People, Pests and Pesticides

This talk by Anwar Fazal was presented at the Nordic Conference on Environment and Development, 8-10 May 1987 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Let me begin with a good word about pesticides.

Like medicines, pesticides have a very specific, limited and sometimes critical role to play when applied appropriately on an informed basis. The tragic thing is that most pesticides are not used most of the time in that careful and caring way. We have, instead, seen a tragic proliferation of pesticide use and misuse, creating one of the major environmental and human health problems of today. More significantly, this proliferation is a symptom of the way in which the so-called “modern” technologies operate in the real world.

For too long, the benefits of pesticides have been overplayed and the actual costs, direct and indirect, social and economic, human health and environmental, grossly underplayed.

My presentation aims to balance that skewed position.

I like to now share with you seven specific areas of concern.

Firstly, not much or nothing at all is known about the acute and chronic toxicity of many of the best known and/or commonly used chemicals, including pesticides. For instance, a survey by the US National academy of Sciences revealed that ‘adequate toxicity data’ existed only for 10 percent of all pesticide ingredients, with incomplete data for 52 percent and no information at all for 38 percent. Even less is known about the toxicity of the hundreds of intermediates or of the so-called ‘inert’ ingredients which may account for over 95 percent of a pesticide formulation.

Secondly, some years ago, one of the world’s largest and most extensively used ‘independent’ chemical testing laboratory, the Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT), was convicted of massive and deliberate falsification of research findings relating to health and safety data – data on the basis of which a host of pesticides and other toxic chemicals have been registered or approved for use by many governments. There is reason to believe that even the World Health Organization (WHO), which sets international safety standards, had, to some extent, relied upon IBT test results. The percentage of IBT test results subsequently declared invalid is simply mind-boggling – including 99 per cent of tests on cancer, 76 percent of tests on birth deformities, 50 percent of tests on mutations, neurotoxicity etc.

Thirdly, we use something like one 1b. per person per year of chemical pesticides, and much of it (someone has suggested up to 99 percent of it or more) does not even reach the specific target pests. Interestingly, less than one percent of the 1¼ million insect species known to man can be called ‘pests’, against which we have waged a chemical warfare with a wide range of pesticides for over four decades. We have, instead, killed off a vast number of ‘natural predators of pests’ and useful insects, and have simultaneously upset the ecological balance and created several ‘secondary pests’.  Further, there is a rampant addiction to casual chemical use, to quick fix chemical ‘solutions’ which give little or no chance for the development of alternatives to these toxic chemicals. A vast and powerful industry is behind the promotion of this addiction.

Fourthly, by the continued and widespread application of pesticides, especially of the broad-spectrum pesticides, we have succeeded increasing several strains of ‘super pests’. The action of ‘natural selection’ on pest populations exposed to a chemically hostile environment, doused heavily with pesticides, has to date resulted in at least 447 species of insects and mites, 100 species of plant pathogens, 48 species of weeds, two species of nematode worms, and one mammalian taxa, the rats, developing resistance to one or more pesticides the world over. We have also, in the process, polluted the environment, including ground water, food crops and wild life, with toxic pesticide residues.

Fifthly, it has been estimated that some 2.9 million people in the Third World are poisoned yearly at a level requiring hospital admission, with some 220,000 pesticide-induced deaths annually. Ironically, the Third World uses only about 20 percent of the world’s pesticides, but accounts for about 50 percent of the pesticide poisonings and up to 80 percent or more of the pesticide related deaths. For instances, in the case of Sri Lanka, it has been reported that the number of acute pesticide poisonings culminating in death in a year was almost twice the number of deaths from infectious diseases like poliomyelitis, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

Sixthly, in a recent US study, the social and environmental costs – in terms of human poisonings, livestock losses, pollution of soil, water and air, contamination of food, etc. – was estimated at a staggering US$839 million, which represents about 20 percent of the year’s sale of pesticides by US companies and equals their profits in a typical year. A more realistic and complete accounting of the overall ‘indirect’ costs involved would probably be several times higher. If this is the case in a country like the US, one can well imagine the corresponding costs in Third World countries where pesticides, many of which are banned and severely restricted in their countries of origin, are widely misused. Indifferent governments allow the export of such pesticides, and large corporations sadly and shamelessly profit from such unconscionable trade.

Seventhly, there are the worrying trends in newly emerging and powerful biotechnologies in the agricultural sector. Instead of orienting their research and development priorities in agricultural biotechnology towards the creation of plant varieties with improved yields, ability to better tolerate adverse climatic conditions, enhanced pest resistance etc., the TNCs involved are determining their research and development priorities using ‘commercial’ or ‘profit motivated criteria’ like speed of product development, product patentability and product marketability. For instance, there is a trend amongst some of the agrochemical TNCs involved in biotechnology to create ‘pesticide resistant’ varieties of food and cash crops, rather than pest resistant varieties – a trend that will only increase the volume of agrochemicals used and its attendant problems, as well as further concentrate the control and monopoly of the agrochemical and/or food production sectors by a handful of TNCs. In the ultimate analysis, such trends will only serve to amplify the existing hazards, leading possibly to far more serious and even irreversible human health and environmental problems associated with the use and misuse of pesticides. As a spin-off, the use of agricultural biotechnology for purposes of biological warfare is only bound to be tempting.

The days of ‘miracle pesticides’ are over.

Pesticides and the pesticide industry have been allowed to run amok, and the consequences have been devastating in their toll and impact. The overall human health, socio-economic and environmental costs involved call for a new paradigm in developing agricultural systems fundamentally different from those promoted over the past  50 years. Such a paradigm would promote sustainable systems of crop and livestock production, with particular emphasis on the development of pest control methods, which are not detrimental to human health and the environment. Such farming systems, based on ecologically sound agricultural principles, can control pests and pathogens with minimal or no use of the plethora of synthetic, chemical, toxic pesticides available today.

The wild pesticide party of quick-fix chemical cocktails and the global addiction to such toxic chemicals must end. More specifically, the new agenda should include the following five actions.

1.       Greater efforts to identify and implement pest control methods that combine the wisdom of the past (especially indigenous and traditional farming methods) with modern agronomic techniques.

2.       Withdrawing subsidies from environmentally-unsound agricultural technologies, including an end to international financial support for chemical pesticide use in countries where their safe use cannot be guaranteed.

3.       The mobilisation of public demand and support for farming systems based on sustainable agro-ecological principles – viz the employment of traditional, biological, cultural and integrated pest control techniques, in combination with soil improvement programmes, must replace chemical pesticide use wherever possible.

4.       Redirecting plant breeding efforts towards the development of crop varieties tolerant of local climatic conditions and resistant to pests and pathogens, and away from trends which only serve to deepen dependence on chemical pesticides.

5.       Finally, by appropriate public policies

a.       Requiring, encouraging, and enforcing by legislative means the minimal use or non-use of chemical pesticides.

b.       Ensuring that no pesticides or chemicals (as well as other products and processes) that have been banned or severely restricted in one country are exported without the prior informed consent of the importing country.

c.       Requiring that no new chemicals be placed on the international market until and unless adequate human health and environmental impact assessments have been carried out as recommended in the Brundtland Commission Report.

There is now an FAO Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides. There are also the World Bank guidelines and the pesticide industry’s own guidelines. Then there is the remarkable UN Consolidated List of Products whose Consumption and/or Sale have been Banned, Withdrawn, Severely Restricted or not Approved by Governments. All these initiatives need to be supported, but unless we see the emergence of a new paradigm for sustainable agriculture, we shall only be treating the symptoms and avoiding the underlying basic problems associated with the development, manufacture, proliferation, transfer and use/misuse of products and technologies that are inherently hazardous and highly risky.

If we want to achieve sustainable development, we must move away from all kinds of violent, manipulative and wasteful technologies – of the kind that much of the technology of the pesticide production, marketing and use represents. It’s not easy, but it can be done and more importantly it must be done.

In recent years, the Nordic countries have played a leading critical role in reshaping the global agenda for protecting breastfeeding and are now actively engaged in promoting rational drug policies. I urge them to assert their leadership in reshaping the agenda towards transforming existing agricultural practices, to take up the challenge, explore and develop economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable alternatives to prevailing agricultural practices, including the widespread use and misuse of pesticides.

Thank you.

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