Early morning. October 23, 1999. The last stragglers are arriving
at school and a group of children bring in the bag of milk powder to
make up their morning breakfast. The milk powder is donated
each day by the Government as part of a nutrition
programme for the children of the village.
The pupils at the school are between three and fourteen years old. The older children mix the milk powder and when it is ready everyone sits down to breakfast, chatting about what happened the night before, who has and hasn’t done their homework and who is best friends with whom today.
Half an hour later, as they start their lessons, some of the children start to vomit. Desks are pushed over as others have convulsions. In the pandemonium that ensues one teacher rushes out to fetch parents from their homes and fields. They rush to the school and carrying their children, half run, half stagger to the nearest town.
But it is one-and-a-half hour’s walk away. Twenty-four children die. Twenty more need hospital treatment.
It turned out that a farmer had accidentally mixed the milk powder with the pesticide parathion. He intended to use it to kill rats and stray dogs. Parathion is one of the most dangerous pesticides in the world – three drops are enough to kill a grown man. It is banned in most countries. But poor farmers buy it from illegal street shops and markets. It is cheap and effective and they have no idea of the dangers involved. Some even mix it in pots that are later used for food.
Taucamarca, where the incident happened, is a poor and isolated village in the Andean mountains of Peru. Many people are illiterate and few farmers have been trained in the use of powerful agro-chemicals. After learning of the tragedy in Taucamarca Luis Gomero of Red de Accion en Alternativeas al uso de Agrocquimicos (RAAA-PAN), part of the international Pesticides Action Network, asked:
‘How many more children must die before somebody does something about these deadly chemicals?’1
Such an incident seems a long way from the rolling hills, schools and comfortable homes of California. But the following month, in November 1999, about 150 people living in Earlimart, a small town in the San Joaquin valley, were forced to evacuate their homes. No-one died, but 24 people were sent to hospital with vomiting, headaches, burning eyes and shortness of breath. The cause? Spray from the soil fumigant metam sodium which was sprinkled in the area. Water reacts with metam sodium to form a gas that kills nematodes, fungi and weed seeds. But one of the chemical’s breakdown products is methyl isothiocyanate which irritates the eyes and lungs, causes skin problems and is listed by the Environment Protection Agency in the US as a probable human carcinogen. The state of California lists the chemical as causing both cancers and birth defects in laboratory animals.2
Today there is widespread concern about such health problems, but when synthetic pesticides first came into widespread commercial use some 50 years ago they were hailed with euphoria. Dr Paul Muller, the Swiss inventor of the organochlorine insecticide DDT, won the Nobel Prize.
Prior to this farmers had found a variety of ingenious methods of killing the pests in their fields. The first farmers simply picked off the bugs by hand. The Romans used magic rituals to protect vines from moth attack and the Greeks used sulphur to keep unwanted insects off their vegetable plots. In medieval France caterpillars were excommunicated and grasshoppers tried in court for attacking crops.3
It was not until the Second World War that a revolution occurred in bug-killing. DDT was the first synthetic insectide to be widely used. Five years later, insects started to develop resistance and organophosphates, a new generation of insecticides, came into being based on nerve gases. The first generation of organophosphate poisons was tested on prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
These chemicals were different than those that had gone before in two significant ways: first, that they were entirely synthetic, that is, developed in a laboratory. And second, they had the ability to attack the nervous system, killing and disabling with deadly accuracy.
What worked against people could also kill bugs. And so a mighty industry took to the air, spraying chemicals and killing pests.
Today, the World Health Organization estimates that at least three million people a year are poisoned by pesticides and that 200,000 people die. Agricultural workers, often poor people, are most at risk (see Cotton tales). Many of those poisoned are children: one study in England and Wales reported that 50 per cent of all pesticide poisonings involved children under the age of ten.
But the real problem goes far wider than this. Pesticides are not just responsible for accidental poisonings. They have become a part of us and our environment in a way that could never have been imagined half a century ago.
Around 100,000 pesticides are now in regular commercial use worldwide with more than 2.5 million tons applied to fields each year.4 So widespread are these poisons in our environment that every person on earth has absorbed at least 250 synthetic chemicals into their body. And women all over the world now produce breastmilk containing traces of the insecticide DDT (though breastmilk remains the safest option for babies).
Many of these pesticides are known to be carcinogenic and some can cross the placenta into the womb to cause birth defects and other hormonal problems. These effects have been meticulously documented by Dr Theo Colborn of the World Wildlife Fund (see Crossed bills and broken eggs). Nor are they restricted to humans: they affect all living things – from the smallest invertebrate to the largest whale. One report by Californians for Pesticide Reform estimated that 672 million birds are exposed to pesticides every year and 10 per cent, or 67 million, die. ‘A loss of even a few individuals from rare, endangered or threatened species – for example, burrowing owls, Aleutian Canada geese or raptors like the bald eagle, Swainson’s hawk and the peregrine falcon – pushes the entire species that much closer to extinction,’ says the report.5
Pesticides waft into the air, sink into the soil and leach into rivers and streams. They also travel long distances: the polar bears, seals, birds and the Inuit people who live in the Arctic have some of the highest recorded levels of chemical contamination in the world, even though they are thousands of kilometres away from where the chemicals are used.
The shocking thing is that all this has been known for some time. It was in 1962 that ecologist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, her classic exposé of the effects of DDT and other chemicals. Her description of a village contaminated by pesticides provided a chilling warning of a possible future where children die and birds drop from the skies (see A fable for tomorrow).
So what has been the argument for the continuing use of pesticides? Mainly that they increase crop yields. But at what price? Unfortunately, over time some pests gradually become resistant to certain pesticides which means that companies have to come up with stronger and more deadly chemicals to try to kill them. It’s an escalating cycle of poison.
The corporations defend their position by saying that only by using pesticides can we feed a hungry world. (The same arguments are used for genetically modified crops – but then many of these are produced by the same companies that make the pesticides). ‘Without pesticides and fertilizers, US farm exports would fall to zero,’ says the US Agricultural Retailer’s Association. ‘Our balance of trade would drop by more than $4 billion and millions of people around the world would starve.’6
But this equation ignores three crucial factors. First, world hunger is not caused by food shortages. There is more than enough food for everyone. The world today produces more food per person than ever before. People are hungry because they are too poor to buy the food available, not because there is not enough. We don’t need more food, we just need a fairer way of distributing it.
Second, 80 per cent of pesticides are used in the rich world. And many of these are used not to grow food for humans but to produce animal feed for livestock. Third, most pesticides in the Third World are used on export crops – most of which are eaten by people in the West.7
If pesticides were banned altogether, says the industry, billions of dollars in food production would be lost. But other ways of farming are just as productive. Research should go into alternative ways of reducing pests. Many of these would also mean farming in a different way: the rise of the pesticide industry has helped transform agriculture into ‘agribusiness’– to the detriment of small farmers who farm more ecologically but just as productively (see Kicking the chemical habit).
Agribusiness is a mindset, a way of thinking which dominates our current model of industrial agriculture and is inextricably linked to increased use of agro-chemicals. It is an approach to food production which sees the soil only as a source of profit and the earth as a resource to plunder. It dismisses pesticide poisonings as accidents and refuses to acknowledge the links between health and the environment and the increased use of pesticides. It sees agriculture only as business and farmers as business people rather than guardians of the land.
The 13 killers
From Pesticides and your Food, Andrew Watterson, Green Print, 1991
The corporations which profit from the pesticide industry have a vested interest in keeping it alive – or in replacing it with one in which genetically modified crops reign supreme. That’s because pesticides make money: in 1998 the business was worth $31 billion. And much of it resides in the hands of a few companies: 10 agrochemical corporations control 73 per cent of the world market in pesticides; the top 20 control 93 per cent.7
They are a loud and powerful voice. In the US, Vice-President Al Gore warned that ‘hardliners within the pesticide industry have succeeded in delaying the implementation of the protective measures called for in Silent Spring’. ‘Cleaning up politics,’ he said, ‘is essential to cleaning up pollution.’6 The American Crop Protection Association gives schools free ‘educational’ material featuring Benny Broccoli and his Buddies, showing how ‘fungicides help plucky plants to fend off fungi’.6 Even the testing of ‘safe’ levels is carried out by the same companies that produce the pesticides.
As pesticide markets shrink in the more-cautious rich world, they open up in the poor one. Major markets are developing in countries like Brazil, Mexico and China, and there is a trend towards setting up production in these areas where controls are less rigorous. Brazil, for example, is one of the largest pesticide markets in the Third World, with annual sales of around $1.2 billion. The majority of this industry is still in the hands of transnational corporations like DowElanco, Monsanto, Hoechst, BASF and Shell.7 But when the big corporations stop producing hazardous pesticides because they have been banned, local companies quickly pick up the slack, producing look-alike copies of well-known chemicals to con poor farmers. Or banned products are shipped to countries where regulation is lax or non-existent. For example, toxic blubber in Arctic seals has been blamed on Russian use of the banned pesticide toxaphene.8 It is estimated that up to a third of pesticides on the market in developing countries do not comply with international standards.
The developing world has another problem too: what to do with the pesticides which have been banned? In Africa alone, the cost of disposing of these is reckoned at $80 million. The agrochemical industry is proposing to put up 30 per cent of the disposal costs. The US, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have given funds for the clean-up; but the UK, France and Japan, all of which donated or exported pesticides to these countries, have so far failed to contribute a cent.9 In the countries of the former Soviet Union there are at least 150,000 tons of obsolete pesticides that need to be destroyed.
But if farmers are to reduce or stop using synthetic pesticides they need viable alternatives. Many are turning to integrated pest management (IPM), which combines the latest farming technology with biological control, traditional cropping practices and indigenous knowledge to control pests. Farmers are involved in discussing solutions rather than being disempowered by an insistence on farming by numbers. IPM does not rule out the use of some pesticides but tries to reduce them, at the same time taking a more ecological approach to farming.
There has also been a boom in organic farming, which does not use chemicals. World sales of organic food in 1997 were estimated at $11 billion and this is likely to increase to $100 by 2006.10 The Australian organic food industry is valued at up to $500 million11 and three million Japanese people now buy organic food. There are organic shops in India and Malaysia, farmer markets in Brazil and organic produce in supermarkets in Argentina. Interest in organic food is growing so quickly in some regions that demand often outstrips supply. This is an important pressure point on the market for those who can afford to buy pesticide-free food.
Currently it is 20 to 30 per cent more expensive than non-organic food, but as demand grows and more farmers convert to organic and the subsidies on agribusiness are forced down, this could change. At present, governments weight their agricultural taxes heavily in favour of agribusiness. In Sweden, a 7.5 per cent pesticide tax led to a 65 per cent drop in pesticide usage among Swedish farmers. A similar tax has recently failed to become law in the UK. A study by Friends of the Earth in the US found that of the $8.8 billion spent in 1997 on pesticides, nearly $276 million in government revenue was lost due to exemptions from state sales taxes.
Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the Canadian province of Ontario have adopted programmes to reduce pesticide use by between 50 and 75 per cent. The Brazilian state of Rio Grande del Sul has banned pesticides and genetically modified food. In Indonesia, rice farmers have reduced their pesticide use by 65 per cent while rice yields have increased by 12 per cent since the Government began investing a million dollars a year in ecological research and farmer training. As a result, the country has been able to eliminate $20 million in pesticide subsidies to farmers. In the US it is estimated that pesticide use could be reduced by as much as 50 per cent at an estimated saving of $500 million a year.4
But this is not just about saving money. Nor is it only about banning the most dangerous pesticides. Extensive pesticide use is a symptom of an agricultural system that is no longer about food or people, the land or the environment, but just about profits. Reclaiming the ways that farming is managed also means reducing our dependence on dangerous chemicals. And thousands of farmers and consumers are doing just that.
The problems of pesticide use in developing countries are widely acknowledged by governments and international agencies. Since the 1980s a number of initiatives have been developed to reduce the risks. These include:
International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides
The Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent (PIC)
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
National pesticide registration schemes
So after reading all this, what can YOU do?
• Buy local, organic foods where you can. If people who can afford it buy organic, it brings the prices down for everyone else. Find out if there is an organic vegetable box scheme near you (see Editor’s letter). Or even better, grow your own food.
• Ask your supermarket to stock organic (and fairly traded) goods. Avoid genetically modified food.
• Join a lobbying group on pesticides (see Action). Get informed!
• Be more aware of what is in your food and water. Is it safe to eat fish from your local lake, river or sea?
• Avoid animal fat as much as possible; this is where many pesticide residues are likely to be stored.
• Don’t use pesticides in or around your own home – such as weed killers or bug sprays.
• Beware of golf courses – by one estimate golf course managers use at least four times more pesticides per acre than farmers.
• Remember that 3 December is ‘No Pesticides Day’.
• Check out www.foodnews.org to find out what pesticides you have had in your breakfast.
1 Article by John Harvey in Pesticides News 46, December 1999.
2 From PANNA website: firstname.lastname@example.org For more information see http://www.ufw.org/releases/earlimart/html
3 The Global Politics of Pesticides: Forging Consensus from Conflicting Interests, Peter Hough, Earthscan 1998.
4 Public health risks associated with pesticides and natural toxins in foods, D Pimentel, TW Culliney and T Bashore, paper for the University of Minnesota, 1996.
5 Disrupting the balance: ecological impacts of pesticides in California, Susan Kegley, Lars Neumeister and Timothy Martin.
6 Bugs in the System: Redesigning the Pesticide Industry for Sustainable Agriculture, edited by William Vorley and Dennis Keeney, Earthscan 1998.
7 The Pesticide Hazard: a Global Health and Environmental Audit, Barbara Dinham, Zed Books, 1993.
8 New Scientist 31/7/99
9 Pesticides News No 44 June 1999, Mark Davis.
10 ILEIA Newsletter Dec 98, Bernward Geier. E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.ileia.org
11 Symbiosis Unlimited by Rod May and Jason Alexandra.
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