(Beyond Pesticides, March 1, 2022) A report by the Independent finds chemical-intensive farming of crops for animal feed puts thousands of endangered species at risk. U.S. farmlands use more than 235 million pounds of pesticide (i.e., herbicides and insecticides) solely for animal feed production, many of which are highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs). Several HHP hazard categories include acutely toxic, chronic health hazards, and environmental hazards. Therefore, animal feed production intensifies global pollution, increases pesticide exposure, and degrades human, animal, and ecological health.
Although the report demonstrates a need to eliminate toxic pesticide use for the sake of human, animal, and ecosystem health, it will take more than eliminating the worst chemicals to address the impending biodiversity collapse and the climate crisis. Experts highlight the need for an urgent shift to organic land and agricultural management practices. The study notes, “These pesticides are taking a toll on our environment and biodiversity. Endangered species like the highly imperiled whooping crane, monarch butterflies, all species of salmon, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the San Joaquin kit fox, and the northern long-eared bat, as examples, all face significant threats from industrial agricultural operations and the chemicals applied. In order to conserve biodiversity and better protect vulnerable species and their habitats, we must reduce the production and consumption of animal protein and shift to a food system that prioritizes diverse plant foods.”
Over 10 billion animals involved in factory farming (chemical-intensive farming of crops for animal feed) endure increased amounts of stress, pain, and suffering to meet the demand for cheap meat. Many studies find enormous amounts of feed crop, mainly corn and soy results in habitat loss for wild animals, declining biodiversity, water pollution, pesticide pollution, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions. The production of massive amounts of animal feed contributes to abnormal growth rates among animals, leading to many health issues. Furthermore, these chemicals also take an enormous toll on the planet.
The World Animal Protection and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) report investigated the impacts pesticides have on the relationship between the factory farm industry and the worldwide decline of human, farmed animal, and wild species health. Researchers assessed data on glyphosate, atrazine, paraquat, dicamba, 2,4-D, neonicotinoids, and bifenthrin to determine the uses on crops, as well as related health and environmental effects. These six individual chemicals and one class of chemicals have common uses on corn and soybeans in the U.S. and are continuously increasing annually.
Using the most recent, comprehensive data from 2018 on U.S. pesticide use, researchers determined that farms applied nearly 172 million pounds of glyphosate to corn and soy, with 100 million pounds attributed to farm animal feed production. A CBD report finds glyphosate likely to adversely affect the health, survivability, and habitat of 93 percent of plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, the report also notes the impacts on human health, highlighting over 13,000 lawsuits asserting glyphosate’s role in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma development as recognized by The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO-IARC).
Following the same comprehensive data, farms applied nearly 61 million pounds of atrazine on corn and soybean crops, a 17 percent increase from 2012 levels. About 25 million pounds of atrazine use was on animal feed. The report notes that the endocrine disruption properties and persistent water contamination resulted in a ban in 35 countries and the European Union (EU). However, the chemical’s use in the U.S. puts over 1,000 endangered species (56 percent) at risk, including the whooping crane, the San Joaquin kit fox, and the California red-legged frog.
In 2018, U.S. farms applied 4.2 million pounds of paraquat to corn and soybeans, with over half (2.9 million pounds) attributable to animal feed production. Like atrazine, the EU and 53 other countries banned paraquat. The report notes paraquat toxicity to bird embryos, including the Japanese quail, mallards, bobwhite quail, and ring-necked pheasant. Furthermore, many studies demonstrate paraquat’s role in human poisonings, most notoriously Parkinson’s disease.
Dicamba use was another concern as farms applied 17 million pounds on corn and soy crops in 2018, a 1200 percent increase from 2012 application levels. However, farms used 11 million pounds solely for animal feed crop production. Despite the approval of genetically engineered (GE) soy crops to reduce dicamba use in 2016, the opposite effect occurred, increasing chemical use. The report notes dicamba use threatens monarch butterflies, and people who work with this chemical have an increased risk of developing various cancers. For the pesticide bifenthrin, farms applied over 700,000 pounds of the chemical on U.S. corn and soy crops, a 130 percent increase from 2012 use, with nearly 370,000 pounds used solely for animal feed. The report notes that bifenthrin is neurotoxic, highly toxic to insects and aquatic species, and impairs the ability of various insect and animal species.
In 2018, U.S. farms applied over 14.6 million pounds of 2,4-D to corn and soybean crops, with almost nine million pounds solely used for animal feed production. The report highlights the harmful effects 2,4-D has on beneficial insects and animals that provide ecosystem services, as well as the endocrine, immune, and neurotoxic influences on human health.
Lastly, U.S. farms used 2.6 million pounds of three neonicotinoids (neonics) on corn and soy, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, imidacloprid. Farm applied nearly 1.5 million pounds solely to animal feed production. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined these three chemicals to cause toxicity among all 38 protected amphibian species and three-fourths of all endangered plants and animals in the U.S. Specifically, the report notes that neonics pose the greatest risks to pollinators like bees, birds, butterflies, and bats. Furthermore, a single treated seed, or seed coated in these neonics, can kill a songbird upon ingestion. Furthermore, as little as 1/10th of a seed can decrease reproduction among the bird population.
The researchers warn, “With projections showing a likely continued increase in the production and consumption of meat and dairy in the US if nothing changes, it can be assumed that these pesticide use levels will also continue to increase alongside demand for industrially-produced feed, unless something changes.”
Agricultural land is subject to chemical-intensive farming that uses toxic pesticides to manage pests (e.g., weeds, insects, fungi) on animal feed crops. Nearly half of all global HHP use was on soybean and corn, staple crops in animal feed, with pesticide use on soybeans being the highest. Most soy and corn crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered (GE) to tolerate pesticides, including two highly hazardous pesticides commonly used on animal feed, glyphosate and atrazine. However, pesticide-resistant crops can increase chemical use, causing a rise in pesticide-resistant weeds (i.e., superweeds). As pesticide resistance grows at similar rates among GE and non-GE conventionally grown crops, health and environmental harm can be more severe. The increase in resistance is evident among herbicide-tolerant GE crops, including seeds genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant. Although one stated purpose of GE crops is to reduce pesticide use, increasing resistance can result in additional pesticide use to compensate. Furthermore, most corn and soy crops are monocultures that can exacerbate the impact of pesticide exposure. As farms convert farmlands into single-crop agriculture to sustain animal feed production, the demands for feed exceed requests for diverse crop production. Perversely, monoculture crops induce biodiversity loss and pollinator decline via pesticide exposure and habitat destruction.
This report highlights how unsustainable factory farming with regard to chemical pollution and intensive reliance on resources. Thus, the expansion of factory farming threatens wildlife and humans, especially children, farmworkers, and their families. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said back in 2013, “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain.” Alternatively, organic principles offer an existing federal guideline for ecologically and environmentally viable conditions for agriculture.
The report offers many recommendations that governmental officials, businesses, and individuals can adopt to protect endangered species and humans from toxic chemical use. In addition to reducing conventional (non-organic) meat and dairy consumption, the report recommends creating a more sustainable food production system less reliant on factory farming to mitigate hazardous chemical exposure.
The study concludes, “Government agencies and programs should instead support a shift to a more humane and sustainable food system that prioritizes the production of crops for human consumption and farming practices that foster rather than deplete biodiversity. This requires a reconceptualization of how we produce and consume protein. Our appetite and demand for animal proteins is fueling the further expansion of factory farming systems that are propped up by millions of pounds of herbicides and insecticides. This model is not only causing the suffering of billions of cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens, but countless wild species exposed to these toxic chemicals. By significantly reducing the amount of meat and dairy we produce and ensuring that the farmed animals that remain in production systems are living in higher welfare conditions we can create a more planet- and animal-friendly food system.”
Pesticides should be phased out and ultimately eliminated to protect the world’s wildlife and reduce the number of endangered species exposed to dangerous. Additionally, Beyond Pesticides has long fought against GE crops and pesticide use in agriculture and advocated for federal regulations that consider all potential impacts of pesticides on ecosystems and organisms. Chemical-intensive farming contributes to pesticide global market sales as farmers apply various herbicides and insecticides to many staple animal feed crops. International sales of pesticides pose a serious global health risk as 18 out of 19 analyzed highly hazardous pesticides are available in the U.S. pesticide market for use. Most Americans want stricter oversight of general large-scale livestock operations. Therefore, organic agriculture can offer more oversight on farming practices that curtail the need for toxic pesticides to protect global health and the environment. Regenerative organic agriculture revitalizes soil health through organic carbon sequestration while reducing pests and generating higher profits than chemical-intensive agriculture. Learn more about the adverse health and environmental effects chemical-intensive farming poses for various crops and how eating organic produce reduces pesticide exposure.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.