Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Pesticides and Climate Change with Agroecology

TWN Info Service on Sustainable Agriculture
28 March 2023
Third World Network

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Pesticides and Climate Change with Agroecology

Pesticides contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions while climate change is expected to increase pesticide application. It’s a vicious cycle, according to a recent report by Pesticide Action Network (North America). (Items 1 and 2)

Pesticides contribute to climate change throughout their lifecycle via manufacturing, packaging, transportation, application, and through environmental degradation and disposal. About 99% of all synthetic chemicals – including pesticides – are derived from fossil fuels. The manufacture of one kilogram of pesticide requires about 10 times more energy than one kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer. Fumigant pesticides increase nitrous oxide production in soils seven to eight-fold. Many pesticides also lead to the production of ground-level ozone, a harmful greenhouse gas. Some, such as sulfuryl fluoride, are themselves powerful greenhouse gases, having nearly 5,000 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

At the same time, the effects of climate change will likely lead to increased use of synthetic pesticides. Rising temperatures, heat stress and altered rain patterns are leading to decreased crop resilience, leaving them more vulnerable to pests. Rising temperatures will likely stimulate insect population growth in certain regions, while weeds are more resilient to climate change than cultivated crops. Climate change speeds up pesticide degradation, leading farmers to increase their application rates. The compounded effects of climate change and pesticide use primarily fall on the shoulders of people of colour – a climate and racial injustice.

Agroeology is a real solution that addresses all sides of this vicious cycle. It will minimize or eliminate synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use while increasing the resilience of farming systems to climate change. When paired with social justice principles, agroecology has been shown to have significant climate benefits while supporting the health and rights of agricultural workers, Indigenous Peoples and rural communities.

The report recommends that governments adopt measurable goals to reduce synthetic pesticide use in climate policies. Laws and regulations should promote the rights of groups most impacted by synthetic pesticide use. And finally, policies should be developed that provide improved technical assistance and incentives for farmers to adopt biodiverse farming practices that protect community and ecosystem health.


With best wishes,
Third World Network


Item 1


Winter 2022-2023
by Pesticide Action Network (North America)
10 Nov 2022

Executive Summary

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. Scientific evidence indicates that pesticides contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions while also making our agricultural systems more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, the reduction of synthetic pesticide use has been omitted from climate change solutions, and synthetic pesticide use is even presented as a climate change mitigation strategy by industrial agriculture interests.

Pesticides contribute to climate change throughout their lifecycle via manufacturing, packaging, transportation, application, and even through environmental degradation and disposal. Importantly, 99% of all synthetic chemicals —including pesticides — are derived from fossil fuels, and several oil and gas companies play major roles in developing pesticide ingredients.1 Other chemical inputs in agriculture, such as nitrogen fertilizer, have rightly received significant attention due to their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet research has shown that the manufacture of one kilogram of pesticide requires, on average, about 10 times more energy than one kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer.2, 3 Like nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides can also release greenhouse gas emissions after their application, with fumigant pesticides shown to increase nitrous oxide production in soils seven to eight-fold.4, 5 Many pesticides also lead to the production of ground-level ozone, a greenhouse gas harmful to both humans and plants.6, 7, 8 Some pesticides, such as sulfuryl fluoride, are themselves powerful greenhouse gases, having nearly 5,000 times the potency of carbon dioxide.9

Meanwhile, climate change impacts are expected to lead to increases in pesticide use, creating a vicious cycle between chemical dependency and intensifying climate change (see Figure 1). Research shows that declining efficacy of pesticides, coupled with increases in pest pressures associated with a changing climate, will likely increase synthetic pesticide use in conventional agriculture.10 An increase in pesticide use will lead to greater resistance to herbicides and insecticides in weeds and insect pests, while also harming public health and the environment. The effects of higher synthetic pesticide use will disproportionately impact populations already under stress from a wide range of climate change effects, such as extreme heat and wildfire smoke. The compounded effects of climate change and pesticide use primarily fall on the shoulders of people of color— a climate and racial injustice.11, 12, 13, 14, 15

Adoption of alternative agricultural systems such as agroecological farming minimizes or eliminates synthetic pesticide use while increasing the resilience of our agricultural systems to better withstand climate change impacts.16, 17, 18 Agroecology is a way of farming rooted in social justice that focuses on working with nature rather than against it. It relies on ecological principles for pest management, minimizing the use of synthetic pesticides, while prioritizing the decision-making power of farmers and agricultural workers. Agroecology and diversified organic agriculture, when paired with social justice principles, have been shown to have significant climate benefits, while supporting the health and rights of agricultural workers, Indigenous Peoples and rural communities.

Decisive action is required to reduce agrochemicals’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and improve the climate resilience of food and farming systems. To accomplish this, policymakers should:

  • Establish measurable goals in climate policies to reduce synthetic pesticide use in agriculture;
  • Promote the transition to biodiverse, agroecological food and farming systems, such as by establishing and funding programs that provide increased technical assistance and incentives to farmers to adopt or continue these farming practices; and
  • In line with international law, adopt regulations that uphold and promote the rights of groups most impacted by synthetic pesticide use.

Transitioning our agricultural systems to those that uplift ecological and social justice principles will not only help mitigate climate change, but also reduce the negative health impacts of industrial agriculture. While the work toward future policy and practice change continues, we can collectively support the advocacy work of impacted communities and organizations fighting for more equitable and sustainable food and farming systems right now.


1  Drugmand, D., Feit, S., Fuhr, L., & Mu ett, C. (2022). Fossils, Fertilizers, and False Solutions: How Laundering Fossil Fuels in Agrochemicals Puts the Climate and the Planet at Risk. e Center for International Law. uploads/2022/10/Fossils-Fertilizers- and-False-Solutions.pdf.

2  Audsley, E., Stacey, K. F., Parsons, D. J., & Williams, A. G. (2009). Estimation of the greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural pesticide manufacture and use. Cran eld University.

3  Ahlgren, S., Baky, A., Bernesson, S., Nordberg, Å., Norén, O., & Hansson, P. A. (2008). Ammonium nitrate fertiliser production based on biomass–environmental e ects from a life cycle perspective. Bioresource Technology99(17), 8034-8041. Note: Calculation is based on comparing Audsley et al. 2009 calculation in Table 1 of 370 MJ/kg pesticide active ingredient to Ahlgren et al. 2008’s 35.14 MJ/kg nitrogen for commonly used fertilizers produced conventionally using natural gas.

4  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. overview-greenhouse-gases – nitrous- oxide.

5  Spokas, K., & Wang, D. (2003). Stimulation of nitrous oxide production resulted from soil fumigation
with chloropicrin. Atmospheric Environment, 37(25), 3501-3507.

6  Marty, M., Spurlock, F., & Barry, T. (2010). Volatile organic compounds from pesticide application and contribution to tropospheric ozone. In Hayes’ Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology (pp. 571-585). Academic Press.

7  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). Health E ects of Ozone Pollution. ground-level-ozone-pollution/health- e ects-ozone-pollution.

8  Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2016). E ects of Ozone Air Pollution
on Plants. https://www.ars.usda. gov/southeast-area/raleigh-nc/ plant-science-research/docs/climate- changeair-quality-laboratory/ozone- e ects-on-plants/.

9  Mühle, J., Huang, J., Weiss, R. F., Prinn, R. G., Miller, B. R., Salameh, P. K., … & Simmonds, P. G. (2009). Sulfuryl uoride in the global atmosphere. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres114(D5).

10  Choudhury, P. P., & Saha, S. (2020). Dynamics of pesticides under changing climatic scenario. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment192(1), 1-3.

11  Donley, N., Bullard, R. D., Economos, J., Figueroa, I., Lee, J., Liebman, A.
K., … & Sha ei, F. (2022). Pesticides and environmental injustice in the USA: root causes, current regulatory reinforcement and a path forward. BMC public health22(1), 1-23.

12  Ferguson, R., Dahl, K., & DeLonge, M. (2019). Farmworkers at Risk: e Growing Dangers of Pesticides and Heat. Union of Concerned Scientists. farmworkers-at-risk.

13 Williams, B. (2018). “ at we may live”: Pesticides, plantations, and environmental racism in the United States South. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1(1-2), 243-267.

14 Pörtner, H. O., Roberts, D. C., Poloczanska, E. S., Mintenbeck, K., Tignor, M., Alegría, A., … & Möller, V. (2022). IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change.

15 Boedeker, W., Watts, M., Clausing, P., & Marquez, E. (2020). e global distribution of acute unintentional pesticide poisoning: estimations based on a systematic review. BMC public health20(1), 1-19.

16 Watts, M., & Williamson, S. (2015). Replacing Chemicals with Biology: Phasing out highly hazardous pesticides with agroecology. Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Paci c, Penang, Malaysia. default/ les/Phasing-Out-HHPs-with- Agroecology.pdf.

17 HLPE. (2019). Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security. ca5602en.pdf.

18 UN Environment Programme. Agroecology – a contribution to food security? news-and-stories/story/agroecology- contribution-food-security.

19 Nicholson, C. C., & Williams, N.M. (2021). Cropland heterogeneity drives frequency and intensity of pesticide use. Environmental Research Letters16(7), 074008.

Item 2


by Olivia Rosane
20 Feb 2023

The energy required to produce all of the glyphosate used worldwide in 2014 was as much as the yearly energy needed to power 6.25 million cars.

That’s one of the striking findings from “Pesticides and Climate Change: A Vicious Cycle,” a first-of-its-kind report from the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) detailing how these two environmental problems interact to make our food system less just and resilient.

“We found essentially that climate change impacts are predicted to make pest pressures worse and make pesticides less effective, ultimately increasing pesticide use due to climate change, while at the same time pesticides release greenhouse gas emissions,” PANNA organizing co-director and report co-author Asha Sharma told EcoWatch in an interview.

A Vicious Cycle

From discussions surrounding factory farming and meat consumption to Amazon deforestation, increased attention has been paid in recent years to the ways in which the dominant industrial agricultural system contributes to the climate crisis. More than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and 31 percent of those emissions are generated by agriculture. Yet, while pesticides and fertilizers are essential for conventional farming, these synthetic chemicals have largely been left out of the climate and agriculture discussion.

This omission can actually make things harder for the people pushing for a more ecologically friendly and just food system. Sharma said she and her co-writer and PANNA senior scientist Margaret Reeves were partly motivated to write the report because they were having a hard time getting pesticide reduction plans included in California climate regulations.

“We wanted to kind of pull together all the research that we could to make a convincing argument to policy makers,” she said.

At the heart of the argument is the fact that pesticides and the climate crisis come from the same source.

“It’s all related to the fossil fuel industry,” Reeves told EcoWatch.

Ninety-nine percent of all synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, are made from fossil fuels, and major oil companies ExxonMobil, ChevronPhillips Chemical and Shell all either manufacture pesticides or their chemical precursors. Turning petrochemicals into pesticides also requires a massive amount of energy.

“Other chemical inputs in agriculture, such as nitrogen fertilizer, have rightly received significant attention due to their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet research has shown that the manufacture of one kilogram of pesticide requires, on average, about 10 times more energy than one kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer,” the study authors wrote.

Pesticides generate emissions not only when they are made, but also when they are transported, applied and dispersed into the environment.

“The whole life cycle is important to consider,” Reeves said.

Some pesticides — like fumigant sulfuryl fluoride — are themselves greenhouse gases. Releasing one ton of the stuff is like emitting 4,780 tons of carbon dioxide. Others can interact with nitrogen oxides and ultraviolet light to form ground-level ozone, an air pollutant and greenhouse gas.

Another important link between pesticide use and the climate crisis is the way they can interact to make our food system less resilient. Warmer temperatures and drought conditions are expected to make plants less resilient to stresses like pests, as well as expand the range of pest species in some areas and harm helpful pest predators. At the same time, pesticides are more likely to drift away from their intended target under hotter conditions and to degrade faster, which will lead in turn to more pesticide use.

Pesticides that volatize — or turn into a gas — in hotter weather are more likely to pollute the surrounding environment and harm public health, exposing farmworkers and agricultural communities to even more hazards.

“It’s a double whammy for the people who we’ve been supporting for a long, long time,” Reeves said.

A Vivacious Cycle

The report authors assembled their findings from peer-reviewed scientific studies, reports from other non-profit organizations, the websites of regulatory agencies and the self-reporting of fossil fuel and pesticide companies. They also completed some of their own calculations to put the data into perspective — such as comparing the energy demand of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer and glyphosate production and vehicle fuel.

The purpose of all this wasn’t simply to outline the problem but to advocate for solutions that PANNA believes will address both the climate crisis and the overuse of pesticides. The major solution the organization advocates is “agroecology.”

“Generally it means working with nature rather than against it,” Sharma explained.

This includes using as few synthetic inputs as possible and listening to the perspectives of those most impacted by agriculture, such as farmworkers and Indigenous or local communities. It also means relying on biodiversity to boost soil and crop health and generate “a vivacious cycle of nutrients and pest prevention,” the study authors wrote.

They further expressed concern that, if pesticides were not included in the climate and agriculture conversation, governments might turn to solutions like no-till or precision agriculture that either still rely on synthetic chemicals or give large agribusiness companies too much control over food production.

In contrast, the study authors called for three major solutions:

  1. Including pesticide reduction targets in government climate goals: PANNA advised reducing pesticide use by 50 percent by 2030 and by 90 percent by 2050, as well as setting targets to cut pesticide toxicity, phase out highly hazardous pesticides and transition 30 percent of farmed land to agroecology or organic agriculture by 2030.
  2. Boosting funding for agricultural research and alternative agriculture: The report called on governments to invest in programs that encourage knowledge sharing between farms, increase technical assistance and financial aid to farmers currently practicing or hoping to practice agroecology and procure products from agroecological or organic farms.
  3. Support the rights of agricultural workers and other frontline communities: The report authors recommended measures including providing a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, protecting their rights to collective bargaining, helping them to access and own land and centering their leadership in crafting pesticide policies.

On the Frontlines in Fresno

One example of a frontline community whose efforts might be aided by the new report is the Central Valley in California. The eight counties of this agricultural hub are where more than 61 percent of the more than 200 million pounds of pesticides used in the state are applied, Executive Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) Nayamin Martinez told EcoWatch. Fresno County, where she lives, is the leader in application.

This has serious health consequences for both farmworkers and local communities — some of whom live 50 to 200 feet from orchards where pesticides are sprayed. This can lead to acute poisonings but also chronic exposure, with locals developing cancers after 30 years of living and working around pesticides that are hard to definitively trace to the chemicals. While incidents in which farmworkers are directly “drifted” — or accidentally inundated with pesticides in the field — are decreasing, they do still occur. In one recent incident in Fresno, almost 40 workers were drifted by mistake.

“We would really want pesticides not being used,” Nayamin said.

The Central Valley is also extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis.

“You name one example and I’ll give you ten ways,” Nayamin said.

Hotter summers and more extreme wildfires make outdoor agricultural work more dangerous, while the ongoing drought is depleting aquifers, leaving communities without access to water and farmworkers without work when water-stressed farmers chose to let some fields lie fallow.

The two problems can also interact.

“Pesticides, as the pesticide report pointed out, are really exacerbating other problems that we have, especially here in the Central Valley,” she said.

One main example is ozone pollution, which is worsened both by pesticide emissions and high heat. However, it has been a struggle for Nayamin and CCEJN to get pesticides included in state-wide air quality and climate regulations. For example, ozone emissions in the Central Valley are currently higher than they should be, yet when reviewing the State Implementation Plan (SIP) for air quality under the Clean Air Act, CCEJN found no mention of pesticides.

It’s gaps like this that Nayamin hopes the report will help them fill going forward.

“I think my only concern is that it didn’t come out last year,” Nayamin said.

That was when she and other advocates were working with the California Air Resources Board on the 2022 Scoping Plan for Achieving Carbon Neutrality.

“We were pushing for the Scoping Plan to include pesticides, because for us it was like, how are you talking about climate change and not including pesticides?” Nayamin asked.

Advocates managed to get targets for the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene (Telone) written into the plan, but in general, Nayamin expressed hopes that future California climate regulations would include more pesticide targets and that the report would help her and other advocates bolster the case for including them.

Beyond pushing for regulations, CCEJN is also in step with the report’s support for agroecology. With other organizations, it has secured funding to launch a demonstration farm in southwest Fresno in two months that will teach agroecological practices to farmworkers and low-income families in the region. Eventually, Nayamin hopes that the center will develop into a cooperative where farmworkers and community members can grow and sell their own produce.

“It’s a way of demonstrating that there’s another way of growing food,” Naymain said.

Another Way: Genuine Faux Farm

Rob Faux, who runs Genuine Faux Farm in northeast Iowa, is living proof of this truth. Faux, who acted as first reader on the report, has been farming “a whopping 15 acres” without pesticides of any kind since 2004. Faux told EcoWatch that his farm “follows agroecological practices,” though he acknowledged that he does not have access to the traditional, inherited knowledge that Indigenous farmers do.

Surrounded by large farms of row crops, Faux said he had been successful with his alternative approach, producing up to 15 tons of food in a single growing season. How does he manage this without pesticides?

“Our biggest tool on this farm is diversity,” Faux said.

In addition to growing as many as 35 crops per season and raising turkeys and chickens, Faux has also encouraged the natural biodiversity of his plot by leaving some areas to grow wild and planting native prairie plants. When Faux first started, he inherited land that had been conventionally used to grow row crops of soybean and corn. During the first five years of a different approach, pests would devour between 70 to 90 percent of his squash plants, forcing him to overplant to have any harvest at all. But, five years into his approach, Faux noticed an improvement.

“As time went by and as we built the ecosystem, the natural predators started moving back in,” Faux said. “And suddenly we weren’t getting these monstrous peaks of the pest. They were there still, and they’re still there today, but they’re in numbers that do not cause us economic harm. So now when I want to plant squash, I actually find that I overproduce more often than not.”

In another example, in around 2015, Faux decided to remove 33 percent of his melon plants and replace them with flowering plants including borage, zinnias and calendulas. The experiment didn’t just create a “beautiful field” full of pollinators, it also yielded 33 percent more melons than previous years. When Faux repeated the experiment the next year, he got the same result. A true diversity win.

Faux has faced many challenges in his nearly 20 years of farming. He noticed the impacts of the climate crisis began to intensify following 2008, with extreme storms, one-in-1,000-year rainfalls, droughts and visits from out-of-range pests.

“One of the things we started saying is we wish we could have a season where we didn’t set some sort of record,” he said.

He has also noticed overall that the area looks less healthy than in his youth.

“Trees don’t look as green, the leaves aren’t as big. It doesn’t look right. It looks like we’re getting sick. The whole landscape feels like it’s getting sick around me,” he said. “And that’s partly climate change. But we need to address the fact that climate change and pesticide use and the farming practices that go with it are a large part of what’s driving all these changes.”

But he has also noticed signs of hope, and not just on his small, alternative farm. One of his neighbors — a conventional roll cropper — chose three years ago to devote 50 acres of their farm to creating pollinator habitat. Since then, Faux has noticed that the number of pollinators has increased in his own farm and wildflowers have begun blooming from neighboring ditches.

This has taught Faux two things, he said. The first is that conventional farmers are open to new ways of doing things. The second is that nature remains extremely powerful and resilient when left to its own devices.

“When we talk about how, ‘Oh, how bad things are,’ we also need to talk about, ‘Oh, how good can things be?” he said.

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