This post content, published by Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, and Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & Hazardous Substances & Wastes, is our abstract Part 2/4 of their Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food for the United Nations.
The report warnings of catastrophic consequences and blaming manufacturers for ‘systematic denial of harms’ and ‘unethical marketing tactics’ is shared by Damian Carrington alongside with report UNSR authors interview on The Guardian. Image credit global.handelsblatt.
Divergent levels of protection at the national level
For the preparation of the present report, some Governments provided information on laws to regulate pesticide use and on authorization and testing requirements prior to registration as well as inspection and monitoring practices, including random sampling of agricultural products for residue levels and farm inspections. Training and awarenessraising initiatives for the general public, farmers, distributors and schoolchildren were also shared, as well as precautionary measures and labelling requirements. Finally, integrated pest management strategies and examples of practices promoting organic farming were provided.
Countries have established significant national laws and practices in an effort to reduce pesticide harm; however, policies and levels of protection vary significantly. For instance, there are often serious shortcomings in national registration processes prior to the sale of pesticide products. It is very difficult to assess the risk of pesticides submitted for registration, particularly as toxicity studies often do not analyse the many chronic healthrelated effects. Further, reviews may not take place frequently enough and regulatory authorities may be under strong pressure from the industry to prevent or reverse bans on hazardous pesticides. Without standardized, stringent regulations on the production, sale and acceptable levels of pesticide use, the burden of the negative effects of pesticides is felt by agricultural workers, children, the poor and other vulnerable communities, especially in countries that have weaker regulatory and enforcement systems.
Many developing countries have shifted their agricultural policies from traditional food production for local consumption to export-oriented cash crops. Under strong pressure to maximize yields, farmers have become increasingly reliant on chemical pesticides. Yet the steep rise in the use of pesticides has not always been accompanied by necessary safeguards to control their application. Approximately 25 per cent of developing countries lack effective laws on distribution and use, while about 80 per cent lack sufficient resources to enforce existing pesticide-related laws.
Most countries maintain a threshold maximum residue level, indicating the highest level of pesticide considered to be safe for consumption. Monitoring those levels can help protect consumers and incentivize farmers to minimize the use of pesticides. However, capacity for inspection is often lacking, or adequate systems are not in place to measure or enforce maximum residue levels. Moreover, as maximum residue levels are not uniform, food products banned in one country may still be permitted entry in countries that allow higher levels. Similarly, while foods produced locally containing high pesticide residue levels may not be permitted for export owing to stricter regulations abroad, they may still be sold domestically.
Lack of harmonized standards also results in more toxic, and even banned, pesticides being used extensively in developing countries because they are cheaper alternatives. In many cases, highly hazardous pesticides that are not or no longer permitted for use in industrialized countries are exported to developing countries. Some pesticide companies fail to register or reregister products intended for export to developing countries, or increase exports of products that have been banned or restricted to use up existing stocks, fully aware that they would not be authorized for sale in the country where the company is based. To subject individuals of other nations to toxins known to cause major health damage or fatality is a clear human rights violation.
Finally, international trade deals threaten to lower standards of protection from toxic pesticides while increasing the risk of harm to the environment and to citizens. The European Parliament has expressed concern that regulatory convergence through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership risks aligning common standards at the lowest common denominator. The Parliament further contends that the pesticides industry consistently considers protective regulations as “trade irritants” that obstruct trade.
In addition to the legal gaps and dual standards noted above, there are other challenges derived from excessive or inaccurate use of pesticides, accidents, and dissemination of misinformation and misconceptions by producers.
Personal protective equipment and labels
Pesticide companies and Governments often argue that exposure risk to pesticides is generally low if personal protective equipment is properly used. Yet in reality, compliance with recommended personal protective equipment practices is generally low, for a number of reasons.
Personal protective equipment may be unsuitable for local working conditions, for example extreme heat and humidity, steep terrain and thick vegetation. Other factors may include pressure to work as fast as possible, lack of training on the health risks of exposure or trainings conducted in non-native languages, coupled with high turnover of workers.
Warning labels on pesticides may also be ineffective owing to the small size of print used on container labels, failure to translate instructions into local languages and low literacy rates among pesticide users. While pictograms and other creative labelling tactics may try to address some of these problems, without training, agricultural workers may still have difficulty deciphering colour codes or warning symbols.
The repackaging of pesticides into smaller amounts for retail is also of grave concern. Pesticides are often transferred from labelled containers that meet safety standards into unlabelled, mislabelled or inappropriate containers, such as old water bottles, to be sold alongside foodstuffs.
The industry frequently uses the term “intentional misuse” to shift the blame onto the user for the avoidable impacts of hazardous pesticides. Yet clearly, the responsibility for protecting users and others throughout the pesticide life cycle and throughout the retail chain lies with the pesticide manufacturer. This is reflected, for example, in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights on “business relationships”, which set a precedent by requiring businesses to have producer responsibility for certain products even after they are sold. It is imperative that such responsibility be extended to pesticide producers.
Managing the complete life cycle of pesticide impacts
From the production of pesticides to their disposal, the impacts of pesticides go beyond their application to crops and exposure through food and water.
One of the most catastrophic incidents involving pesticides occurred in 1984 in Bhopal, India, where approximately 45 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant as a result of negligence, immediately killing thousands of people and resulting in serious health issues and premature deaths for tens of thousands living in the vicinity. Epidemiological studies conducted soon after the accident showed significant increases in pregnancy loss, infant mortality, decreased fetal weight, chromosomal abnormalities, impaired associate learning and respiratory illnesses.
The tragedy led to the worldwide development of major reforms, including the above-mentioned Responsible Care initiative. Such initiatives, however, have not succeeded in halting continued disasters related to the manufacture of pesticides worldwide.
Pesticide waste is also a major challenge. There are thousands of tonnes of obsolete pesticides around the world, some of which are nearly 30 years old, presenting a major health hazard, particularly in developing countries. Existing data indicate that more than 20 per cent of obsolete pesticide stockpiles consist of persistent organic pollutants, which are highly toxic and made up of organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation.
Unused pesticides may accumulate and deteriorate for a variety of reasons. For example, purchased or donated pesticides may be unsuitable to local conditions or quantities received may exceed demand. This can occur because of pressure from agrochemical industries and corruption, leading to more pesticides being procured than needed. Also, when pesticides are banned, managing existing stocks is a problem. According to FAO, “good practice requires regulatory authorities to allow a phase-out period when products are banned or restricted so that existing stocks can be used up before the restriction is fully applied”. This is, of course, a highly problematic suggestion.
Pivotal role of the private sector
The oligopoly of the chemical industry has enormous power. Recent mergers have resulted in just three powerful corporations: Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and Dupont, and Syngenta and ChemChina. They control more than 65 per cent of global pesticide sales. Serious conflicts of interest issues arise, as they also control almost 61 per cent of commercial seed sales. The pesticide industry’s efforts to influence policymakers and regulators have obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions globally. When challenged, justifications for lobbying efforts include claims that companies comply with their own codes of conduct, or that they follow local laws.
Companies often contest scientific evidence of the hazards related to their products, with some even standing accused of deliberately manufacturing evidence to infuse scientific uncertainty and delay restrictions. There are also serious claims of scientists being “bought” to restate industry talking points. Other egregious practices include infiltrating federal regulatory agencies via the “revolving door”, with employees shifting between regulatory agencies and the pesticide industry. Pesticide manufacturers also cultivate strategic “public-private” partnerships that call into question their culpability or help bolster the companies’ credibility. Companies also consistently donate to educational institutions that conduct research on pesticides, and such institutions are becoming dependent on industry owing to shrinking public funding.
Industry has also sought to dissuade Governments from restricting pesticide use to save pollinators. In Europe, a campaign was mounted preceding the decision by the European Union in 2013 to ban neonicotinoids. The chemical industry, allegedly with support from the Government of the United Kingdom, publicly contested findings of the European Food Safety Authority about the unacceptable risk of neonicotinoids to bees. Syngenta reportedly even threatened to sue individual European Union officials involved in publishing the Authority’s report. Bayer and Syngenta are still refusing to disclose their own studies that demonstrated the harmful effects of their pesticides on honeybees at high doses.
Scientists who uncover health and environmental risks to the detriment of corporate interests may face grave threats to their reputations, and even to themselves. One of the most prominent examples are the actions of Novartis (later Syngenta), producer of atrazine, which engaged in a campaign to discredit scientists whose studies suggested adverse health and environmental impacts of this pesticide. Despite their efforts, subsequent research by scientists largely validated the original findings. In 2012, Syngenta settled a class action lawsuit brought by 20 water utility companies, paying $105 million to cover the costs of atrazine removal from affected water supplies.
Read and download the complete Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food A/HRC/34/48 on UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR On Human Rights & Toxics.