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Breaking our Pesticide Addiction: A 12-Step Program for Ecologically-Based Pest Management

Recently I had the opportunity to spend an entire day at the University of Florida Department of Entomology — the same department where I obtained my M.S. more than 30 years ago. I gave a talk on the law and ecology of pesticides and pest management and met with graduate students and faculty. It was fascinating to hear about the innovative research being conducted related to ecologically based pest management and sustainable agriculture. The discussions that day provided concrete illustrations of some of the challenges of developing sound pesticide regulation that I have highlighted in my recent scholarship, particularly my recently published book chapter.

First, it reminded me how it important it is for lawyers and scientists to share their perspectives and engage in the interdisciplinary work that is necessary to solve today’s complex environmental issues. Second, it reminded me of the challenges of incorporating new scientific research and understandings into a legal system that demands certainty and a regulatory system that has become ossified. Finally, hearing from scientists working on the cutting edge of research about the daunting task of feeding a growing population at the same time that climate change may dramatically reduce agricultural production and increase crop pest problems reminded me of just how much is at stake.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the developed world has relied heavily on the use of synthetic chemical pesticides to support industrialized high-yield agriculture. Chemical pesticides, generally derived from fossil fuels, comprise a significant component of most industrialized monoculture agriculture. This dependency on synthetic chemical pesticides is attributable to a number of factors including ill-conceived policy choices, perverse economic incentives, and the inherent characteristics of pest populations and their responses to chemical controls. The combination of these factors has created what is in essence an addiction to pesticides that does not make economic sense, that contributes to significant human health and environmental harms, and that is counterproductive in that it can lead to ever greater pesticide dependency. As with any addiction, the developed world’s addiction to chemical pesticides will not be easy to break.

Just as a drug addict may require greater doses or strengths over time to achieve the same result, and will often become ill if she or he goes too long without using the drug, our current system of industrialized farming sets up a situation where more and more toxic pesticides are needed to achieve the same pest control results and where failure to apply pesticides can lead to serious pest outbreaks resulting in significant crop losses. This vicious cycle of pesticide use leading to more pest problems and consequently more pesticide use has created a pesticide treadmill. A number of legal, political, and societal changes are needed to break our pesticide addiction and step off the pesticide treadmill.  In my recent book chapter, I explore how the metaphor of addiction or chemical dependency is an apt one and offers useful insights into both the nature of the problem and potential solutions.  Building on this metaphor,   I propose a program to break the pesticide addiction, using the 12-step program created by Alcoholics Anonymous as a framework for treating pesticide addiction by moving to a more ecologically-based system of pest control.

Cross-posted at UF Law Faculty Blog.

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