I am aware that current agricultural production would not be viable without the application of pesticides, but their use has been so excessive that the amount of these products used today is surely much greater than what should actually be applied.
The indiscriminate use of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides is causing considerable damage to human health and wildlife, but because excessive use is not penalized in any way in Mexico, then there are no consequences and no one is held responsible.
The current situation in Mexico
Mexico has been an active participant in international agreements related to toxic substances, being a signatory since 2003 to the Stockholm Convention, which deals with persistent organic pollutants.
In addition, it has also participated since 2005 in the Rotterdam Convention, on the prior informed consent applicable to certain pesticides and dangerous chemicals in international trade.
However, the Mexican political strategy has been to ban the use of the most harmful substances, and although several have been banned, pesticides that have already been banned in other countries are still allowed, such as paraquat, lindane, parathion, malathion and endosulfan.
The problem with this political strategy is that it has remained very limited, since it does not stimulate the gradual displacement and substitution of the most toxic pesticides, basically due to a lack of incentives to encourage the agricultural sector to do so.
In this sense, an environmental tax on pesticides based on their toxicity seems to be the most appropriate option to begin to avoid their excessive use. This is a question that has been applied for several years in European countries, with Denmark being the most successful case.
A tax on pesticides?
In Mexico, the environmental policy related to the use of agricultural pesticides has focused almost entirely on preventing the damage, something that has been failed, to which we must add that the actions to repair the damage already done are practically nonexistent.
Denmark, Sweden, France and Norway have successfully established a system of taxes on pesticides, with a level of differentiation according to their level of toxicity, based on the principles: “whoever pollutes pays” and “who uses it pays” .
In Denmark, the first government action plan against pesticides 1986-1997, was launched due to an excessive increase in their use and the serious decrease of wildlife in the vicinity of agricultural land.
The guidelines of this initial plan were two: advisory activities to producers and research on pesticide reduction methods. Interestingly, during the first year of implementation, not only did the use of pesticides not decrease, but it increased.
Then, little by little, other measures were implemented, such as the certification of applicators through a face-to-face course, registration in application notebooks and random inspections, measures whose result was positive but far from what was expected.
Between 1997 and 1999, the results of the first plan were analyzed and an independent study was commissioned, in order to establish the second plan of action against pesticides 2000-2003, in which the promotion of ecological alternatives, financed by the government, was highlighted.
The third action plan against pesticides 2004-2009 was much broader, including water pollution, food residues and biodiversity care, for which several methods were implemented together.
However, the pesticide tax dating from 1996, one of the most drastic in Europe, is the most remarkable method in terms of the positive results obtained, the basis of its success being the fact that it is returned to farmers in form of supports of various kinds.
It is worth mentioning that since it began to be applied until today, this tax has not been free of criticism, especially because at the time it was applied on the value of the pesticide, and not on the damage of the pesticide, which has changed.
Since 2013, this tax has been applied to pesticides according to their harmfulness, considering three factors: impact on human health, environmental impact and environmental behavior, which is why it is a tax that can reach very high levels.
Lessons from European cases
The taxes on pesticides applied in European Union countries have not been free of criticism and problems, but today their success is undeniable, so there are three basic lessons that we must learn on the subject.
The first of these is that the tax must be established based on the damage they cause to human health and wildlife, that is, the most toxic substances must have the highest tax, because in this way the development of products will be promoted. less harmful.
The second is that government procedures and mechanisms must be implemented so that the payment of the tax is as simple as possible, both for companies and farmers, in addition to making its evasion as difficult as possible for any actor.
The third is that if the amount collected by this tax is returned to farmers, in the form of some kind of support that rewards those who use pesticides more rationally, then there will be a faster and greater acceptance.
Important aspects to consider
For a pesticide tax system to be viable, it is necessary to have a clear and precise system for cataloging them, according to their toxicity. In Europe they use the World Health Organization classification system, which is based primarily on human health effects.
The great advantage of this classification system is its international recognition, in addition to presenting a wide spectrum when analyzing different characteristics of pesticide substances.
On the contrary, its greatest limitation is that it only considers one dimension of the problem, being that many pesticides may not significantly affect human health, but do affect the environment: contamination of aquifers, damage to mammals, birds, fish and insects, etc.
Another issue that must be considered is that, in the case of Mexico, there are no studies that allow monetizing the value of the environmental damage caused by pesticides, so determining the value of the tax on pesticides could constitute a point of conflict.
Some specialists indicate that, as pesticides are exempt from VAT, the most appropriate thing would be to set the highest level, 16%, for the most toxic pesticides, and lower it to 0% for the least toxic pesticides. Although of course, other alternatives could be proposed.
Consequences of the application of the tax
The application of a tax on pesticides would have consequences on production costs and therefore on the prices paid by consumers. In fact, the increase in prices will be very noticeable for those agricultural products with intensive use of pesticides, such as tomatoes and potatoes.
To avoid this affecting the economy of consumers, it would be necessary to create incentives that make producers stop applying those pesticides whose social and environmental impact is greater than the benefit they can provide, so that they gradually disappear due to lack of use.
That is, the value of the total tax collected should be reimbursed to farmers, which can be done in many ways: subsidizing water and electricity, delivery of agricultural machinery and inputs for production, or any matter that allows them to reduce their costs. production costs.
And one point that remains on the table is the role of pesticide manufacturers and marketers, since administratively it would not be correct to apply the same tax charge twice to the same product, so the fairest solution could be for companies to pay one part of the tax and the farmers the other part.
Although of course, a pesticide tax alone will not be enough, but must be complemented by an investment strategy in education and research.