A global environmental problem that Ensia shone light on in 2016 is worse than suspected, researchers inspired by our reporting have found.

While the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates suggest global pesticide use is plateauing, Indiana University assistant professor of geography Annie Shattuck and colleagues, writing in the July 2023 issue of Global Environmental Change, report that use is actually growing.

Motivated by the need to accurately estimate the magnitude of pesticide use in order to work toward the Convention on Biological Diversity’s commitment to reducing pesticide risk, the researchers combined FAO data with trade statistics for 137 countries. Globally, they found a 20% jump in pesticide use between 2008 and 2018, with a 153% increase in low-income countries. Likely contributors include increased availability of inexpensive pesticides, rural development and changes in supply chains.

“Underestimates make it more difficult to assess the potential effects of rising pesticide use … and make it difficult to establish a baseline for global targets to reduce pesticide pollution risks,” the authors note. “Better global use estimates, along with detailed data on which pesticide classes are used, on what crops and where, could help build adequate regulatory structures, especially where such structures are either weak or do not exist.”