Pesticide use and government failure
The massive use of pesticides has been a worrying problem for many years. These products have raised serious concerns about their impact on human health, and this is the reason why the Ecophyto Plan was implemented in France following the 2007 Grenelle de l’environnement multi-party debate. Its objective was to halve the use of pesticides by 2018. Unfortunately, this objective was not achieved. Two other plans have since been launched (Ecophyto II and Ecophyto II+), but the goal still seems out of reach. In fact, in the last decade, pesticide use has increased by 25%.
The goals of environmental protection plans may not be achievable, but the involvement of governments should also be looked at more closely. For example, in October 2017, the European Parliament supported a draft text to reduce the maximum cadmium concentration in fertilisers to 20 mg per kg. Cadmium is a heavy metal in phosphate rocks and is classified as a proven carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Its harmful effects on humans are numerous: cadmium affects the kidneys, the skeleton, and the respiratory system. It is also considered to be an endocrine disruptor. For about ten years, health agencies have been warning of its dangerous nature and campaigning for stricter regulations. Several countries, such as Germany and Denmark, are in favour of the proposed text, but this is not universally the case. The Spanish Minister of Agriculture and Environment is opposed to the bill, stating on the 21st of February that overly strict cadmium limits would exclude her country from the phosphate fertiliser market. A member of the People’s Party, there is controversy surrounding the fact that between 2004 and 2012 she was director of strategic planning for Fertiberia, the leading fertiliser producer in Spain, and advisor to Fertial, an Algerian fertiliser producer, both of which belong to the same group: Villar Mir.
France does not support the project either, even though French agriculture consumes 430,000 tons of phosphate fertiliser with high cadmium levels. While these products are associated with obesity, autism and specific congenital malformations, health considerations take second place in the minds of decision-makers.
The controversy surrounding glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto under the Roundup brand, highlights the difficulty for governments to arbitrate between regulation, economic interests and preservation of the agricultural sector.
In France, a report by the French Court of Auditors published on the 4th of February 2020 gives a very disappointing assessment of the government’s action, despite a total budget of 400 million euros allocated to the three Ecophyto plans. While organic farming is making progress, with 9.5% of farms converted, this falls far short of the stated objective of 20% in 2020. At the same time, the use of pesticides has intensified. Moreover, in agricultural areas, consumption of the most hazardous products has practically returned to 2009 levels.
However, from an ethical point of view, there are worse things. France tolerates the production, on its territory, of pesticides that have been banned in Europe for more than ten years. The reason for this mystery? These products are exported to developing countries. France annually ships nearly 270 tons of atrazine – a carcinogenic endocrine disruptor banned in the European Union since 2003 – to Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia. However, as the UN states in its 2017 report on the right to food: “Very often, hazardous pesticides, whose use is not or is no longer allowed in industrialised countries, are exported to developing countries. […]” Exposing people in other countries to toxins that have been shown to cause serious health problems and even death is a clear violation of human rights.
Initially, Article 83 of the Food Act (EGalim law) of the 30th of October 2018 provided for the prohibition of such practices from 2022, a comfortable deadline. In a second phase, the government backed down under pressure from lobby groups. It extended the deadline to 2025 through a provision slipped into the Pact Law of the 11th of April 2019. The Constitutional Council invalidated this legislative rider, but the Union of the Plant Protection Industry (UIPP) counterattacked by tabling a priority constitutionality question in November 2019. The Constitutional Council finally rejected this attempt to continue producing dangerous pesticides on French soil in a ruling on the 31st of January 2020.
Commercial strategies with serious consequences
While Article 125 of the law for the recovery of biodiversity of the 8th of August 2016 came into force, prohibiting the use of neonicotinoids by the 1st of July 2020 at the latest, the authorisation of sulfoxaflor by the National Health Safety Agency (Anses) on the 27th of September 2019 raises questions. When the use of a molecule is banned, the law ensures that all the products from that same chemical family are similarly forbidden. But the producing companies sometimes manage to circumvent the law by proposing new molecules. For example, Dow Chemicals introduced sulfoxaflor – a neonicotinoid that would not be a neonicotinoid – and obtained the necessary authorisations to put it on the market.
The impact of neonicotinoids on biodiversity is no longer in doubt, and it is alarming. All flying insects are affected, such that their population has shrunk by 80% in nearly 30 years. One study even estimates that during the two worst years – 2014 and 2016 – 12% of the plots were sufficiently contaminated to kill half of the honeybees that ventured there. The persistence of neonicotinoids aggravates the problem because neonicotinoids are found in crops several years after being banned.
Sulfoxaflor molecules have the same characteristics as those of neonicotinoids. They act on the insect nervous systems and raise the same concerns about their acute toxicity, especially for bees. Like neonicotinoids, they are transported throughout the plant by the sap and become impregnated in the soil, finding their way into watercourses and groundwater in the long term through accumulation.
Deterioration of water and air quality
The danger of pesticides not only concerns insects; they also degrade the quality of freshwater supplies. The world has been mainly concerned with problems related to the quantity of water available, without paying much attention to its quality. However, according to the WHO, 844 million people do not have adequate access to safe drinking water and 1.8 billion people are drinking unclean water.
In developed countries, nitrogen is the most common water pollutant. The economist Richard Damania indicates that since 1960, the amount of nitrogen fertiliser used has increased sevenfold, and some of these products end up in rivers. They are then transformed into nitrates, unbalancing the aquatic environment and encouraging the proliferation of algae that consume oxygen and degrade the ecosystem.
Nitrogen also carries risks to human health. The World Bank has focused on developing children exposed early in life to high levels of nitrates in India, Vietnam and 33 African countries. In India, an exposed person is on average one to two centimetres smaller in adulthood than a non-exposed person, and the average height of women in India has declined by four centimetres over the past century. The World Bank’s study also found that the average size of children exposed to nitrates in India is about one to two centimetres less than that of a non-exposed person in adulthood.
Air quality is also affected by this pollution, although the problem was ignored before the 2000s. The production of phosphate fertilisers emits gases that are harmful to the population. This is the case in Gabès, a Tunisian city that is home to the Groupe de Chimie Tunisien (GCT) and some 20 other exporting plants. Children in this geographical area are increasingly prone to asthma, and lung cancer is common. According to the National Environmental Protection Agency (ANPE), air quality is significantly affected, and the thresholds set by the WHO are permanently exceeded. The European Commission has published a study according to which 95% of air pollution is attributable to GCT fumes. Among the pollutants identified are sulphur oxide, ammonia, and hydrogen fluoride. Furthermore, in Gabès, five million tonnes of toxic waste have been dumped into the sea over the last thirty years.
In France, too, the air we breathe is contaminated by pollution, especially pesticides. Indeed, the air is laden with fine particles and toxic gases from vehicle traffic and heating. It is polluted by pesticides used in agriculture. The Fédération des Associations Agréées de Surveillance de la Qualité de l’Air (Aasqa) compiles in a database called Phytamo fifteen years of measurements of pesticides in the air. Among 90 active substances listed, several have been banned for many years, such as lindane, which has been banned since 1998 but is still present in the air.
A public health problem
Many agricultural products are classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMR). This is the case of chlorpyrifos, which reduces the IQ of every European child by an average of 2.5 points. In addition to its toxicity, it is persistent and affects daily life by contaminating oranges, apples and lettuce. It is also found in the urine of children and the umbilical cord of pregnant women. According to Barbara Demenexin, a researcher at the CNRS, this endocrine disruptor is neurotoxic and attacks the brain’s development. A study conducted in California shows an increase in the frequency of autism and early brain damage in children exposed to chlorpyrifos. In Europe, exposure to this family of pesticides is associated with 59,300 cases of intellectual disability per year.
Serial intoxications have also involved a hitherto unknown pesticide: metam-sodium. Inhabitants of rural communities are dangerously exposed to this pesticide’s wholesale use by market gardeners, mostly since fields are often located near schools. Children are, therefore, significantly affected by these toxic escapes.
The West Indies has also been affected by public health problems related to pesticides. In 1972, the Toxics Commission approved the use of chlordecone to treat banana plantations for the weevil, an insect that destroys crops. The banana plantations of Guadeloupe and Martinique were heavily sprayed for more than 20 years. In September 1993, the product was finally banned from the market. However, a large-scale study launched by Public Health France in 2013 made an alarming observation: 95% of Guadeloupeans and 92% of Martiniqueans are contaminated by chlordecone. This very persistent endocrine disruptor can remain in the soil for up to 700 years. It is strongly suspected of increasing the risk of prostate cancer. Indeed, Martinique has the highest frequency of these cancers in the world, with rates twice as high as those in metropolitan France. For the time being, the authorities do not recognise a formal link between prostate cancer and chlordecone exposure. A study was conducted in Martinique in 2013 to confirm whether or not there was a this link. After a year, the National Cancer Institute (Inca) cut off funding, and questioned its feasibility in a letter signed by the former president, Agnès Buzyn.
These dramatic examples clearly show the extent of the risks and damage associated with the use of pesticides. They raise serious questions about their massive contribution, the difficulty of controlling them, and the lack of political determination.
At Anaxis, our goal is to act for the environment, biodiversity and health. Our policy is based on a strong commitment and a concrete approach. In particular, it consists of excluding from selection those companies that produce pesticides. As we have tried to explain, these companies bear moral responsibility for many public health problems, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. We firmly believe that the legality of a pesticide in no way justifies investing in the company that produces it.
Furthermore, we are confident that these activities will be more tightly regulated in the future and that their disastrous consequences will lead to public indictments, production bans, financial sanctions and payment of damages to victims. The future of pesticide producers offers little visibility and, in our view, investor risk is poorly rewarded.
The Bayer case is an essential illustration of the nature of these risks: the group paid 63 billion dollars for the takeover of Monsanto in June 2018, making it the biggest gamble in Bayer’s history. However, shortly after the deal, the group was destabilised by the multiple lawsuits brought against Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship product accused of causing cancer. The new agrochemical giant has been facing an avalanche of claims for months, with the final bill impossible to assess. As of the 30th of July 2019, the group was facing 18,400 legal proceedings. It has already been convicted three times. In May 2019, the court ordered it to pay 2 billion dollars to an American couple suffering from cancer. The acquisition of Monsanto therefore turned out to be disastrous for investors. On the 20th of March 2019, Bayer’s share price fell by almost 12% following another legal setback. Since Monsanto’s takeover, the share has fallen by 40%.
Anaxis’s commitment to protecting investors from similar “mishaps” goes far beyond this. As part of our responsible management, we have defined sector exclusions that includes 16 sectors whose activities do not seem compatible with our objectives of protecting the environment and improving the health of populations. Details of our approach are available online.