A new study adds to the growing evidence linking pesticides to harmful effects on organisms that are critically important to soil health, carbon sequestration to fight climate change, and biodiversity.
Compiling data from nearly 400 studies, the researchers found that pesticides significantly harmed soil-dwelling organisms, including earthworms, ants, beetles, and ground-nesting bees in 71% of cases. Impacts ranged from reduced reproduction and increased mortality, to reduced overall species diversity. This study is co-authored by researchers at Friends of the Earth, Center for Biological Diversity, and the University of Maryland. Further, the researchers’ findings are on the heels of a recent study showing that pesticide toxicity has increased (more than doubled!) for invertebrate species since 2005.
Soil: A living ecosystem
It’s clear that pesticides pose a grave threat to organisms critical to healthy food and farm systems. Yet U.S. regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency, aren’t required to consider risk to soil-dwelling organisms and the broader ecosystem of soil in their regulatory decisions.
But scientists know that soil isn’t just “dirt”. Instead, it’s a vast ecosystem, home to a wide range of organisms, from earthworms and bees, to microscopic fungi and bacteria. These organisms cycle nutrients and water critical for plant growth and carbon sequestration — both of which are necessary for ecosystem function — and for agriculture in its entirety. From the regulation of pests and diseases, to decomposing dead plants and animals to nourish new plant growth, we need healthy soils to grow food.
Without a healthy soil ecosystem, productivity suffers — and farmers must turn to more synthetic inputs, including pesticides and fertilizers, to maintain yields. Industry’s answer to problems caused by pesticides? More pesticides. This is the pesticide treadmill, and it’s not sustainable.
Another way: agroecology
A healthy soil ecosystem isn’t just good for ground-dwelling earthworms and bees; it’s good for farmers and eaters, too. Cropping systems that cultivate soil health require reduced chemical inputs to maintain yields, resulting in not just healthier ecosystems, but reduced input costs, too.
The integration of practices such as cover crops, diversified crop rotations, low or no-till cultivation practices, and organic soil amendment increase farmer profits and soil ecosystem health. Farmers often save from the sale of cover crops, decreased fertilizer costs, increases in yield, soil nutrient loss savings, and of course — savings from a reduction in pesticide use.
Agroecological farming systems can produce food, jobs, and economic and social well-being, while protecting ecosystem and soil health indicators like pollination, natural pest control, nutrient and water cycling, and erosion control. These benefits are a result of healthy soil ecosystems — of which soil-dwelling organisms are a critical component.
Ending reliance on chemical-intensive agriculture is necessary for healthy food and farm systems. By pushing for policy that supports farmers in implementing agroecological practices, we can protect soil health for all of us.