Member Highlight - Pesticide Action Network

Friday, August 22, 2014

Questions answered by Judy Hatcher, PAN's Executive Director 

What does PAN see as the primary challenges and opportunities surrounding climate change?

Many of the issues that PAN and Rural Climate Network members have worked on for decades intersect when you’re talking about climate change: corporate control of the food system, alternatives to agrichemicals, public health for people who live and work in farm communities, conservation of wetlands, etc. There’s so much going on when you think of “climate change” that it can feel overwhelming. Unpacking it all and moving the pieces forward while the clock is ticking is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Agrichemical companies are trying to have it both ways. Industrial agriculture’s ‘Green Revolution’ wiped out traditional varieties of rice in Asia, made farmers more dependent on chemical inputs, eroded traditional knowledge in farming, and caused irreparable damage to the environment, including depletion of water sources. Their products contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and to some of the problems that farmers are fighting, like superweeds--and we’re told that the solution is to buy more of their products to fix those problems. It’s just what Rachel Carson wrote about some 50 years ago.

For PAN, the search for effective solutions to climate change is an opportunity talk up localized, biodiversity-based ecological agriculture in addressing climate change problems. Biodiversity-based ecological agriculture--agroecology--has the potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Sustainable food production can mitigate the effects of climate change and build the capacity of farming communities to adapt to higher temperatures and changing weather patterns.

What initiatives is PAN undertaking to address some of these challenges and opportunities?

We’ll continue to pose agroecology as a common-sense measure that we should be taking anyway, as my colleague Marcia Ishii-Eiteman explained this spring in one of her blogs. Our international network is promoting non-chemical alternatives to pest management and related issues in UN-based forums like the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). Here in the U.S., we will be working with partners like the Women, Food and Agriculture Network to give farmers, and especially women, a bigger platform to talk about alternatives to agrichemicals. Much of our work is within larger coalitions, most notably the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which has fought to ensure that conservation programs, like climate-friendly agriculture and pesticide reduction supports, remain in the federal Farm Bill and continue to receive financial support. We’ve been particularly active in working with a dozen or so other NSAC members in California.

How do pesticides impact rural and urban communities differently?

PAN focuses on the chemicals used in industrial agriculture, so we think of people who live and work in farm areas as being on the frontlines, and at a higher risk of suffering from birth defects, cancers, developmental delays, Parkinson’s and autism. Children are uniquely vulnerable to chemical exposure. A report released by the state of California found that over half a million kids go to schools within a quarter mile of fields where pesticides are sprayed. But it’s not just farmers and farmworkers; pesticides travel a long way through the air and water. People living in counties where corn is grown, for example, are concerned about levels of the herbicide atrazine in their drinking water that’s much higher than would ever be allowed in the European Union, where it was banned years ago. With PAN’s help, people in rural Minnesota are trained to monitor how chemicals like chlorothalonil, a probable carcinogen used to fight potato blight, drifted from the fields into their communities.

Everyone should be concerned, though, no matter where you live. As an urban consumer, I can use resources like PAN’s What's On My Food? app to reduce my exposure to pesticides, and I can support campaigns like the Equitable Food Initiative to increase the availability of safely grown food. But the world is one big ecosystem. Hazardous agricultural pesticides like endosulfan and chlorpyrifos, pulled thousands of miles away from America’s heartland by the Earth’s air and water currents, accumulate in the bodies of people who’ve never been south of the Arctic Circle. Chemicals applied to the soil leach into the groundwater, travelling through the watershed and contaminating our drinking water.  So even though I live in a congested urban area, I know that I have a stake in supporting the health of folks in rural communities, even if they are far away.

You just returned from the Women and Climate Summit in Bali. Can you share some of what you learned there?

Over 80 women from nearly 40 countries met at the Green School in Ubud this summer to compare notes and strategies to build a stronger movement. It was an amazing gathering! Kudos to Global Greengrants, the Alliance of Funds and the International Network of Women’s Funds for bringing us all together.

A few personal takeaways:

● In the U.S. we tend to think of climate change primarily as a problem for the near future. But in many countries around the world the future is already here, and they are suffering in a big way right now. The people of Tulun, in Papua New Guinea have already had to abandon their ancestral homes and relocate because the entire island has been disappearing beneath them for the past few decades. It’s important that those of us whose countries contributed the most to the greenhouse gas problem adjust our timelines to those who are most affected by droughts, floods and rising sea levels today.

● It doesn’t seem possible to organize around climate change without taking human rights and equity into account. At the Green School, the women couldn’t talk about their work on climate change without talking about patriarchy, poverty, disenfranchisement and violence. Having a space that embraced both women’s issues and classic environmental issues was much appreciated.

● A tremendous amount of international funding to fight climate change will be leveraged in the coming years, and if we  don’t act quickly, it will all go to government agencies and to very large business and NGOs in the Global North. Little, if any, will trickle down to mid-range and smaller elements of civil society. We have to start following the money and being vocal about our priorities now so that affected communities can have a say in which strategies are implemented in their countries.

● For all the serious topics we addressed, and the struggles and burdens so many of the summit’s participants face on a constant basis, I was struck by how much laughter there was, how many new friends I made, and how little encouragement we needed to dance whenever music was playing.

What are some of PAN’s goals surrounding climate change adaptation and mitigation?

We believe that chemical-intensive agriculture is a false solution to the problems of food insecurity and climate change, so we’ll keep promoting agroecological practices and local food systems as sustainable measures to mitigate climate change, feed people, support livelihoods and foster resilience.  Genetically modified seeds are supposedly resilient to climate change, and agrochemical corporations are rushing to capture the lucrative climate-resistant seeds and pesticide market. Climate change is profitable for the six corporations (BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta) that control 75 percent of the global pesticides market. If we can loosen the grip that corporate farming has on the global food system, there will be more resources available for small-scale farmers to implement carbon capture and sequestration, reforestation, wetlands protection and other measures.

What policy would PAN like to see to address climate change?

PAN has advocated for several of the Farm Bill programs that support diversified, climate-friendly practices. Examples include insurance programs that link soil and water conservation to government subsidies, and climate-friendly practices within the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The UN- and World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a comprehensive report on the world’s agricultural systems, and the most recent reports from the IPCC, all recommended agroecological farming practices as a specific measure we can adopt to address climate change. We’re very much in favor of that!