I live in a wealthy part of the British Isles, a Unesco site, famed for clean beaches and beautiful scenery. It has a thriving agricultural system that produces much loved and respected produce that many see as a gold standard.
The farmers are commonly LEAF marque and Red Tractor approved and are fully supported by the local government.
Carbon targets are being reached, precision fertiliser techniques are commonplace, as are wildlife corridors, tree planting and cover-cropping. Progressive digitalisation is being adopted, and the produce is often on “eat the season” lists across the UK.
All these are key attributes of climate positive, regenerative agriculture, and ripe for the carbon markets. The farmers aren’t required to adhere to human rights-based labelling as it is assumed that other regulations manage these issues, such as minimum wage and standard local workers’ rights.
Yet, in the shadows of all this positive action lies our complicated relationship with chemicals. Each year the season starts, and hundreds of tonnes of agrochemicals arrive to perform a range of activities that support the main production method of potatoes. Fertilisers, pesticides, and plastics are used to keep the show on the road, but our relationship with chemicals doesn’t stop at the farm gate.
“The drips on his face were pinkie red – it was the pink fungicide they put on potatoes”
A few weeks ago I went up to the farmers’ fields above my home with tea and biscuits for the workers, to be welcoming. The migrant workers round me are from the Philippines, Africa, Eastern Europe, and have been granted seasonal visas. We didn’t need much shared language to work out what tea everyone would like.
I spoke to a guy who looked like he was in charge, we worked out where he would leave the tray, and how much time I had before their lunch. The only other word he said that I understood was “fungicide”.
It was a damp, mild day, and the worker I was talking to looked tired. His face was dripping in sweat. The drips on his face were pinkie red.
I thought at first, he’d cut himself around his eyes but then realised it was the pink fungicide they put on the potatoes. I know in the shed when they are ‘standing potatoes’ (a technique to prep the potatoes so they grow quicker) and using the fungicide they have to use protective equipment.
The pink sweat was dribbling into his nostrils and mouth because when you work hard with your hands you tend to wipe your brow. This affected me and left me concerned for his health and thinking of all the unknown damages caused by these practices.
“Each chemical used on local farms impacts health, life on land; most are known to cause disease and birth defects”
I asked around my local farming community for information on the ingredients that the workers are exposed to, they are mancozeb, cymoxanil, fluazinam, propamocarb, fludioxonil, azoxystrobin.
The chemical reports are on PubChem. Each one impacts health, life on land, and most are known to cause disease and birth defects. These are a few of the hundreds of thousands of man-made chemicals that are known to have toxic side effects.
This experience coincided with reporting of the the next layer of the planetary boundaries revealed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute, showing the levels of Novel Entities. One I have really been waiting for.
Novel entities are broadly defined as products created by humans, introduced to the environment, that could have a disruptive direct or indirect impact on earth systems. Roughly 350,000 entities come under this category, yet only a small percentage have a clear eco-toxicity report acknowledging their impact to human health. Two thousand novel entities are invented each year. This is the fifth out of nine boundaries scientists say have been crossed.
Others include climate change, loss of biodiversity, land-systems change and changes in biogeochemical flows of elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
“How have such toxic chemicals become so mainstream?”
Novel entities, such as, PFOS, CFCs, DDT have deep roots in the environmental movement, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring focusing on the wider effects of DDT that lead to the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency in America in 1970. Chemicals have been invented throughout our industrial revolution to solve problems, create efficiencies, to do the work of people, to support productivity. Yet long term risks and a failing to understand how chemicals interact with the natural world, leads to a host of unexpected and complicated problems.
These novel entities are ubiquitous, they are often not visible to the senses. They go unreported, unmeasured, and unaddressed, and the problem becomes complex very quickly.
Complex problems occur when a novel entity is invented to solve a single problem, it becomes vital to the success and function of a system, and that system gets embedded into other systems. This creates a complex relationship with that novel entity.
The system the novel entity supports may be inherently flawed and this leads to a wicked problem. Systems that novel entities embed themselves in, which are hard to resolve, aren’t just production types, like conventional or regenerative agriculture, but the systems of fashion, affordability, and convenience.
Consider a packet of long-life pancake mix, cooked on a non-stick pan and washed up with Fairy Liquid. These novel entities are associated with systemic issues such as expectation of efficiency. And they lead to loss of skill, autoimmune disease, cancers, birth defects and damage to aquatic life. It begs the question, how have such toxic chemicals become so mainstream?
“It will take 40,000 years to resolve the toxic impact of PFAS”
The reason for this is a result of many factors; the competitive culture of an industry; a legal framework that supports the simplification of food labels and Life Cycle Assessments. Add to this a lack of consumer knowledge, and consumer agendas that consider the use of chemicals a low priority.
Then you have intellectual property protection as an investment instrument. Scientists need to prove that a novel entity is dangerous; the scientific process is not aligned with long-term ecological data needs; there is poor record keeping once a chemical is in use. And there is the issue of affordability which leads to the resale of chemicals in unregulated jurisdictions. And none of this maps to the narrow lens of the climate agenda.
DDT is still used in many countries. Also, it is expected it will take 40,000 years to resolve the toxic impact of PFAS. Our approach to date remains ineffective.
As a researcher and food systems entrepreneur I argue that the severity of the problem of novel entities is being ignored, and this became clearer when I met the farm worker. As new ways are created to measure the processes on farms, how are we engaging and responding to the human story? My fear is that we will respond to this problem by providing a sink so they can wash their faces, providing PPE to minimise exposure, increasing pay in line with risk, or informing the consumer of the presence of fungicide.
The real problem is complex, and often comes down to the method of tackling an issue without consideration of the system. I’d hope that as practitioners aiming for a safe food system, we would prioritise systems that don’t relying on toxic chemicals. But to start I think it calls for an approach that redefines how we look at problems.