By Rheanna Mathurin, GLOBUS Correspondent
Pesticides. GMO. Organic. These are few of the key words that can influence the decisions on the foods we consume. For most, this is in attempt to better understand the food we eat and, ultimately, what our bodies ingest. For others, however, it comes from a place of concern over the agricultural means of production. And as awareness of these processes grow, so does the discussion regarding what makes a sustainable agriculture process, with pesticides being one of the most contentious topics in the discussion.
Pesticides are an integrated part of modern society. They can be described as ‘substances used to prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate any pest ranging from insects, animals and weeds to microorganisms’ (Grube et al., 2011). As well as being a tool to meet the UN’s target of ‘Zero Hunger’ (SDG 5), pesticides have created an industry worth $65.3 billion. It is estimated that without these crop production tools ‘farmers could lose as much as 80 per cent of their harvests to damaging insects, weeds and plant disease’ (Gulf News, 2017).
However, with any ‘success’ story comes backlash. For example, headlines such as ‘Pesticides on Our Plates: Is Our Food Safe to Eat?’ (Reinagel, 2019) or even ‘What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food’ (Klein & Lappé, 2019) become ever more common. Overlooked all too often, however, is the individuals beginning the supply chain, constantly exposed to these chemicals. So as we, as a society, favour more organic, ‘sustainable’ items in our trolleys, there is a neglect of the – arguably – largest issue at hand.
Within many farming communities, pesticides are seen as a miracle for its role in ‘productivity-enhancement’. Historically they have been an explicit contributor to increasing yields and have provided stable conditions, in otherwise naturally unstable environments. But many have began to notice the adverse effects of this ‘rise’ in income. It is estimated that there are about 500,000 cases of ‘pesticide poisoning’ reported annually, with 5,000 cases of death (Zare et al., 2015). Although the issue of pesticide use is global, most acute reports come from lower income countries:
“Currently 8% of work-related accidents in the US are accounted for by farmers (despite farmers only accounting for 3% of the total workforce). In developing countries however 70% of total cases of workforce acute poisoning are accounted for by farmers.”(Adekunle et al., 2017)
A study in Oyo state, Nigeria also found that:
‘95% [of farmers] reported that they or someone in their family had suffered from pesticide-related health signs and symptoms during or after application of pesticides’. (Adekunle et al., 2017)
The negative impact that pesticides have on a farmer’s health, therefore, can also stem from the lack of training and effective equipment provided to these farmers. The farmers in Oyo state did not have an option. Without the use of pesticides, it was predicted the farmers would lose 45 per cent of rice and cocoa production. However, with better equipment provided, their exposure levels to the pesticides would be greatly reduced.
The Food Agricultural Organization recognises the immediacy of the situation, with many scholars criticising the use of pesticides at all. For example, United Nations special rapporteur, Hilal Elever, describes the necessity of pesticides for sufficient food production as a ‘myth’. Similar critiques are prevalent in academic discourse, arguing that we produce enough food to sustain the planet, but it is distribution and access that remain the key issues. This, therefore, raises the question of whether the issue is due to lack of regulation, or a wider, more encompassing problem of growth-based policy and social responsibility.
From a consumer standpoint it is favourable to opt for alternatives, the most popular being organic produce. However, these movements are often largely excludable, and create a new barrier for farmers, such as those in Oyo state, as strict certification processes makes it difficult for farmers to breach the market.
Therefore, education on the impact of these pesticides is a necessity. In the short-term, it will allow farmers to make an educated decision on whether continued pesticide use is optimal. There is also major corporate negligence with regards to equipment. The necessary corporations should therefore be held accountable for their misconduct and immediately provide farmers with the correct facilities, including monitoring and regulation of these practices.
In the long term however, the question turns toward the reduction in the use of pesticides. For now, the debate is quite stagnant. Although there is enough food to supply 9 billion people, pesticide use is rampant. And without a doubt, global food security still rests heavily on their productive capacity. Many pitch radical ideas, but few eclipse the market for pesticides. However, in a world constantly changing, it is impossible to know what the next monumental point in scientific history will bring to the market for food. We can only hope that, one day, there will be a new star in the deliverance of food security.