Not all chemistry is created equal

August 3, 2022
Not all chemistry is created equal
By Jacqueline Heard, Enko founder and CEO

We’ve recently seen global efforts to ban or significantly reduce pesticides in farming, as well as increased attention on the negative effects of “forever chemicals” in all kinds of products.

Reading these headlines, it would be easy to believe that chemicals have a net-negative effect on the food system, and that our goal should be to do away with them altogether. The politicians and leaders raising questions about chemistry’s impacts have the best of intentions. There are abundant cases in which chemicals do significant harm.

But the conversation about them lacks nuance. We need a system-wide evaluation of how chemicals harm us and the environment, how they can help us, and how we can make them safer and more effective instead of banning them outright.

How did we get to this point?

It’s important to understand the history that has led to the chemical bans we see today. Climate change is increasing resistance to the pesticides and herbicides growers use around the world, meaning those chemicals—many of which have been in use for decades—no longer protect crops as well. 

At the same time, these outdated chemicals pose risks to people and the environment. Many of the bans we see are in response to these risks. But walking away from chemicals altogether has its own risks, which isn’t often considered in these conversations.

The risks of banning chemistry in farming

Our food system is at an inflection point. While the global population grows and arable land dwindles, climate change and natural disasters threaten crop yields around the world. This worsens food shortages and drives up prices, which can lead to social unrest. Meanwhile, Russia’s weaponization of food during the war in Ukraine shows what can happen when countries embroiled in global conflict don’t have reliable commodity crop supplies.

All of these problems require urgent action. While we know that chemistry is a reliable tool to increase crop yields and food production, we’ve also seen the damage that occurs when farmers are forced to use outdated chemicals because they have no other options. 

We’ve also seen what happens when chemistry is removed from the equation altogether. Sri Lanka’s recent nationwide shift to all-organic farming is a stark example. After banning agrochemicals and fertilizers with no preparation time for growers, many feared their crop yields would drop by as much as 60 percent last year. This led to food shortages and price hikes, and is a major contributor to the country’s current economic and political crisis.

Moving away from an all-or-nothing approach

The discussion about chemistry in farming shouldn’t be all-or-nothing. Rather, we need to consider chemistry’s benefits and drawbacks broadly within the global food system. Instead of walking away from it—especially when farmers have no viable alternatives to protect their crops—we need to invest in making it safer and more effective.

This is our mission at Enko. Drawing from technologies proven in the pharmaceutical space, we are working to discover and develop new chemistries that will target critical pests threatening global agriculture – without harming the broader ecosystem. Our approach requires fewer resources and less time than traditional R&D methods, in which this process typically takes at least a decade.

Chemistry is not a panacea to make our global food system more resilient. Preventing widespread food crises will require collaboration and many different solutions working in tandem. Better, safer chemicals can be one of those solutions.