The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has published a report on the environmental and health impacts of pesticides and fertilizers and ways to minimize those impacts. The report was released ahead of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5), which is convening from 22-23 February 2021 in a virtual format. 

A Summary for Policymakers was released in advance of a longer report expected prior to UNEA-5. The report aims to improve the understanding of current practices and drivers of pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as identify knowledge gaps regarding environmental and health risks. The report addresses current management practices, legislation, and policies. It also identifies opportunities for transformative actions and enabling policies to minimize adverse environmental and health impacts.

The report acknowledges the global goal to minimize adverse impacts of chemicals and waste by 2020 was not achieved for pesticides and fertilizers. It notes expanded global demand, production, and use of pesticides and fertilizers, with combined sales growing at about 4.1% per year and projected to reach USD 309 billion by 2025.

Pesticide and fertilizer production are increasing as the demand for crops, goods, and services grows, with increased food demand as a main driver, along with demand for crops used for feed, fibers, fuels, and feedstocks. While pesticides and fertilizers do provide benefits, their production and use have costs. For example, pesticides cause both acute and long-term health impacts, with an estimated 385 million cases of non-fatal unintentional pesticide poisonings every year and approximately 11,000 deaths. Pesticide exposure is associated with cancers and neurological, immunological, and reproductive effects, among other health impacts.

Pesticides are omnipresent in the environment, including in soils and surface and groundwater, and are frequently detected at levels that exceed legal or environmental standards. Adverse impacts are mainly caused by excessive and inefficient use, leading to nutrient losses, drinking water contamination, and eutrophication of freshwater systems and coastal zones.

While some progress has been made in strengthening pesticide, fertilizer and nutrient management, including through international agreements, the authors say more must be done. The report calls for incremental and transformative actions by all stakeholders in the value chain and agri-food system, including a scaling up commitments to meet targets.

The report proposes a range of actions. To minimize the adverse environmental and health impacts, actions could include: incentivizing healthy and sustainable consumer choices and consumption; changing crop management and adopting ecosystem-based approaches; using economic instruments to create a level playing field for greener products and approaches; promoting use of direct finance to encourage sustainable agriculture; and strengthening standards and adopting corporate policies for sustainable supply chain management.

Actions to strengthen pesticide management include: strengthening control of pesticide distribution and use and enforcing legislation; prioritizing development of and access to low-risk pesticides; addressing the trade in substandard, illegal, and counterfeit pesticides; and supporting the adoption of extended product responsibility by pesticide manufacturers and traders.

Actions to strengthen fertilizer and nutrient management include: enacting national policies for quality fertilizer control; strengthening global policies on sustainable and safe fertilizer use; scaling up training of all relevant stakeholders in fertilizer and nutrient management; and ensuring accessibility of suitable and affordable fertilizers.

The report was developed by UNEP in consultation with Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and a range of relevant experts and stakeholders, following a request from UNEA-3. UNEP prepared this report in advance of the 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5), which will convene 22-23 February 2021 in a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic under the theme ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.’

This is one of multiple reports UNEP is preparing for UNEA-5. The reports build on Global Chemicals Outlook II (GCO-II) findings and messages and are being developed following mandates from UNEA resolutions. [Publication: Envisioning a chemical-safe world Environmental and health impacts of pesticides and fertilizers and ways of minimizing them: Summary for policymakers]