Is agroecology the answer for pesticide dependence?

In 2007, the United States agricultural industry spent over 7.8 billion dollars on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides combined. But scientists are working against this. Food Tank spoke with one of the leading experts in the fight, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters/File
A farmer rides a tractor as he sprays weed killer to treat his field in Sancourt, near Cambrai, France (March 18, 2016).

In 2007, the United States agricultural industry spent over 7.8 billion dollars on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides combined. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman is one of the experts leading the movement against the widespread use of pesticides. She is a senior scientist and director of the Grassroots Science Program at the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). She is also a graduate of Yale and Cornell Universities with degrees in women’s studies and ecology and evolutionary biology. 

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Marcia about her work with PAN, and with agroecology field schools in Asia and Africa. 

Food Tank (FT): After studying ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and women's studies at Yale University before that, what sparked your interest in working with (or rather against) pesticides?

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman (MIE): As I was working in rural areas of Africa and Asia helping to set up and run rural development projects, I saw sales representatives from pesticide companies out in the country selling to the local farmers. I witnessed the extreme, and almost always unprotected, widespread use of pesticides on these rural farms. After traveling and working for almost 14 years and seeing this same problem on many occasions, I realized that the ecological and environmental aspects of the struggles need to be at the forefront of our concerns. This was when I decided to go back to Cornell and study agroecology, and it eventually lead to my work with PAN. 

(FT): In Somalia, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Cambodia, you developed successful schools of sustainable agriculture, literacy, and ecologically sound pest management. Do you think it would be more or less difficult to set up the same schools in lesser-developed parts of the United States? This is all while taking into account the roles of women and economic success in the societies aforementioned.

MIE: These schools are about grassroots movements, the sharing of knowledge, and building upon that knowledge within a community, and thus can happen anywhere, provided the community takes the initiative. Regarding when they will come to the United States, the answer is soon, but they will take different forms than the schools in which I have worked. With regards to potential setbacks or barriers, it comes to the government and their commitment to change the systems in which we live. 

(FT): While in these other countries, did you witness any large agricultural corporations, similar to Monsanto in the US, trying to control the agricultural industries of these countries? If so, to what degree were they in control?

MIE: There was no visible backlash, but I did encounter their influence in the governments of the countries I visited, and this proved to be the biggest obstacle to our work. With six companies controlling almost three-quarters of the world pesticide market, their influence on governments is extremely apparent. The governments of countries in which I worked would strictly supply products created by certain agribusinesses to their people.

(FT): When working against corporate giants of the agricultural business, what have you found to be the most difficult part of gaining ground against these businesses?

MIE: One of the toughest parts of working against the large agribusinesses is how few and how large they are. The six companies I mentioned earlier have close ties to governments all over the world. In the United States, there is US$90 million worth of lobbying in Congress by these companies. EPA officials will change positions often, moving between being members of lobby groups for Monsanto or Dupont and being members of the EPA board. Large agribusinesses will also work with the USDA to silence scientists whose findings would be detrimental to pesticide companies. The fact that much of my own or my colleagues' research has been and can be silenced has been a major setback.

(FT): With regards to organic agriculture research funding, have you or any of your colleagues been working at gaining more funding from the USDA? 

MIE: We have, though the corporate lobbyists make it quite difficult to say anything against them, for the companies they support have a large influence in the media. With such prominent public relations departments, the agribusinesses can almost feed the public what they find beneficial.

(FT): How were the farmers that are using agroecological practices, including ecological weed and insect pest management, able to break the 'mold' and become the innovative farmers leading the way towards more sustainable agriculture?

MIE: The use of GMO seeds and pesticides creates a vicious cycle of debt for small farmers that is very difficult to break. In India, there have been a large number of suicides in cotton farmers, largely due to their extreme debt. One method of breaking the ‘mold' is the farmer to farmer approach, which not only builds better agriculture system but also improves the community. When communities come together to build back soil and replace harsh chemicals with biology, they are very successful and create lasting solutions. In India, there are over 10 million farmers that are a part of community managed sustainable agriculture. Our organization's [PAN] book explains how their pest management costs are down 80 percent, and outside food purchases are down 44 percent, allowing farmers to become more sustainable and more economically successful. 

(FT): Are these farmers succeeding economically in their efforts to become more sustainable? Because that may be the deciding factor for many farmers trying to change their practices to think more towards the future.

MIE: There is no formal follow-up program through the field schools, but PAN lifts up successful foreign and minority farmers to highlight their work. We also focus on how policies can be changed to better protect said farmers and create more success stories. 

This article first appeared in Food Tank.

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