Breath of Clarity

Question posed for “Pesticides, external costs and policy options for Thai Agriculture”

Danette and/or anyone else,

Excellent point emphasizing “farmers experience the majority of health consequences due to a large amount of pesticide exposure. Therefore, it would be necessary to educate farmers about environmental health impacts caused by the pesticide”. The article aimed to show farmers the negative human health problems are not only external costs faced by people outside the farm. Perhaps, the study’s effort to increase awareness has potential to change valuation and therefore willingness to pay. However, as you mentioned, the authors even acknowledged educating farmers has limitations.

Considering Edward’s post above about Latin American banana plantation workers, why is health not the main factor in determining valuation? Are the people in the field not typically the same individuals making strategic operation decisions? On the other hand, do small-scale farms function differently?

Why would the United States be hesitant to tax producers and importers of pesticides? How would taxing producers and importers of pesticides impact large-scale farms vs. small-scale farms?

Response by Danette Bordenkircher:

In the US large scale farms typically rely on pesticides to maintain high crop yields. The majority of large scale farms use a monocropping technique which allows them to plant one crop over large areas of land. With this technique, farmers can use more machinery and can manage several acres with just a few people. This helps large scale farmers keep their cost low while growing crops that are heavily subsidized by the government. The majority of large scale crops, such as corn and soy, are not grown to be consumed by humans but are used to produce animal feed, biofuels, plastics, etc. Therefore, the concern for human exposure to pesticides may be relatively low when compared to the economic benefits of growing monoculture crops.

The disadvantage is that monocropping destroys biodiversity, resulting in a greater need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Small scall farmers typically grow multiple types of crops that require more workers to manage. However, having several types of crops in one area helps balance the ecosystem, reducing the need for chemical manipulation. Therefore, the impact of a pesticide tax on small scale farms would be minimal. In 2017, agriculture contributed $1.053 trillion to the US GDP yet small scale farms only contribute to 3% of US agriculture sales. With large scale farms making such a significant contribution to the economy, the US would likely be hesitant to tax pesticides. (USDA 2020)

“Farming and Farm Income.” Accessed June 27, 2020.

Response by Rachel Hartley:

Mary, adding tax to the production and/or importation of pesticides would likely end up as a cost passed on to consumers of their product – in this context the farmers – in the form of increased product pricing, to help cover the additional private cost taken on within the production or shipping process. For large-scale farms purchasing these more expensive pesticides, their profit-and-loss statement would likely not be impacted in an overly significant manner, as their use of pesticides could stay relatively steady even as they pay a bit more for the pesticides, which keep their yields relatively in line with what they were before the price jump. At the scale those farms are operating, they could likely manage that product price increase with minimal harm to their business. As for smaller farms, the story is not the same. Depending on their pesticide use, average yield, and financial status at the time of the new tax implementation, even a relatively small tax added to the production or importation of the pesticides they use would hold potential for significant financial harm to a small farmer’s profit-and-loss margin. Affording the more expensive product to maintain their current yield expectations/potential may not be feasible for a small operation to financially handle. They may be forced to produce lesser yields to sell on the market, or to consider adjusting their production strategy (i.e. use a less expensive pesticide that may not have the same results as what they are used to, or move away from pesticides altogether) – which may or may not be affordable and practical solutions for a small operation.

Response by Emily Fonti Lomauro:

I do think that education is important as it will undoubtedly affect some farmer’s decisions when it comes to pesticide use and application. At the very least, they will know how to keep themselves safe.

But I do have to remain skeptical of the power of education. The best analogy I can think of is the coal industry. The number of coal workers is on the decline in the US, but there are still 50,000 people in the field (Gaurang and Dholakia 2020). Coal production has been known for decades to cause black lung. There are federal guidelines meant to protect workers (the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Saftey Act) and yet, the cases of black lung are on the rise (Blackley et al. 2018, 1220). The decrease in coal miners is mainly due to the increased production and demand for natural gas (Gaurang and Dholakia 2020) not the associated health risks.

I hypothesize that if there was a resurgence in coal demand, there would also be an increase of miners, despite widespread knowledge of the risks of coal mining and black lung risks. A farmer has incentives to take risks with pesticides including higher yields, less time-intensive, and more demand for their more affordable product. The farmer can weigh the benefits and risks of using pesticides and decide for themselves if they want to subject themselves to that. They can farm and be exposed to minimal risks. Yet, for a coal miner, their job requires them to accept the risks involved. Their incentive to accept the risk is job security.

I want to believe that educating people on the risks to their health and the environment will change behavior. But if that were the case, we might not be having this discussion.

Blackley, David J., Cara N. Halldin, and A. Scott Laney, “Continued Increase in Prevalence of Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis in the United States, 1970–2017”, American Journal of Public Health 108, no. 9 (September 1, 2018): pp. 1220-1222. (Links to an external site.)

Kuykendall, Taylor, and Gaurang Dholakia. 2020. “US Coal Mining Employment Hits New Low at the End of 2019, May Go Lower in 2020” S&P Global Market Intelligence. February 19, 2020.

Response by Professor Scott Thomas:

I’m glad that you point out the limits to education. Policies need to be realistic, and too often the prescriptions from government agencies lack that wisdom.

Education and outreach are important, but I agree with you that if the market shifts and good paying jobs become available, then those jobs would be filled, especially in rural areas lacking options for employment.