Forgotten Soil Ecosystems Are Being Destroyed by Pesticides

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

As the world rushes to save charismatic species like pandas, whales, and even bees, one unseen class of animals has been left behind, and the consequences could resonate through every aspect of human life. Earthworms, beetles, springtails, and other underground organisms are being damaged and killed by farm pesticides. Without these “unsung heroes,” the health of soils will deteriorate rapidly, impacting flora, fauna, and human food supplies. A new analysis builds on previous research showing that pesticides aren’t a “one and done” solution and impact generations of life.

Why This Matters: Soils are estimated to contain roughly 25% of all life on earth and provide nutrients for all food. They act as carbon sinks, holding as much carbon as all plant life above ground. But pollution, over-farming, forest destruction, and rising temperatures damage the health of soils across the world and release carbon into the atmosphere. Repairing these ecosystems isn’t as simple as piling on the fertilizer; it takes thousands of years for healthy soil layers to develop. Tiny soil organisms, ranging from inches to microscopic, work 24/7 to maintain the world’s topsoil, but with current rates of degradation, the world’s topsoil could vanish within the next 60 years. 


Pesticide Problems: The study analyzed reviewed nearly 400 studies of the effects of 284 pesticides on 275 species of non-target invertebrates that live at least partially in the soil. 

  • Researchers tested parameters like mortality, abundance, behavior, reproduction, and biochemical and morphological changes, to see how each pesticide affected each species. 
  • A whopping 71% of tested parameters found adverse effects of chemicals on soil inhabitants. Earthworms were particularly affected, showing adverse pesticide effects in 84% of tested parameters


It’s not just one or two pesticides that are causing harm, the results are really very consistent across the whole class of chemical poisons,” explained Nathan Donley, one of the authors of the study.

In the U.S., the only organism that pesticides are tested on is honey bees, and in more impoverished nations, wildlife safety may not be tested at all. “It’s crazy to have a single species that may never come into contact with soil in its entire life as a proxy for every terrestrial invertebrate out there,” said Donley. “You might as well use a fish.”

The European Union currently tests pesticides on one species of mite, springtail, earthworm, and microbial activity and is considering tests for woodlouse and symbiotic fungi as well. But Donley says more can still be done, including raising awareness. “Soils are incredibly important. But how pesticides can harm soil invertebrates gets a lot less coverage than pollinators, mammals, and birds – it’s incredibly important that changes.”


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