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Asha Sharma

California’s climate strategies ignore pesticides (Part I)

After joining PAN last spring, I spent a lot of time getting up to speed on the policy landscape in California. I initially felt overwhelmed by the state’s many regulatory strategies and plans to reduce or adapt to climate change.

This is Part I of an exploration of California’s failure to include concrete pesticide reductions as a key climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy. See Part II here, which covers how farmers across the state are leading the way with innovate ecological pest management strategies. 

After joining PAN last spring, I spent a lot of time getting up to speed on the policy landscape in California. I initially felt overwhelmed by the state’s many regulatory strategies and plans to reduce or adapt to climate change. However, I quickly realized one glaring oversight – every single strategy excludes concrete reductions in chemical pesticide use as a means to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And that’s a huge problem. Without decreased pesticide dependency and increased ecological pest management, California will fail to meet its climate goals, with the impacts of climate change and pesticide use continuing to fall disproportionately on people of color. 

Climate change expected to exacerbate pesticide exposure

Effects of climate change will likely increase the agricultural sector’s use of pesticides and increase pesticide exposure for rural communities and farmworkers unless we begin to incentivize other forms of pest management. Research shows climate change will most likely result in increased chemical pesticide use because of decreased efficacy of pesticides and increased pest and disease pressure. These findings are highly concerning, given pesticides are already applied on cropland in California at a 4.5 times higher rate than the national average. 

Of course, increased pesticide use means more pesticide exposure. At present, long-term exposure to pesticides is linked to a host of illnesses and diseases, from developmental disorders in children to cancer. However, higher temperatures under climate change will also mean higher environmental toxicity and pesticide volatilization (when a pesticide turns into a gas.) Volatilization is a primary source of pesticide drift, which can cause varying degrees of pesticide poisoning, including acute illness for those exposed to the toxic vapor. 

The compounded effects of potential increased pesticide use with increased exposure could have disastrous environmental effects and health impacts predominantly for people of color. Pesticide exposure occurs mainly along racial lines in California, with research finding that 60% of zip codes with the highest proportion of residents of color host > 95% of agricultural pesticide use in the state. 

Farmworkers in particular are on the frontlines of pesticide exposure, and increases in pesticide use exacerbate other effects from climate change like extreme heat. When applying chemical pesticides, farmworkers wear heavy duty PPE (personal protective equipment) that raises the risk of dangerous heat stress by preventing the body from cooling down. Protective clothing that workers rely on to take precautions from pesticide exposure would therefore increase risk from heat-related illnesses as temperatures rise because of climate change. 

Given the projected increase in pesticide use and exposure particularly for farmworkers and residents of color, ecological pest management and a transition away from chemical pesticide dependency must be a key part of our climate resilience and adaptation goals in California.

And. . . pesticides worsen climate change

In a particularly destructive cycle, while climate change is likely to increase pesticide use, pesticides can themselves contribute to climate change. Many chemical pesticides release greenhouse gas emissions during their production, storage, transportation and application. Meanwhile, alternative agriculture systems that limit chemical pesticide use, like organic farming, have been shown to significantly increase carbon stored in soils in California. 

Dry farm

Given how climate change will likely result in increased pesticide use and exposure, and how pesticide use can increase greenhouse gas emissions, California urgently needs to reduce pesticide dependency and incentivize ecological pest management and climate-friendly, socially-just agricultural systems, such as agroecology. Both agroecology and ecological pest management focus on mimicking natural ecosystems and building soil health and crop resilience to prevent the need for pest control measures in the first place. Yet, despite the mountain of evidence, the state’s climate change strategies have remained all but silent on pesticide use reduction.

Our climate strategies leave out pesticide reduction targets

There are two primary overarching climate strategies in California — The California Air Resources Board’s Scoping Plan, and the California Natural Resources Agency’s Climate Adaptation Strategy. The Scoping Plan is focused on climate change mitigation, while the Climate Adaptation Strategy is focused on – you guessed it — adaptation and resilience to climate change. Both strategies are currently in draft-form and in the process of being finalized by state agencies. However, neither plan currently includes chemical pesticide reduction targets or goals to combat climate change in the agricultural sector. 

The Scoping Plan is silent on chemical pesticides, while the Climate Adaptation Strategy merely states the need for safer pest management by reporting on the use of “specified pesticides.” However, the state already reports pesticide use, and high rates of pesticide applications have continued despite reporting requirements. What’s needed are clear reduction targets. 

Specific targets would help guide meaningful investments in incentives for farmers experimenting with alternative crop and pest management practices, and in an expansion of technical assistance providers who specialize in ecological pest management and agroecology.

Healthy soil

Photo courtesy | Kandarian Organic Farms

Both plans also fail to acknowledge the power of shifting to alternative agricultural systems that reduce chemical dependency, like agroecology or diversified organic agriculture, to mitigate and adapt to climate change. A systems-level approach would support farm management shifts that would have a much larger impact on addressing climate change than current strategies that focus on oversimplified measures like changes to single farming practices.

The Healthy Soils Program also ignores pesticides

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program, the premier program in the state meant to incentivize climate-friendly agriculture practices, offers incentives to farmers to reduce tillage (thought by some to increase carbon stored in soils), but leaves out incentives for farmers to reduce pesticide use. 

Pesticide manufacturers like Bayer (Monsanto) have successfully marketed herbicides as a climate change solution. These corporations claim that using herbicides allows farmers to reduce or eliminate their need to till the soil to control weeds, which increases the amount of carbon stored in soils. However, the science is still unconfirmed on whether the effects of reducing tillage on carbon stores are significant. And with no-till production, herbicides typically become the primary way to control weeds on conventional farms, increasing dependence on herbicides.

In addition to the program’s failure to recognize the association between reduced tillage and increased herbicide use, the program fails to recognize the negative impacts of pesticides on soil health.

The Healthy Soils Program is mentioned in both the state’s Scoping Plan and Climate Adaptation Strategy as key to mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the program falls short without incentivizing practices that directly reduce pesticide dependency like ecological pest management.

I’ve mentioned ecological pest management and agroecology multiple times. But what does ecological pest management actually look like? We spoke to a few farmers who are leading the way with innovative ecological pest management strategies. These chemical pesticide alternatives are practical and effective – see for yourself in Part II of this blog.

Find Part II of this blog here.

Photo Courtesy: Induchucuiti Organic Farms

Picture of Asha Sharma

Asha Sharma

Asha has a decade of experience as an environmental and agricultural justice campaigner, organizer and researcher. She is passionate about agroecology and supporting food-growing communities in building power. Her previous work at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Mighty Earth resulted in dozens of agricultural and food companies improving their conservation and human rights standards and practices. She received her M.S. in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis and her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Texas at Arlington. Asha is from Dallas, Texas and currently lives in Berkeley, California. In her free time, she loves to cook, garden and hike with her dog Frankie.

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