 

This resulted in the watering down of EU Farm to Fork legislation and the eventual voting down of regulation to reduce pesticides in late 2023. 

So let’s recap; The pesticide industry is peddling a campaign of misinformation to sow fear and confusion over new agricultural practices, it is funnelling tens of millions to coax European governments into inaction, it is using political cronyism and underhand meetings to delay and damage nature-friendly legislation, and through all of this it is endangering not only farmers’ futures, but future yields, public health, and the environment.

Exportation of banned Highly Hazardous Pesticides 

Of course, the damage of the continued use of pesticides goes beyond the EU context. There is a highly illogical and unreasonable gap within UK and EU policy: that if you ban a product here, you don’t ban the production or exportation of this product. Unearthed and Public Eye found that in 2018, EU countries exported over 81,000 tonnes of pesticides containing chemicals banned in their own fields, for which the UK made up the vast majority. 

As highlighted by Unearthed, this represents a double standard, placing a lower value on lives and ecosystems in poorer countries. These are ‘Highly Hazardous Pesticides’ (HHPs), which have proven links to catastrophic environmental and human health impacts including brain damage in children, cancer, fertility issues, the desecration of bee populations, genetic mutations, and human fatalities amongst other dangers. Moreover, one of these chemicals is the herbicide paraquat, for which one sip can be fatal to humans and there is no antidote, is leading means of suicide and increases risks of Parkinson’s disease. 

These harmful chemicals are being shipped to countries in the Global South where regulations are not as stringent, a practice which the UN special rapporteur on toxics Baskut Tuncak labelled as ‘deplorable’. Tuncak stated “These loopholes are a political concession to industry, allowing their chemical manufacturers to profit from inevitably poisoned workers and communities abroad, all the while importing cheaper products through global supply chains and fuelling unsustainable consumption and production patterns. It is long-overdue that states stop this exploitation.” While many countries within the EU attempted to change these loopholes due to public outcry, these efforts have all been stopped or stalled due to intense lobby pressure. Moreover, the UK has not even attempted to try and change this policy. In fact, following Brexit, the UK has failed to ban thirty-six pesticides that are not allowed for use in the EU, which campaigners say it is becoming the “toxic poster child of Europe”. 

The investigations by Unearthed and Public Eye found a close correlation between Europe’s preferred sources of food imports and its destinations for banned pesticide sales. The EU’s most important sources of agricultural produce – the United States, Brazil, and Ukraine – were all among the top five destinations for the EU’s banned pesticide exports. 

We are living in a situation where the most harmful and hazardous of all the pesticides are knowingly being produced and exported abroad, for which two-thirds are sent to lower and middle-income countries. A situation where the world’s five largest agrochemical companies (all members of CropLife) earned $13.5 billion from their top-selling pesticide products in 2018, of which over a third of this income was generated by HHPs. 

Hidden Outcomes 

It is difficult for us to see and measure the overall impact that these companies are having globally when there is not sufficient tracking of these impacts on both the environment and humans down the supply chain. Tuncak commented: “We are in the midst of an invisible explosion of pesticide use in low-and middle-income countries that are ill-equipped to manage such hazards. [] From the testimonies of workers to the collapse of biodiversity, the impacts are unquestionable, but the system is rigged so that they are also unprovable.”

A report produced by ShareAction, reveals that the six largest pesticide producers do not assess how their products affect biodiversity throughout their value chains – they only assess risks in the development process. Moreover, they fail to disclose crucial information about their product portfolios, impact assessment methods, and value chains. 

According to ShareAction, over 2,000 investors hold shares (each worth over US$10,000) in at least one of the industry’s five largest publicly traded companies, with 89 investors holding shares in all five. This is where ShareAction leverages their research and runs campaigns with investors to mobilise change within the industry. However, these companies will always have their bottom line: to make profits for their shareholders. Quoting an investor, Eve (ShareAction) noted that in twenty years time, investing in pesticides will be seen in a similar light to investing in oil or tobacco. However, a timescale such as this seems a long way away, and completely out of pace with the levels of biodiversity loss we are seeing from high-input chemical-driven agricultural processes. 

Looking to the future 

The session ended with a reflection on the immense power of this lobby, reflective of what we see within decision-making processes across the world. This powerful lobby is delaying a much-needed transition within agricultural policy and causing the continued destruction across the globe of soil quality and biodiversity, while also endangering human health and our access to safe water, food, and the ecosystems we rely upon. 

The speakers felt that the most we can hope to do at this stage is to make decision-makers and policy-makers increasingly vigilant when approached by these lobbyists and trade associations, and cynical of position papers and scientific reports. Moreover, increased reporting on these issues to build awareness among the public, policy-makers, and investors is critical. While it can feel like a mammoth of a task opposing this level of corporate power, this is extremely relevant and important to the real food and farming movement at ORFC, as it is important to not only understand the level of power within these conglomerates and their deep ties with policymakers but also for this to act as a strong reminder for what the stakes are. Those who choose to farm with nature are rebelling against this lobby every day, and demonstrating that food can be produced another way, demonstrating a realistic future that is more harmonious with nature and the health of humans, and flying against the winds of misinformation spurred by BigAg. 

We are grateful to the work of DeSmog, UnEarthed, and ShareAction on this topic. See the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN-UK) for more information on pesticides in the UK and how you can get involved. 

Méabh Byrne is from Dublin and is currently living in London, where she is involved in a number of local community food projects. She holds a BA in Geography from Trinity and an MSc in Environmental Governance from the University of Manchester, where she focused her dissertations on food systems. Since her studies, Méabh has worked in environmental NGOs and most recently, the Science-Based Targets Initiative, engaging corporations to disclose on emissions and working on the ambitious Net-Zero Standard. In her free time, Méabh has completed a Practical Horticulture Certificate at Walworth Gardens, volunteers regularly at local growing initiatives, and brews kombucha. Méabh is interested in exposing socio-ecological injustices and the creation of just, sustainable, and inclusive food systems that support producers. Méabh is keen to engage with new projects within the field.

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