Agribusiness and the unequal distribution of risks

Image: Elyeser Szturm


World champion in the use of pesticides, Brazil has also shown to occupy the first position in terms of ecosubordination to the flows of global capitalism

“Agro is the only sector of the Brazilian economy that is not afraid of international competition” – declared a presidential candidate[I]. What was missing was the fact that, in order to export its agricultural commodities, Brazil ranks first in the world in per capita consumption of pesticides, with 5.2 liters per person per year.[ii] In other words, the mentioned competitiveness is based, in part, on the fact that no country wants to compete with Brazil in the record use of substances that contaminate rivers, soils and the health of workers. Toxicity is, therefore, intrinsic to the prevailing agricultural model, which concentrates the main environmental problems associated with the profitability of agrochemical corporations in the countries of the Southern Hemisphere. Then let's see.

Pesticides are an emblematic commodity of the type of capitalism that took shape in the world after World War II. This way of accumulating wealth systematically articulates large-scale production and large-scale consumption. Thus, it allows large corporations to generate high profits through the association between the predicted obsolescence of products and consumerism. How is this association put into practice? In the case of agrochemical capital, the useful life cycle of substances – pesticides, fungicides, etc. – is limited. Over time, they lose effectiveness, which justifies the invention of new substances.

At the same time, monocultures – mostly exporters of commodities – are previously planned by agro businessmen as units of massive consumption of these substances. This economic and technological linkage, this circular feedback between agribusiness and the chemical industry, explains the systematic growth in the number of substances, the volume of consumption of these substances and the pressure exerted by corporations for the approval of new substances, both with the legislative power, as well as regulatory agencies.

This explains why regulatory agencies, including those in the area of ​​health, are seen by some as instruments for “inducing private investment” and “competitiveness of agricultural exports” rather than protecting public health. I quote an article published in 2017 by a member of this agency: “The delay in the release of agrochemical products in Brazil, whose agriculture will be responsible for feeding more than 2,5 billion people in the world, in 2050, is a disaster”; “therefore, there is an urgent need to unlock and modernize the regulatory framework”.[iii]

In this perspective, regulation is understood more as a step in streamlining the private wealth accumulation chain – an argument replaced here by “combating world hunger” – than as a space for assessing risks and guaranteeing rights. The industries, in turn, ask for agility in the approval of substances, although they take advantage of the delay in certain risk reassessments when these may come to establish restrictions for substances already in use.[iv] This deviation from the purpose of regulatory activity – thinking more about competitiveness than about health protection – is compatible with a conception of development that sees the country as an “economic growth machine” that reduces the Brazilian countryside to a consumption growth machine of pesticides – an intermediate productive consumption by monocultures and a collateral, unproductive or final consumption, imposed on field workers, residents around monoculture areas and consumers of food.

The machine for the growth of pesticide consumption is accompanied, in turn, by a machine for producing ignorance about the risks of its use. The production of ignorance about the risks of consumption and exposure to pesticides is part of the business strategies known as “dissuasion”, already tried out before by the tobacco and mining industries.[v]

Such strategies follow different stages: (i) the denial that the criticism is valid, with the mobilization of a counterscience supported by the companies and with the dissemination of doubts in the popular perception of the risks; (ii) the recognition that a problem exists, offering, for its treatment, limited answers, symbolic gestures of mitigation or transfer of responsibilities (in the case of pesticides, the allegation that the problem is the misuse and disposal of product packaging by workers); (iii) management of criticisms due to the public threat of the possibility of catastrophic losses of markets and foreign exchange for the country; or claiming that the war in Ukraine threatens the world with food insecurity that requires the use of pesticides; or justifying the normative double standard due to the climatic difference between countries in the South and North. But even in the face of these dissuasive strategies, social movements persist in their critical observation.

In a recent video produced by the European channel ARTE,[vi] a teacher from the school in the community of São Tomé, object of pesticide spraying, in Limoeiro do Norte in Ceará, expressed the following perception: “those who decide to use pesticides do not live in the sprayed areas”. This perception is perfectly extendable to the international level, when we verify that, in the more industrialized countries of the North, the precautionary principle tends to prevail in relation to the use of pesticides, while in the poor countries of the South, the previous presumption of the harmlessness of the substances prevails. While the European Union is discussing a project to reduce the use of toxic products in agriculture by half by the year 2030,[vii] Brazil is experiencing a wave of accelerated releases starting in 2019.

In 2018, 80 tons of pesticides were exported from Europe, 1/3 of which had their use banned in Europe itself.[viii] On the other hand, it is estimated that 30% of the substances authorized in Brazil are prohibited in Europe.[ix] This normative double standard, which makes large corporations export risky products from countries that do not allow their use, actually means the adoption of a double criterion for assigning rights. Brazil tolerates levels of pesticide residues for soybeans fifty times higher than the values ​​admitted in the European Union. The environmental inequality embedded there means, as we have seen, inequality in access to rights, which shows that the so-called “risk society” is, in fact, an unequal risk society.

Even though it is naturalized by companies that try to explain it for climate reasons, this international division of contamination is compatible with the sadly famous Summers Memorandum, written by the chief economist of the World Bank in 1991 and leaked for publication by the magazine The Economist, on the eve of the 1992 UN Conference. Economic rationality, said this economist, would justify peripheral countries being the preferential destination for practices that are most harmful to the environment: “(1) because the poorest, for the most part, do not live the time needed to suffer the effects of environmental pollution; (2) because, in economic “logic”, deaths in poor countries have a lower cost than in rich countries, as residents of these countries receive lower wages”.[X]

This discriminatory logic – of a kind of political economy of life and death – was effectively applied at the international level, often more accentuated, starting with the liberal reforms, which allowed international investors to pressure local governments to make environmental norms more flexible, such as condition of its implantation in peripheral economies or of opening markets to imports, which favored the imposition of damages and risks to the most dispossessed.

In the case of pesticides, the ability to allocate the greatest risks to the environment and workers in the South has been the means for transnationals to solve the problems arising from pressure from society in the countries of the North for an ecological transition. The wealth accumulation model has thus been able to continue without major changes, as the concentration of health and environmental ills is reserved for people in peripheral economies, where more harmful and persistent substances are used than in northern countries. This unequal division of risks presumes that peripheral countries have less self-defense capacity in the face of harm, considering political and economic elites addicted to neo-extractivist profitability, as well as rural workers pressured by job insecurity and small producers threatened by competition from large monocultural properties. .

In this international division of risks, consumers in countries that import commodities from the North would only be responsible for the health risk associated with the consumption of imported food or food produced with imported inputs. We know that, characterized by their less industrialized economies, Latin American countries have always occupied a position of technological dependence in relation to the central capitalist economies through the subordinated import of production goods of greater technological complexity. In the current neo-extractivist condition, to this already known economic and technological subordination, an ecological subordination was added, an eco-subordination by which these countries play the role of recipients of neocolonial flows of toxic products (in addition to the immense stocks of obsolete toxic products - organochlorines and dangerous organophosphates – already deposited, according to the FAO, largely in Africa).

As a world champion in the use of pesticides, Brazil has shown to occupy, with the support of the ruralist caucus in Congress, the first world position in terms of ecosubordination to the flows of global capitalism – water and soil fertility are exported in exchange for products that contaminate soil, water, air and workers' bodies. It is thanks to this systemic eco-submission and this perverse geo-economy – which transfers all social and environmental costs to more dispossessed third parties, both internationally and within countries – that global capitalism has been able to continue reproducing itself without altering its environmental standard. predatory and, from a sanitary point of view, discriminatory.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).



[I] The entirety of the presidential debate, 29/8/2022,

[ii] V. Tavares, Release of pesticides under express order, Poli magazine, EPSJV/Fiocruz, year VI, n.32, Jan.Feb.2014, p.17.

[iii] Regulation, the missing debate, Economic value, 18/8/2017, p. A12.

[iv] Renata Vieira, Released general, Time, 5/8/2019. P. 21

[v] P. Benson and S. Kirsch, Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation. Current Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, v. 51, no. 4, August 2010, p. 459-486.

[vi] ttps://

[vii] Amelie Poinssot, Pesticides: les negotiations européennes s'ouvrent pour une réduction massive sur le continent, 23 juin 2022, -une-reduction-massive-sur-le-continent

[viii] ttps://

[ix] LM Bombardi, Geography of pesticide use in Brazil and connections with the European Union, FFLCH – USP, São Paulo, 2017.

[X] Let Them Eat Pollution. The Economist, February 8, 1992.

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