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Toxic Pollution from Agriculture: Costs and Remedies

NIPR--New Ideas in Pollution Regulation

Evolution of the Research

During the past three decades, indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides in agriculture has created serious health and environmental problems in many developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program estimate that pesticide poisoning injures between one and five million agricultural workers per year.  At least 20,000 workers die from exposure every year, the majority in developing countries. Chemically polluted runoff from fields has also contaminated surface and ground waters, damaged fisheries, destroyed freshwater ecosystems and created growing "dead zones" in ocean areas proximate to the mouths of rivers that drain agricultural regions. Local agricultural pollution has now become a global problem, as toxic compounds from pesticides accumulate in oceanic food chains.  Even the tissues of land mammals in "pristine" polar regions now contain significant toxic accumulations.  

Although health and environmental effects of chemical pesticides are severe, to date information remains largely anecdotal. To a significant degree, there is also a general lack of reliable data on pesticide use in developing countries due to the high costs involved in primary farm-level data collection. The World Bank is committed to the promotion of sustainable agriculture in the partner countries, and for the past several years, the DECRG Infrastructure and Environment Unit (DECRG-IE) has been working to reduce this knowledge gap.  This research program examines the severity of toxic agricultural pollution and analyzes the potential for adopting safer production methods. 

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Square bullet next to featured article linksPesticide Use
Cleaner Production 
Square bullet next to featured article linksIntegrated Pest
Square bullet next to featured article linksOrganic Production
Square bullet next to featured article linksUseful Links

In the past 5 years,

  • Secondary data on pesticide residues on food products from the FDA was analyzed for insight on Agricultural trade, development and Toxic Risk;
  • Determinants of pesticide use in Brazil were explored with secondary data from Agro-census ;
  • Extent of pesticide overuse, health effects and pesticide risk perception were investigated with primary data from Bangladesh;
  • Health Risk Perception of Pesticide Traders was evaluated with primary data from Bangladesh;
  • Patterns of pesticide use and poverty were scrutinized with primary data from Vietnam;
  • Health effects of organophosphates and carbamates in Mekong delta, Vietnam were quantified with blood cholinesterase tests;
  • Profitability of IPM and conventional rice farming was compared with primary data from Bangladesh;
  • The information system need for evaluating Cuba’s experience with organic agriculture was assessed.

  Evolution of the Research

The research on Toxic Pollution from Agriculture: Costs and Remedies began with a study of pesticide residues in agricultural crops imported into the US, primarily from Latin American countries, and as reported by the US Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program.  The results suggest that farmers and consumers in developing countries are exposed to higher levels of toxic pesticides compared to higher income countries.  The following research then explored the determinants of pesticide use in Brazil using municipal-level agricultural census data.  Municipalities with higher shares of large-scale operations specializing in export crops were dominant pesticide users.

The next series of studies explored the economics of pesticide use at the farm-level with several surveys investigating pesticide overuse, pesticide misperceptions and health.  Studies focused in two countries: Bangladesh and Vietnam.  Pesticide overuse, misuse, lack of formal training and inadequate protection while handling pesticides were all found to be widespread.  The consequences of these factors on human and environmental health could be quite serious.  In the absence of reliable secondary information on the health effects of pesticide use, several studies were constructed to assess the relative health impacts.  Farmer perceptions of own-health were recorded, clinical exams, blood and skin tests were performed.

As a substitute for pesticide use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and the methods of organic agriculture can offer cleaner production methods without many of the negative externalities mentioned above.  Initiatives were launched in Bangladesh and Cuba to learn from farmer’s experience.  However, externality problems make it difficult for farmers to adopt cleaner production alternatives, individually.  The ongoing research in Vietnam is currently examining the role of the community and collective action in IPM adoption.

The environmental externality of pesticide use is a subject of our future research.


  • Susmita Dasgupta (Lead Researcher for Toxic Pollution from Agriculture: Costs and Remedies)
  • David R. Wheeler  is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, where he works on issues related to climate change, natural resource conservation, African infrastructure development, sustainable development indicators and the allocation of development aid. From
    1993-2006, as a Lead Economist in the World Bank's Development Research Group, he directed a team that worked on environmental policy and research issues in collaboration with policymakers and academics in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Ghana and other developing countries. After completing his
    PhD in 1974, he taught economics for two years at the National University of Zaire in Kinshasa. He joined the economics faculty at Boston University in 1976, and taught there until he joined the World Bank in 1990. While on the BU faculty, he was a visiting professor in
    MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning (1978-79), a co-founder and principal of the Boston Institute for Developing Economies (1987-1990), and Jakarta field director of the Development.
  • Craig Mesiner is an environmental economist who joined the Infrastructure and Environment unit in 1997. His research interests include the economic analysis of environmental programs and policies, including survey design and modeling. Current research activities include: i) the economics of pesticide use, integrated pest management and organic alternatives in agriculture, ii) environmental benefits valuation, iii) poverty-environment linkages, and iv) the impacts of climate change.
  • Mainul Huq has extensive research experience in development economics and environmental issues.  He is currently working as an Economist for the Development Policy Group (DPG) of Bangladesh.
  • Nlandu Mamingi is Professor of Economics at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados.  His area of specialisation is econometrics. His areas of research include econometrics and natural resources and environmental economics.  He has done extensive research work on pollution control, agricultural supply, valuation of recreational sites, and aggregation over time issues.  Mamingi received  a “Licence” degree  in economics from the National University of Zaire (D. R. Congo), a masters degree in development studies from the Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, and a Ph.D. degree in economics from the State University of New York at Albany.
  • Nguyen Huu Dung is the Director of Center for Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development (CEESD) and Faculty of Development Economics, University of Economics Hochiminh City, Vietnam. Dung is a specialist in the research department on agriculture, environment, socio-economics, and control of environmental pollution with economic instruments. He received his masters degree in Agricultural Development, and is a PhD candidate in Environmental Economics.
  • Khuc Xuyen is Director of the Centre of Occupational & Environmental Health and Senior of the Project Office on Accident and Injury at the Vietnam Ministry of Health. Xuyen has conducted extensive research on occupational & environmental health, occupational disease and accident and injury prevention. He received his graduate degree from Hanoi Medical University; his post graduate degree on Environmental Health and Occupational Disease from the Czech Republic; and a Doctor of Medical Sciences diploma from the Hanoi Medical University.


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