Pesticides and the loss of biodiversity

Pesticide use has a harmful impact on biological diversity: they can have short-term toxic effects on directly-exposed organisms, and long-term effects can result from changes to habitats and the food chain. Half a century ago, Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ clearly revealed the far-reaching environmental impact of pesticides, which is still relevant today.  As she said in her book "the more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened and that nothing I could do would be more important.”

Pesticides are chemical substances designed to be toxic to organisms that affect plants’ growth such as fungi, insects or weeds. However, while pesticides help farmers to grow food in a more intensive and simple way, this generates many externalities as they cause the death of many wildlife species including mammals, earthworms and bees. Historically, some of the most toxic, persistent pollutants released into the environment have been pesticides (e.g. DDT, dieldrin, agent orange). Their toxicity and capacity to accumulate in soils and in the food chain was discovered after decades of use in agriculture and these pesticides have played a key role in the degradation of the natural resources, habitats and biodiversity that we experience today. Our pesticide-intensive agricultural model has been identified as a major cause of biodiversity loss. "Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides result in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.” stated the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

In the EU, the Plant Protection Regulation (PPR) (EC) No 1107/2009 recognises that pesticides have played a key role in the environmental degradation we witness today. One of its purposes is "to ensure a high level of protection of both human and animal health and the environment (Rec. 8)” and requires that “pesticide use should have no unacceptable effects in the environment and its ecosystems [art 2(b,c)]”. PAN Europe works to protect the pollinators, secure the partial ban of neonicotinoids that harm them and widen it, prevent the abuse of the derogations by the EU Member States. PAN Europe's work also focuses on the contamination of European freshwater systems by pesticides, giving a special emphasis on the effects of endocrine-disrupting pesticides on aquatic ecosystems.

To learn more, read our factsheets, see our publications and presentations.

Further useful information

More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas; Hallmann CA et al, Plos One, 2017

Amphibians and plant-protection products: what research and action is needed?; Environmental Sciences Europe, 17 May 2017

Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England; Woodcock BA et al, Nature Communications 2016

Pesticide authorization in the EU — environment unprotected?; Stehle S, Schulz R, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 2015

Pesticides reduce regional biodiversity of stream invertebrates; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 June 2013

Selected News Articles

Where have all our insects gone?; The Guardian, June 2018

Pesticide may be reason butterfly numbers are falling in UK, says study; The Guardian, November 2015


Biodiversity on arable grounds; European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI), May 2019

PAN Europe's previous publications

Pesticides and the loss of biodiversity How intensive pesticide use affects wildlife populations and species diversity; March 2010


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Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the European Union, European Commission, DG Environment, LIFE programme. Sole responsibility for this publication lies with the authors and the funders are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.