Scientists Advocate for ‘Pesticidovigilance’ to Protect Human Health

In the West, agricultural technology enables farmers to produce plentiful crops all your round. But to ensure this constant supply of food, produces must often rely on widespread use of pesticides.

While mounting research shows that insecticide and pesticide use can negatively impact wildlife, government officials have generally operated under the assumption that, unless humans come into direct contact with pesticides during spraying, relative health risks remain extremely low. However, one top government adviser from the UK insists that this claim is wrong.

Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Dr. Alice Milner of Royal Holloway University write in a “Science” commentary this month that the largely unrestrained use of pesticides is both unnecessary and potentially harmful.

Are we underestimating the exposure risk of pesticides?

These researchers argue that standard environmental toxicity tests do not have adequate predictive power to be reliable given the large-scale application of pesticides. They also contend that current regulations do not properly account for the diffuse environmental effects. After all, inn many parts of the world, there is no upper limit on pesticide use.

While this commentary is not an official government statement, the opinion of two influential and well-regarded scientists is valuable. More than that, though, Boyd and Milner are not just lamenting the lack of broader insight when it comes to pesticides, but they are also offering a solution: namely, that we treat pesticides in the same way the pharmaceutical industry treats drugs like antibiotics.

Until relatively recently, the world used antibiotics extensively, under the assumption that getting ahead of diseases was better than treating them once they manifest. These drugs have been a central pillar for the meat industry, for example. However, this approach did not take into account the fact that more frequent use of antibiotics leads to their ineffectiveness. We now face massive antibiotic resistance, and the world is scrambling to keep up.

A similar challenge can occur with widespread pesticide application, as organisms become resistant from repeated exposure.

As such, the researchers argue that radically scaling back pesticides and only using these chemicals when absolutely necessary — rather than as a blanket preventative measure — would be the safest approach.

‘Pesticidovigilance’ and greater safety

Furthermore, the paper acknowledges that the first few stages of pesticide testing are rigorous and roughly parallel to that of medicine development.

However, when it comes to drug testing, there is a fourth stage of safety analysis — and that occurs once the drug is on the market. So called “pharmacovigilance” allows pharmaceutical companies to continue to collect data on safety risks, efficacy and how the product is being used, allowing them to better control the product and mitigate any unforeseen consequences.

This stage, Boyd and Milner say, is missing from pesticide regulation but could be of enormous benefit to analyzing the wider effects of pesticide use. Dr. Milner tells the Guardian:

We want to start a discussion about how we can introduce a global monitoring programme for pesticides, similar to pharmaceuticals. It can take years to fully understand the environmental impact. Any chemical you put into the environment has the potential to be widely distributed. We’ve known this for decades, particularly through the early work in the 1960s – the Silent Spring, DDT and so on – and you can find chemicals in places that have not been treated because of the connectivity of ecosystems. There are often quite unexpected effects [and] you often don’t see them until the pesticide is used at more industrial scales.

It’s important to note that the researchers aren’t claiming that there are massive human health risks from pesticides, though some research maintains that the health risks from direct exposure may be more severe than previously thought. These scientist simply state that our current regulatory frameworks don’t — and perhaps can’t — take into account environmental drift and exposure when use of these products is so high. As such, they suggest a more cautious approach.

Earlier this year, the United Nations human rights council issued a report in which it highlighted the real world harms of pesticides and called for governments to transition away from pesticides. It also praised strong regulatory frameworks like those in the EU. These policies have led to a ban on neonicotinoids, which can harm pollinators.

While transitioning away from pesticides certainly won’t happen any time soon, calling for greater restraint in their use and increasing oversight are achievable goals — and ones that do not have to threaten food security. It will therefore be up to our governments to get tough on this issue and ensure we use pesticides sparingly and only where they are most needed.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

39 comments

Lorraine Andersen

There is too much pesticide in our food and water as it is. I think they need to find another way to protect the crops.

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Ann B
Ann B23 days ago

no chemicals should be allowed- all going to water table and into us - not to mention butterflies bees fogs turtles all almost gone etc

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Colin Clauscen
Colin C23 days ago

All chemical pesticides should be banned.

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Irene S
Irene S24 days ago

This could and should have happened decades ago. There is never an effect without an unwanted side effect. Don´t tell me, it took such a long time to recognise, poison is not only toxic for plants or insects or fungi. But it´s a start, probably times are changing now.

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Glennis W
Glennis W25 days ago

Very informative Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W25 days ago

Great information and advice Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W25 days ago

Very interesting article Thank you for caring and sharing

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Henry M
Henry M25 days ago

Pesticides should be illegal. Or at least products containing ingrrdients growth with pesticides should be labeled.

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Peggy B
Peggy B25 days ago

Noted

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Cruel J
Cruel J25 days ago

If you aren't eating organic, the odds of your life being shortened go way up thanks to the corruption of our so called "leaders" who ONLY eat organic and non GMO foods.

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