Pesticide Drone Company a Bad Fit for Alameda Point

Richard Bangert -- Building 39 on West Tower Avenue at Alameda Point. Pesticide drone company Pyka is seeking to lease the vacant former Navy aircraft hangar from the city.
Richard Bangert -- Building 39 on West Tower Avenue at Alameda Point. Pesticide drone company Pyka is seeking to lease the vacant former Navy aircraft hangar from the city.

Pesticide Drone Company a Bad Fit for Alameda Point

At its Sept. 5 meeting, the City Council will consider whether to lease a hangar at Alameda Point to a company that makes autonomous aircraft for spraying pesticides on agricultural crops. The lease proposal can be rejected on the grounds that the use of synthetic pesticides is completely at odds with principles of environmental sustainability.

The City Council will determine if they want to seek to benefit from a company whose plane dispenses pesticides. They will have to grapple with what it means to be environmentally sustainable and whether the earth needs less pesticides or more cost-efficient pesticide delivery systems.

The company seeking the lease is called Pyka. They have two autonomous aircraft products, one for spraying pesticides, the other for cargo delivery. The pesticide plane has the most immediate sales potential, having been approved for use on banana plantations in Costa Rica and on farms in the U.S.

The report by city staff touts the company’s aircraft as being “green” and “climate friendly” because they do not use fossil fuels. Sorry, but an electric motor does not make a plane dispensing pesticides a green machine.

The environmental implications of these planes reveals that 99 percent of synthetic pesticides are derived from fossil fuels, according to a recent report from the Pesticide Action Network called “Pesticides and Climate Change: A Vicious Cycle.”

In addition to the source material being petroleum, the environmental impacts are compounded during the manufacturing process, which takes on average 10 times more energy to produce than the same quantity of nitrogen fertilizer, according to the report.

“Governments are investing billions of dollars to address climate change, but these investments will fall woefully short unless they incorporate pesticide use reduction strategies and promotion of agroecological growing practices, which work with nature instead of against it,” said Margaret Reeves, Pesticide Action Network North America Senior Scientist and report co-author in a news release.

The manufacturing of synthetic pesticides is not the only issue with pesticide spraying. Once they are applied, the chemicals have negative impacts on the ecology far beyond the target crop. Pyka states on its website that its drone aircraft allows for night spraying when there is less wind and therefore less drifting of the pesticide. Even if drifting was reduced to zero, 100 percent of the pesticide falls to the ground, washing into the soil and into the watershed.

In Pyka’s case, one of their first business deals is to supply pesticide drones for use in one of the most ecologically sensitive and biologically diverse areas in the Western Hemisphere adjacent to rainforests.

Pyka recently announced a deal with a company called Grupo HAME, which owns conventional, non-organic banana plantations in Guatemala and Costa Rica. This agricultural conglomerate recently acquired certification from the Rainforest Alliance, according to its 2020 annual report. Unfortunately, users of Pyka’s pesticide drones can spray any one of 39 toxic fungicide pesticides on bananas and still be in compliance with the Rainforest Alliance’s July 2022 Farming compliance rules. All they have to say is that they are “managing risk,” meaning risk to their crops. But all of the approved fungicides are listed in the Rainforest Alliance rules as posing risks to aquatic life, wildlife, or pollinators.

Report after report documents the long-term negative impacts to ecology from ongoing applications of synthetic pesticides. It interrupts the natural biology of microorganisms essential to soil health. Incremental amounts leach into the groundwater and can bioaccumulate in all types of organisms interrupting essential enzyme production and reproduction. It can lead to the die-off of prey species that birds and fish rely on for food.

Readers may recall the impacts of spraying the pesticide DDT. By the time it was banned in the early 70s, its introduction into the environment had permeated the food chain, such that the eggshells of California Brown Pelicans became thin and cracked, pushing them to the brink of extinction. Now, a half-century later, with no sense of irony, Pyka has named its pesticide drone Pelican Spray.

The city must look critically before accepting chemical pollution as a necessary underside of economic development.

Contributing writer Richard Bangert posts stories about the environment on his blog Alameda Point Environmental Report