Pesticides a catastrophe for nature and kill 200,000 people a year, UN report says, arguing it’s a myth farmers need them

UN food rights rapporteur accuses global pesticide manufacturers of denying the harm products cause, and using unethical marketing and lobbying that paralyses restrictions on their use; industry disputes findings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2017, 10:35am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 5:53pm

The idea that pesticides are essential to feed a fast-growing global population is a myth, according to UN food and pollution experts.

A new report is severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

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The report says pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole”, including an estimated 200,000 deaths a year from acute poisoning. Its authors said: “It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger
Hilal Elver

The world’s population is set to grow from seven billion today to nine billion in 2050. The pesticide industry argue that their products – a market worth about US$50 billion a year and growing – are vital in protecting crops and ensuring sufficient food supplies.

“It is a myth,” says Hilal Elver, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food. “Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation [FAO], we are able to feed nine billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.”

Elver says many of the pesticides are used on commodity crops, such as palm oil and soy, not the food needed by the world’s hungry people: “The corporations are not dealing with world hunger, they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales.”

The report says: “Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility.”

Hong Kong consumer watchdog finds pesticide residue in almost half of vegetable samples – including some labelled ‘organic’

It also highlighted the risk to children from pesticide contamination of food, citing 23 deaths in India in 2013 and 39 in China in 2014. Furthermore, the report said, recent Chinese government studies indicated that pesticide contamination meant farming could not continue on about 20 per cent of arable land.

Last year, the Hong Kong Consumer Council found pesticide residue in almost half of 127 samples of vegetables. The Hong Kong consumer watchdog said some of the samples were labelled “organic”.

Two samples imported from China, including one claiming to be organic, were found to have pesticide residue levels exceeding the maximum limit, while another two samples, imported from China and the US – one labelled organic – were found to contain levels of cadmium, a heavy metal, approaching or at the upper limit. The council said consumers should not assume that all vegetables billed as organic were pesticide-free.

The claim that it is a myth that farmers need pesticides to meet the challenge of feeding seven billion people simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny
Crop Protection Association

The UN report, which is co-authored by Baskut Tuncak, its special rapporteur on toxics, says: “While scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions, or harm to the ecosystem, presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fuelled by the pesticide and agro-industry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics.”

Elver, who visited the Philippines, Paraguay, Morocco and Poland in the course of producing the report, says: “The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important. If you want to deal with pesticides, you have to deal with the companies – that is why [we use] these harsh words. They will say, of course, it is not true, but also out there is the testimony of the people.”

She says some developed countries did have “very strong” regulations for pesticides, such as the EU, which she said based its rules on the “precautionary principle”. The EU banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which harm bees, on flowering crops in 2013, a move strongly opposed by the industry. But she noted that others, such as the US, did not use the precautionary principle.

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Elver also says that while consumers in developed countries are usually better protected from pesticides, farms workers often are not. In the US, she, says, 90 per cent of farm workers were undocumented and their consequent lack of legal protections and health insurance put them at risk from pesticide use.

“The claim that it is a myth that farmers need pesticides to meet the challenge of feeding seven billion people simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” says a spokesman for the Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide manufacturers in the UK. “The UN FAO is clear on this – without crop protection tools, farmers could lose as much as 80 per cent of their harvests to damaging insects, weeds and plant disease.

“The plant science industry strongly agrees with the UN special rapporteurs that the right to food must extend to every global citizen, and that all citizens have a right to food that has been produced in a way that is safe for human health and for the environment,” says the spokesman. “Pesticides play a key role in ensuring we have access to a healthy, safe, affordable and reliable food supply.”

The report found that just 35 per cent of developing countries had a regulatory regime for pesticides and even then enforcement was problematic. It also found examples of pesticides banned from use in one country still being produced there for export.

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It recommended a move towards a global treaty to govern the use of pesticides and a move to sustainable practices including natural methods of suppressing pests and crop rotation, as well as incentivising organically produced food.

“The industry frequently uses the term ‘intentional misuse’ to shift the blame on to the user for the avoidable impacts of hazardous pesticides,” the report says. “Yet clearly, the responsibility for protecting users and others throughout the pesticide life cycle and throughout the retail chain lies with the pesticide manufacturer.”