Pesticide Propaganda for Children? Refuting Vice's Anti-Farming Bromides

Vice News endorses all the currently fashionable opinions—including activist bromides about modern agriculture. The magazine recently took exception to children's books meant to teach elementary-school students about pesticides. I take exception to Vice's sorry excuse for science reporting.

We at ACSH never write articles about TikTok fashion celebrities or the benefits of sticking metal rods in your urethra because we have no interest in or knowledge of those topics. If you want to learn more about "People Who Stick Things Down Their Pee Hole," the fearless journalists at Vice News have the gritty details. Vice contributors will also pontificate about pesticides, though I encourage you to stay here if you want accurate information.

I mention our varying spheres of expertise because Vice recently published a foolish story alleging that the American Farm Bureau Foundation is distributing “propaganda” to elementary schools in the form of pro-agriculture books. The foundation, affiliated with the American Farm Bureau Federation, launched a publishing house in 2019 called Feeding Minds Press. Some of its ghastly titles include Hero For The Hungry: The Life & Work of Norman Borlaug. Recall that Borlaug was the monster who led the Green Revolution that helped save a billion people from starvation and the global economy $83 trillion.

Vice doesn't mention Hero For The Hungry. The corporate news outlet was more interested in two other books, A Berry Good Project and The Prized Pumpkin, “that extoll the benefits of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers ...” at a “time when the environmentally destructive factory farm model is being scrutinized and threatened like never before.”

At the risk of being called a “Big Ag” shill, I think these books are perfectly defensible. Pesticides and fertilizers are essential tools farmers need to produce a safe, abundant food supply. We do not want to live in a world without these chemicals, and Vice's sloppy reporting does nothing to undermine that conclusion.

Pesticides are really important

Let's take a look at the article's specific claims:

... A Berry Good Project doesn’t once mention the vast environmental impacts of industrial pesticides. An academic study last year found that 'pesticides widely used in American agriculture pose a grave threat to organisms that are critical to healthy soil, biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration to fight climate change,' explains a summary from the Center for Biological Diversity.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is a litigious activist group with a long history of lying about pesticides. It has zero credibility among agricultural scientists, much like the anti-vaccine Children's Health Defense has no credibility among physicians. Citing CBD as an authority on any subject except frivolous lawsuits is comical. But I digress.

Pesticides impact the environment, which nobody denies, but the question worth asking is, do the benefits of pesticide use offset its negative effects? Undoubtedly. As I wrote last year in Pesticide Propaganda: A Guide To Spotting Activism Masquerading as Journalism,

The simple fact is that pests destroy crops before we can harvest them for food. The more successful weeds, insects, and harmful microorganisms are in this pursuit, the greater the risk of malnutrition. Going hungry is pretty miserable, but if not addressed, it can be deadly, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide don't have enough to eat as you read this sentence. Pesticides also take out disease-spreading animals and reduce the presence of cancer-causing molds in food.”

Before Vice gives us a finger-wagging lecture about the ills of “industrial” pesticides again, its staff should consider the trade-offs that come with forgoing their use. [1] They may also want to review reports from the USDA and FDA, which consistently show that farmers use these chemicals in quantities far below the limits set by federal regulators.

...So are fertilizers

Vice went on to complain about fertilizers widely used in agriculture.

"Excess use of nitrogen fertilizer on farms can enter water supplies, where it can cause algae blooms that kill off fish and other aquatic species, while at the same time producing toxins that contaminate drinking water for humans."

Allow me to illustrate how easy it is to demonize a technology if you highlight certain facts out of context. The EPA reports that extracting materials and assembling and manufacturing parts for electric vehicles (EVs) generates more greenhouse gasses than the production process for their gasoline-powered counterparts. EVs also run on electricity generated mainly from fossil fuels. These “industrial” processes add dangerous, heat-trapping carbon to our atmosphere, jeopardizing the future of all life on earth.

Climate change activists would reasonably challenge me to discuss total emissions, and Vice should be equally consistent when reporting on nitrogen pollution. According to a November 2021 literature review, fertilizer use in developed countries stabilized more than 30 years ago. It is developing countries, which are trying to feed their growing and increasingly wealthy populations, that are driving expanded fertilizer use. The reviewers noted that:

"N consumption is increasing almost linearly in response to increasing demand for staple cereal food grains and animal-derived food (Fig. 1). But after the late 1980s, in many developing countries in East and South Asia, fertilizer N consumption increased several fold more than in the developed regions, where levels have stabilized since 1990 [My emphasis]."

Note that fertilizer use appears to be at the beginning of a decline even in regions where consumption is highest. It's an example of a predictable trend economists identified years ago: wealth creation often yields a cleaner environment as countries accumulate enough resources to meet their basic needs and address other less significant concerns. People with empty stomachs generally don't care about agricultural pollution.

Our World In Data makes a related but often overlooked point. Insufficient fertilizer use limits crop yields, necessitating the expansion of farmland globally, which carries its own environmental concerns:

Fertilizers help us to achieve higher crop yields ... this has a large environmental benefit. Higher crop yields mean we need to use less land for farming ... In many poorer countries we need more fertilizers ... This is not only good for farmers, but also for the environment: for the reasons above, closing yield gaps is one of the best ways we can prevent habitat loss across the tropics.

This isn't to say that fertilizers no longer impact the environment; they do. But as I explained above, every choice we make as a civilization involves trade-offs. When countries unnecessarily ban or restrict access to agrochemicals, they suffer severe food shortages. I invite Vice writers to visit Sri Lanka if they still have doubts. The same problem has been amplified in the wake of the Ukraine war. Food prices are up everywhere, and millions of people in emerging countries are going hungry because of fertilizer shortages.

Fortunately, the story may have a happy ending. Scientists are developing microbial fertilizers and pesticides that can help offset the long-term consequences of agrochemical pollution. The market for these and other biologicals is relatively small at an estimated $6 billion in 2020, but it's growing as more companies turn their attention to the space. The agriculture industry understands the problems farmers face and recognizes the need to develop solutions.

Erin Brockovich redux

Interestingly, many of the activist groups dedicated to agitating against the use of "synthetic" pesticides oppose the transition to these alternatives because they represent “industry strategies" that "basically aim to conform with – rather than transform – the dominant agri-food regime,” as Pesticide Action Network argued recently.

Vice operates with the same set of ideological blinders. In this worldview, there are greedy corporations (though, of course, not the $3 billion media conglomerate that owns Vice News) that value their bottom lines above the truth and brave environmentalists who rage against the machine no matter the consequences. Reporters who start with these assumptions have seen Erin Brockovich one too many times; they perpetuate a narrative that can't solve any problems. They should stick to reporting about fashion trends on TikTok and stop misleading their readers about farming. 


[1] “Industrial” is a scaremongering term in this context. Every good and service we consume is an “industrial” product to some extent.