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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

April 2021: Global population growth is increasing the need for food at a global scale. The increased food demand has led to higher uses of pesticides in intensive agricultural systems. Evidence suggests that two-thirds of global agricultural land are now at risk of pesticide pollution. Many at risk areas are considered part of ‘food bowl’ nations who feed large portions of the global population. It highlights the need for an accelerated transition to sustainable agricultural systems that provide sufficient food without high levels of pesticide use.


New evidence suggests that 64% of global agricultural land used for food crops is at risk of pesticide pollution. Based on the risks to soil, atmosphere, and surface and ground water, a third of at-risk areas are in high-biodiversity regions. In addition, 19% of at-risk regions are in low-and lower-middle income nations and 5% are located in water scarce areas. With the global population projected to reach 8.5 billion people by 2030 and the ensuing increase in food demand, scientists expect global pesticide use to increase significantly. Many areas that are at high-risk of pesticide pollution are considered global ‘food bowl’ nations who are providing crops for a large portion of the world’s population. At risk areas include China, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  

Implications and opportunities

Pesticides are commonly used to improve crop yields and productivity levels in high-intensity farming systems. Their productivity boosting benefits notwithstanding, the widespread use of pesticides is increasingly raising concerns about negative impacts on the environment, human, and animal health. For example, insect populations are key to crop pollinators but have been experiencing sharp declines over the last years which has been linked to the use of harmful pesticides. Runoffs and soil infiltration from pesticides can reach surface waters and groundwater which can pollute water bodies and reduce the usability of vital water resources. It highlights the need for a global strategy to transition towards a sustainable global food system which produces sufficient food while reducing the use of pesticides.


The above referenced estimates draw from a global model that maps pollution risks caused by 92 most commonly used chemicals in agricultural pesticides in 168 countries and the results should be seen within the context of the model’s accuracy and limitations.


Tang, F.H., Lenzen, M., McBratney, A. and Maggi, F., 2021. Risk of pesticide pollution at the global scale. Nature Geoscience, pp.1-5.

Devis, D., (2021). Pesiticdes put two-thirds of agricultural land at risk. Available at: