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PESTICIDES: ARE THEY WORTH IT? - A UN REPORT
By Cori Marshall and Ronan O'Doherty
It has been 55 years since Rachel Carson painted a bleak picture with her seminal book, Silent Spring. Carson wrote of a possible future world where volatile chemicals, supposed to rid farmers' crops of pests, wreak whole-scale havoc on entire ecosystems. In a report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food at the UN General Assembly this past January, a similarly bleak picture was painted once again.
The crux of the report is Dr. Hilal Elver countering the argument by the giant chemical firms that pesticides are required to feed the world.
She draws to attention to the more than 200,000 deaths a year that come as a result of pesticide use; almost 100% of which occur in developing nations across the world.
Elver points out a number of evidently avoidable accidents involving poisoning which, "include an incident in 1999 in Peru, where 24 schoolchildren died following the consumption of the highly toxic pesticide parathion, which had been packaged so that it was mistaken for powdered milk, the deaths of 23 children in India in 2013 after consuming a meal contaminated with the highly hazardous pesticide monocrotophos; the poisoning of 39 preschool children in China in 2014 from consumption of food containing residues of the pesticide TETs; and the deaths of 11 children in Bangladesh in 2015 after eating fruits laced with pesticides."
This issue is far from constrained to the far flung corners of the earth however.
Although the specific incidents might not be as headline worthy, the long term effects of pesticide use here in North America can be just as damaging.
"In the arctic region, Organochlorine (OC) pesticides are predisposed to travelling northward on cold air and water currents," Dr. Mehda Chandra, a campaign co-ordinator with Pesticide Action network said. "Our partners in Alaska, lead by scientists and a large number of indigenous people have documented huge quantities of OC pesticides in marine mammals and in humans bodies," adding, "These pesticides get attracted to fat, so the breast milk of a lot of indigenous women in the arctic region is contaminated by OC pesticides."
The UN report echoes this, saying, "Indigenous peoples in the Arctic are found to have hazardous pesticides in their bodies that were never used near their communities, and suffer from above average rates of cancer and other diseases."
"Right here in California we are engaged in a campaign with our department of pesticide regulations to try and get buffer zones placed around schools in agricultural areas," Chandra, said. "The Department of Public Health found that 500,000 children in just 15 counties attend school within a ¼ mile of fields where pesticides that cause cancers, neurological harm, learning disabilities, asthma were sprayed."
In the Great Lakes region many groups are concerned with the continued use of chemicals like Atrazine as a herbicide.
The UN report addresses these concerns.
"In the United States of America, where over 70 million pounds of atrazine are used annually, runoff into water supplies has been linked to increased risk of birth defects. While atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2004, some European countries still detect it in groundwater today,"
The U.N. report points to "a lack of an effective framework to regulate different types of hazardous pesticides throughout their lifecycle", as a flaw in international regulation of pesticide use. It also states that, while treaties like the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants banned a large number of industrial chemicals, their "coverage is limited and many highly hazardous pesticides do not fall within its scope."
The report highlights that "a toxic pesticide is only regulated if it meets the narrow criteria of the Stockholm Convention or Montreal Protocol." There are other international agreements that regulates pesticides as they cross international boundaries and require states to share information on the import and export of them and regulates pesticide "trade of hazardous pesticides as waste."
All of the international regulations mentioned in the report have been ratified by Canada.
In Canada, the use of pesticides is a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial levels. All "pesticides imported into, sold or used are regulated under the Pest Control Products Act and Regulations." The legislation is enforced by the Pest Management Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada.
According to the Health Canada the sales of pesticides in Canada are closely monitored and are subject to strict sales reporting. Sales for pesticides in 2014 included "101,080,417 kilograms of active ingredient." The government department highlighted that nearly three quarters of the sales "were Agricultural sector products."
Health Canada promotes sustainable pest management (SPM), which "is designed to meet society's current and future needs." SPM aims to control pesticide use "through a range of practices, including judicious use pesticides." This would using pesticides in a prudent way.
Health Canada routinely conducts human health and environmental risk assessments. When transporting a pesticide "sensitive environmental compartments such as groundwater, lakes [and] rivers" are taken into account and examined.
The PMRA "regularly reviews approved pesticides, to make sure they continue to be safe for use." Human health is always taken into account, and performs an occupational risk assessment [which] estimates skin and inhalation exposure to pesticide handlers who mix, load, and/or apply pesticides and to post application workers who work in areas treated with pesticides."
According to Health Canada "a pesticide will only be registered if the the estimated exposure raises no concerns to human health or the environment."
The problem with this, according to Louis Henault-Ethier, Scientific Project Lead with the David Suzuki Foundation and Member of the Collectif de Recherche Éco-santé sur les Pesticides, les Politiques et les Alternatives, is that "pesticides are registered using industry issued testing."
Essentially the date that is used to decide whether or not a pesticide enters the Canadian market is provided by the companies who produce them, and Henault-Ethier suggests that this raises ethical concerns. The economic aspect of pesticide production allows for the transgression of another ethical boundary.
Henault-Ethier underlines, due to the fact that companies strive to keep "a competitive advantage, certain data is considered confidential." Only "the government can review it during the consultation process, but not the general scientific community."
Having the general scientific community perform an independent review could provide a system of checks and balances in the pesticide registration process. Henault-Ethier added that scientists could perform "analysis of certain studies and duplicate studies." It is also difficult to trust the information because scientists "are only seeing part of the information."
Henault-Ethier echoed the report in suggesting that legislation does not go far enough in protecting human health and the environment. Legislation "may have teeth in the development stage" Henault-Ethier added, "the focus always becomes restricted to certain aspects."
The message is not being heard by legislators, Henault-Ethier said that "we are constantly nudging [small] pieces of regulations and policies" it takes forever to get them implemented.
"The main concerns are on its adverse affects to human health and wildlife due to hormone disrupting properties,"said Muhannad Malas,Toxics Program Manager for Environmental Defence,"There is a lot of evidence to show that atrazine feminizes frogs, which is not an easy thing to neglect or ignore."
Malas agreed with the report, saying that studies have also shown that there is some evidence that Atrazine affects human reproductive health outcomes.
He is disappointed that Canada has not banned Atrazine but did point to a silver lining, saying, "The partial success of our efforts was that Health Canada's, PMRA decided to launch a new special review to look at the risk of Atrazine on human health and the environment and this time they'll look at surface water as opposed to only groundwater," adding, "We would have liked to see restrictions on Atrazine but despite them not happening, we're hopeful the new studies will lead to restrictions and bans in the near future."
With the negative impacts associated with pesticide use, is its continued use even necessary?
We spoke with Av Singh, Vice President of Canadian Organic Growers, an umbrella group that brings together large groups from farmers to consumers to "talk and advocate around organic food and farming."
Singh added that "organic farmers have developed practices that are incredibly efficient, and are producing a better quality soil and a better quality plant."
Singh said "organic yields are very comparable to conventional yields". Organic crops may be safer bet in a changing climate. Singh added that "in times of stress organic yields are more resilient than their conventional counterparts."
Growing organically is more economical in the long run. Singh said that "organic farming is becoming more profitable." The use of chemical pesticides, Singh added, "is money in money out and you don't get to see a lot of it." The organic farmer puts in less money up front, less money is gained from the crop but the farmer holds on to a bigger percentage.
The use of chemical pesticides not only affects human health and the environment, it also has an effect on the livelihoods of the farmers. Pesticides leach into the ground into drinking water, aquatic ecosystems and affect the hormonal balance of different species. The question that has to asked is, is it worth it.
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