A report presented to the UN Human Rights Council by its Special Rapporteur on the right to food, has denounced pesticide and agro-industries for “a systematic denial of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by [farm] chemicals” and the “adverse effects of pesticides”. The report says that scientific evidence has confirmed “a definitive link between exposure [to pesticides] and human diseases or conditions” as well as “harm to the ecosystem”.
However, instead of working together to solve these problems, companies and farm bodies are engaging in “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics”, making erroneous claims about humanity's need for pesticides, which the report labels “a myth”.
The report acknowledges that over the last fifty years “evolving technology in pesticide manufacture” along with “other agricultural innovations”, has “certainly helped to keep agricultural production apace of unprecedented jumps in food demand” at a time when global population jumped by 50%, while agricultural land availability only increased by about 10%.
“However”, the authors note, “this has come at the expense of human health and the environment. Equally, increased food production has not succeeded in eliminating hunger worldwide. Reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution that undermines the rights to adequate food and health for present and future generations.”
A detailed chapter of the report deals with pesticide impacts on human health. The authors begin by outlining numerous accidents in which people have been killed outright by pesticide poisonings. These are tragically often children, like the 39 Chinese children who died in 2014 after consuming food containing residues of TETs and the 11 children in Bangladesh who died after eating pesticide laced fruits in 2015. According to the report 200,000 people die each year as a result of exposure to pesticides, but as 99% of these are in the developing world where regulations and applicator safety standards are lax, little or nothing is done about it.
The report outlines the difficulty of attributing causation of chemical contamination to diseases in humans, as people are exposed to so many different chemicals in their everyday lives. “Even so, persistent use of pesticides, in particular agrochemicals used in industrial farming, have been connected to a range of adverse health impacts, both at high and low exposure levels.”
The report says exposure to pesticides “has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility.” The problem is that some symptoms are very subtle and might not manifest for years, “presenting a significant challenge for accountability and access to an effective remedy”.
In addition the report found that pesticides are having devastating impacts on wildlife from runoff, while insect populations have also plummeted, upsetting “the complex balance between predator and prey species in the food chain, thereby destabilizing the ecosystem.”
From a farming point of view, perhaps the most worrying danger of pesticide reliance is the possibility of nitrogen fixation and decreased soil diversity, which leads to a reduction in land fertility “posing problems for food security.” According to the UN rapporteurs, China has had particular problems with contamination “from pesticides and other pollutants on 26 million hectares of farmland, to the extent that farming cannot continue on approximately 20 per cent of arable land.”
In addition, the effect of pesticides on non-target species can also be devastating. The report cites numerous examples of this. One was run-off of malathion from palm oil plantations in Guatemala in 2015 which wiped out fish stocks in the Pasión river, depriving 12,000 local residents of their primary food sources and livelihoods.
The report also reviews the dangers from neonicotinoids, which are blamed for colony collapse disorder in honey bees. “This decline threatens the very basis of agriculture, given that wild bees and managed honeybees play the greatest role in pollinating crops.”
The report recalls that under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the right to adequate food […] must not be construed in a narrow or restrictive sense, and […] that adequacy denotes not just quantity but also quality.” Based on evidence of widespread dangers associated with pesticide usage, the UN body therefore concludes that “under even the narrowest interpretation [...] food that is contaminated by pesticides cannot be considered as adequate food.”
The authors note that “sustainability is intrinsically linked to the notion of adequate food, implying that food must be accessible for both present and future generations.” In addition, they conclude that far from contributing to food security, “pesticides are responsible for biodiversity loss and water and soil contamination and for negatively affecting the productivity of croplands, thereby threatening future food production.”
The report quotes numerous other international human rights agreements, including the rights of the child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, migrant worker rights and indigenous peoples' rights, which it claims are being breached by “excessive and unsafe pesticide practices”.
In addition there is a large section on international environment law, which is generally found to be long on principle but short on practice. For example, the Stockholm convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is criticised for its narrow criteria which lack “an effective framework to regulate different types of hazardous pesticides throughout their life cycle.”
The report concludes that mankind must drastically reduce its current dependence on pesticides. Its authors propose this may require a move away from industrial farming techniques, by incentivising organic production.
Mega-corporations lying about safety
Agro-chemicals are devastating wildlife, poisoning waterways and people, but the pesticide companies deny their products are harmful. The Crop Protection Association refutes the contents of the UN report. It said in a statement: “Pesticides play a key role in ensuring we have access to a healthy, safe, affordable and reliable food supply.”
The UN report's authors suggest that even 'mild' pesticides like glyphosate, which are considered 'safe' by the industry have subsequently been found to have significant dangers both to human health and the environment. For this reason, and because of the vast number of people who could potentially seek litigation, the industry refuses to acknowledge any harmful effects from its products.
Monsanto has sued over 145 individuals since the mid-1990s over patent infringements. Some of these were due to the inadvertent presence of self-seeded patented GM varieties, ostensibly grown without licence, while others were grain elevators cleaning patented seeds for re-sale to customers, as was traditionally done with conventional seed.
While the company is within its legal rights to protect its patent, its declarations to the public about glyphosate safety have been less convincing for judges. For example, in 1996 a New York court forced the company to pull an ad in which it said that Roundup was “safer than table salt”. In 2007 Monsanto was fined by the EU for claiming that Roundup was biodegradable and would leave the soil “clean” after use. Glyphosate is actually labelled “dangerous for the environment” and “highly toxic for aquatic organisms”.
Far from being discouraged Monsanto continued delivering its positive message to the public. In August 2012 a judge in Brazil fined the company $250,000 for claiming that GM soyabeans were beneficial to environmental conservation. The judge called Monsanto's claims "abusive and misleading propaganda."
It is clear to those who find themselves engaged in legal battles against the mega-corporations who control agrochemicals, that these companies would rather lie than to make their products safer.
Instead of using their considerable resources and enormous multi-billion dollar earnings to research safer ways of controlling pests and diseases, they are entirely focused on selling their dangerous products. Each year they spend millions on PR campaigns, even hiring academics sign off on ghost studies that claim their products are safe.
What to do?
As farmers we can only try to make a living. Most of us have been brought up in a certain system of farming and it is perhaps a lot to ask to enter a completely new way of thinking on the subject. But if we consider the implications of what we are doing it gets easier.
While on the one hand medical treatment has improved beyond all expectations over the last number of decades, incidences of cancers and diseases are rising. Accumulation of toxic residues in our food and water are having terrible impacts and present a danger to children and pregnant women. Just because it is hard to pin-point exact causes should not make it difficult to legislate for reducing our reliance on toxic products in food production.
The European precautionary principle is supposed to uphold the strictest terms of food safety, but even Brussels has been swayed by the industry giants and it is very hard to get restrictions put in place. Incontrovertible evidence of the danger neonicotinoids pose to bees has led to a recent move towards banning them, but this has taken years. Meanwhile attributing causation of human illness to agrochemicals is so difficult that most are still perfectly legal, despite the apparent danger.
For example, the European Commission's head of Unit Chemicals, Biocides and Nanomaterials Bjorn Hansen, found his efforts to regulate endocrine disruptors stymied by powerful lobbies within Europe. Suspected conflicts of interest among senior scientific advisors were exposed in the documentary Endocrination, but restrictions were never enforced on these harmful chemicals which cause hormonal dysfunctions. Endocrine disruptors are blamed for a range of childhood ailments but they are still present in many household items, and numerous agricultural fungicides.
Yet in the long run, attempts by industry to obfuscate cannot succeed. Increasing our exposure to harmful substances will only exacerbate the mess. We need to get out of this cycle and the sooner we face it the better. If we leave it too late, the ecosphere on which we rely might disintegrate. If this happens it may not be possible to reverse the damage.
We know that the natural world is closely inter-connected and inter-dependent. Some extinctions are normal and the overall structure of life will not be affected by them. But what we are facing today is an extinctions crisis not seen on earth since the time of the dinosaurs. With around a quarter of the earth's wildlife in danger of being wiped out, the implications will be dire unless we manage to call a halt.