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The toxic truth about pesticides

The harm caused by agricultural pesticide usage is akin to “a global emergency,” warns Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK director Keith Tyrell, citing shocking research that shows pesticide poisoning accounts for over 300, 000 acute deaths each year.

Campaign network PAN are calling on the EU to take a stronger stance on pesticide usage, highlighting worrying research about the risks to small-scale farmers. PAN UK director Keith explains: “1% to 3% of agricultural workers are poisoned every year by pesticides. One million of them are so badly harmed that they are actually hospitalised, and, given that most of these poisoning occur in the developing world where there aren’t a lot of hospitals, that’s an enormous number. More than 300 000 acute deaths - that’s where you get poisoned, you fall over and die - occur every year.

“These are huge numbers - what do they mean? Well, around 600, 000 people die from malaria every year. So that’s half the number of those killed by malaria and malaria is all over the news. It is a terrible problem, but [pesticide-related deaths] are a global emergency too. And that’s just acute poisoning, not chronic poisoning. Tragically, 250, 000 people also take their lives with pesticides every year.”

With its high use of pesticides, the cotton industry is of particular concern. This booming industry produces around 18 million tonnes of the material every year, but significantly, while cotton production has tripled since the 1930s, the plantations themselves have barely increased in size. Instead, demand has created an intensive, chemical-fuelled production line, supplied by small-scale farmers in areas like India, Pakistan and West Africa. For a majority of harvesters, cotton is a cash crop, and the stakes of crop failure are high.

It’s not surprising then to see that statistics published by the Worldwide Fund For Nature (WWF) show cotton farming accounts for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides sold globally every year - large shares for a crop that only makes up around 2.4% of the world’s cropland. Around 73% of crops are then produced in irrigated fields fed by nearby water sources, which consequently allows pesticides to enter these systems and harm wildlife.

Previous investigations into pesticide usage have also drawn worrying conclusions about their effects on surrounding wildlife. A 1983 study conducted near Corpus Christi, Texas, found that a colony of breeding gulls were affected after they ate bugs poisoned by an insecticide designed to kill bollworms on a cotton field about three miles away. Around 200 adult gulls and 25% of the colony’s chicks died as a result (White et al).

Similarly, in 1996 researchers looking into fish deaths in the USA also concluded that the runoff from fields treated with pesticide Endosulfan resulted in the death of more than 240,000 fish along a 25km stretch of an Alabama river (Pesticide Action Network Updates Service, 1996).

More recently, two decades on, unpublished field trials by powerful pesticide manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta, confirmed that their products cause serious harm to honeybees if used at high levels.

An alternative way of farming cotton

Yet research by PAN has also shown that there is a way to produce profitable, pesticide-free cotton using cheaper, safer and environmentally sound alternatives.

The breakthrough came after PAN spent four years working in seven African countries to collect data on pesticide usage. Keith explains: “When governments license pesticides, they put a whole range of criteria on how those pesticides can be used. For example, you shouldn’t spray them next to water, you shouldn’t spray them in high winds, you shouldn’t spray bee-toxic pesticides at times of the day when bees are out foraging. But, of course, they’re all ignored. If you don’t enforce it and you don’t check it, it’s going to fail.

“We found that 71% of farmers store pesticides at home, on the shelves next to their cookpots. 38% of them spray it into the wind, nearly all of them don’t use protective equipment, and 6% to 7% have never received training on how to use pesticides. Not only does that mean that they have never received training on how hazardous or how dangerous pesticides are for them, they’ve never received training on how to use pesticides to protect the environment, or on how not to use pesticides. They’ve never received training on how to use pesticides to manage pests. And that means that most of the time they apply pesticides, they’re not even working.”

Representatives from PAN responded to these worrying finds by working with the Australian Cotton Research Institute to develop a pesticide-free spray, using yeast, sugar, maize and food waste. Small-scale farmers in Africa then trialled the spray and found it successful.

Keith explains, “Food sprays are not a new idea, but one of the problems was that they were made by specialist bio-companies and were too expensive for the farmers. So our food spray is made by the farmers themselves, using a recipe developed by the Australian Cotton Research Institute to work in those areas with those pests.”

The results were significant when the profit line was considered. Organic cotton and organic cotton treated with food spray had lower yields than conventional pesticide-treated cotton, but much lower input costs too - meaning farmers were able to take home much more of their profit.

Keith says, “With conventional cotton, the costs are astronomical. In certain parts of Africa, cotton farmers spend 60% of their income on pesticides. So when you look at profits, you can see that organic cotton using food spray is way more profitable for a small scale farmer than using insecticide.”

2,000 farmers are currently growing crops using the food spray in Ethiopia and around 3,000 more in Benin. PAN have also just launched a opensource manual allowing any cotton farmer in the world to make and use the food spray themselves, and shared it with the Better Cotton Initiative which trains two million cotton farmers around the year. This, Keith hopes, will lead to a reduction in pesticide usage.

He, and others like him, are convinced that solutions like the food spray can enable farmers to increase their income, improve their health and reduce the harm being done to the environment at the time, and they can point to evidence supporting this too. A recent study conducted by the University of Essex on agricultural projects in 57 countries found that farmers using agroecological methods yielded staggering crop increases of 79% per hectare, with that rising to increases of 117% in Sub Saharan Africa.

Keith explains, “We know that by using agroecological methods, small-scale farmers can double their production within ten years. Agroecology actually outperforms conventional farming in areas where the poorest people live. So pesticides are not an appropriate action in those places both for health reasons and in terms of feeding people.”

A pesticide-free future?

As alternatives like PAN’s food spray are successfully adopted and mounting evidence shows that pesticides have a detrimental effect on our environment and health, it begs the question: why isn’t more being done to limit usage by world health authorities?

Significantly, the authority holding sway over European policy - the EU - remains in the grip of powerful pesticides industry lobbyists, who spend millions every year arguing that the herbicides and insecticides lining our supermarket shelves are not only safe but essential for feeding a growing population. Representatives from this industry have repeatedly fought attempts by member countries to curb pesticide usage and prohibit the use of those increasingly shown to be harmful to human health and our ecosystems.

The most recent example of this lobbying in action has taken place over the ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides that were found to be poisonous to bees in 2013. 44% of requests for extreme pest control derogations regarding this material were filed solely by pesticides manufacturers, trade associations or seed producers, and only 14% were filed by those with no industry involvement. Two of the world’s largest pesticides manufacturers, Syngenta and Bayer, are also currently suing the EU in a bid to overturn the ban which was based on substantial evidence linking neonicotinoids to huge bee declines.

PAN UK policy officer Nick Mole is part of the global network fighting pesticide usage. He explains, "Pesticide producers spend millions annually on lobbying governments worldwide to maintain the status quo, presenting knowingly false, pseudo-scientific information that gives a misleading picture of pesticides' benefits. [The industry] knows its own products are useless at dealing with insects and weeds that genuinely do blight agricultural production, and provide no yield benefit — but markets remain flooded with them, because they generate vast profits for the firms involved.”

Campaigners like PAN believe that people power is the only way to implement lasting change, and a slow but gradually increasing change in public opinion gives them hope for the future. In recent years, growing awareness of the dangers of and alternatives to pesticides are giving citizens and governments the confidence to question what the industry is telling us. Bans are operating in places like Paris, Copenhagen and Lyon and the EU is under increased pressure to prohibit proven toxic herbicides like glyphosate. Some countries like France are even taking the decision to ban private use of pesticides by 2019.

As campaigners, governments and most importantly, the public, challenge our reliance on these pesticides, the crux of the matter is becoming clear: what are the motives of those so intent on telling us these materials are essential?

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