Pesticides responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year

Pesticides are “global human rights concern”, say two United Nations experts urging for a new global treaty

GENEVA (7 March 2017) – Two United Nations experts are calling for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming, and move towards sustainable agricultural practices. Their full report is available here.

Excessive use of pesticides are very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital  to ensuring food security

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99%, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker.

Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections.

The experts particularly emphasized the obligation of States to protect the rights of children from hazardous pesticides. They noted the high number of children killed or injured by food contaminated with pesticides, particularly through accidental poisonings, the prevalence of diseases and disabilities linked to chronic exposure at a young age, and reports on the exposure to hazardous pesticides of children working in global food supply chains, which is one of the worst forms of child labour.

The experts warn that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying the natural enemies of pests, and reducing the nutritional value of food. The impact of such overuse also imposes staggering costs on national economies around the world.

The experts say the use of neonicotinoid pesticides is particularly worrying because they are accused of being responsible for a systematic collapse in the number of bees around the world. Such a collapse, they say, threatens the very basis of agriculture as 71% of crop species are bee-pollinated.

Without harmonized, stringent regulations on the production, sale and acceptable levels of pesticide use, the burden of the negative effects of pesticides is felt by poor and vulnerable communities in countries that have less stringent enforcement mechanisms

While acknowledging that certain international treaties currently offer protection from the use of a few pesticides, they stressed that a global treaty to regulate the vast majority of them throughout their life cycle does not yet exist, leaving a critical gap in the human rights protection framework.

The Special Rapporteurs point to denials by the agroindustry of the hazards of certain pesticides, the scale of the impacts, as well as the inappropriate shifting of blame to farmers for misusing its products. They express concern about aggressive, unethical marketing tactics that remain unchallenged, and huge sums spent by the powerful chemical industry to influence policymakers and contest scientific evidence.

It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production

The Special Rapporteur on Food highlights developments in agroecology, which replaces chemicals with biology, saying its approaches are capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed and nourish the entire world population, without undermining the rights of future generations to adequate food and health. And the Special Rapporteur on Toxics points to examples of where safer alternatives to hazardous pesticides and other toxic chemicals were developed and adopted only after strong regulatory pressures by States on industry.

More Information

Pesticides are a global human rights concern

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

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 4/4 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. Agroecology image credit national agroforestry center.


While the present report has illustrated that there is no shortage of international and national legislation, as well as non-binding guidelines, such instruments are failing to protect humans and the environment from hazardous pesticides. These instruments suffer from implementation, enforcement and coverage gaps, and generally fail to effectively apply the precautionary principle or meaningfully alter many business practices. Existing instruments are particularly ineffective in addressing the cross-border nature of the global pesticide market, as proven by the widespread and often legally permitted practices of exporting banned highly hazardous pesticides to third countries. These gaps and inadequacies should be confronted on the basis of human rights mechanisms.

International human rights law sets forth comprehensive State obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. In particular, the rights to adequate food and to health provide clear protections for all people against excessive or inappropriate use of pesticides. Taking a human rights approach to pesticides guarantees the principles of universality and non-discrimination, under which human rights are guaranteed for all persons, including vulnerable groups, who disproportionately feel the burden of hazardous pesticides.

Implementing the right to adequate food and health requires proactive measures to eliminate harmful pesticides. Corporations have the responsibility to ensure that the chemicals they produce and sell do not pose threats to these rights. There continues to be a general lack of awareness of the dangers posed by certain pesticides, a condition exacerbated by industry efforts to downplay the harm being done as well as complacent Governments that often make misleading assertions that existing legislation and regulatory frameworks provide sufficient protection.

While efforts to ban and appropriately regulate the use of pesticides are a necessary step in the right direction, the most effective, long-term method to reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals is to move away from industrial agriculture.

In the words of the Director-General of FAO, we have reached a turning point in agriculture. Today’s dominant agricultural model is highly problematic, not only because of damage inflicted by pesticides, but also their effects on climate change, loss of biodiversity and inability to ensure food sovereignty. These issues are intimately interlinked and must be addressed together to ensure that the right to food is achieved to its full potential. Efforts to tackle hazardous pesticides will only be successful if they address the ecological, economic and social factors that are embedded in agricultural policies, as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. Political will is needed to re-evaluate and challenge the vested interests, incentives and power relations that keep industrial agrochemical-dependent farming in place. Agricultural policies, trade systems and corporate influence over public policy must all be challenged if we are to move away from pesticide-reliant industrial food systems.


The international community must work on a comprehensive, binding treaty to regulate hazardous pesticides throughout their life cycle, taking into account human rights principles. Such an instrument should:

  • Aim to remove existing double standards among countries that are particularly detrimental to countries with weaker regulatory systems;
  • Generate policies to reduce pesticide use worldwide and develop a framework for the banning and phasing-out of highly hazardous pesticides;
  • Promote agroecology;
  • Place strict liability on pesticide producers

States should:

  • Develop comprehensive national action plans that include incentives to support alternatives to hazardous pesticides, as well as initiate binding and measurable reduction targets with time limits;
  • Establish systems to enable various national agencies responsible for agriculture, public health and the environment to cooperate efficiently to address the adverse impact of pesticides and to mitigate risks related to their misuse and overuse;
  • Establish impartial and independent risk-assessment and registration processes for pesticides, with full disclosure requirements from the producer. Such processes must be based on the precautionary principle, taking into account the hazardous effects of pesticide products on human health and the environment;
  • Consider non-chemical alternatives first, and only allow chemicals to be registered where need can be demonstrated;
  • Enact safety measures to ensure adequate protections for pregnant women, children and other groups who are particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure;
  • Fund comprehensive scientific studies on the potential health effects of pesticides, including exposure to a mixture of chemicals as well as multiple exposures over time;
  • Guarantee rigorous and regular analysis of food and beverages to determine levels of hazardous residues, including in infant formula and follow-on foods, and make such information accessible to the public;
  • Closely monitor agricultural pesticide use and storage to minimize risks and ensure that only those with the requisite training are permitted to apply such products, and that they do so according to instructions and using appropriate protective equipment;
  • Create buffer zones around plantations and farms until pesticides are phased out, to reduce pesticide exposure risk;
  • Organize training programmes for farmers to raise awareness of the harmful effects of hazardous pesticides and of alternative methods;
  • Take necessary measures to safeguard the public’s right to information, including enforcing requirements to indicate the type of pesticides used and level of residues on the labels of food and drink products;
  • Regulate corporations to respect human rights and avoid environmental damage during the entire life cycle of pesticides;
  • Impose penalties on companies that fabricate evidence and disseminate misinformation on the health and environmental risks of their products;
  • Monitor corporations to ensure that labelling, safety precautions and training standards are respected;
  • Encourage farmers to adopt agroecological practices to enhance biodiversity and naturally suppress pests, and to adopt measures such as crop rotation, soil fertility management and crop selection appropriate for local conditions;
  • Provide incentives for organically produced food through subsidies and financial and technical assistance, as well as by using public procurement;
  • Encourage the pesticide industry to develop alternative pest management approaches;
  • Eliminate pesticide subsidies and instead initiate pesticide taxes, import tariffs and pesticide-use fees.

Civil society should inform the general public about adverse impact of pesticides on human health and environmental damage, as well as organizing training programmes on agroecology.

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.

Agroecology : the Alternative to Extensive Use of Pesticides

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

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 3/4 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. Agroecology image credit national agroforestry center.


Today, hazardous pesticides are in excessive use, inflicting damage on human health and ecosystems around the world, and their use is poised to increase in the coming years. Safer practices exist and can be developed further to minimize the impacts of such excessive, in some cases unnecessary, use of pesticides that violate a number of human rights. A rise in organic agricultural practices in many places illustrates that farming with less or without any pesticides is feasible. Studies have indicated that agroecology is capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed the entire world population and ensure that they are adequately nourished.

The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it. Ironically, many of those who are food insecure are in fact subsistence farmers engaged in agricultural work, particularly in lower-income countries.

Agroecology, considered by many as the foundation of sustainable agriculture, replaces chemicals with biology. It is the integrative study of the ecology of the entire food system, encompassing ecological, economic and social dimensions. It promotes agricultural practices that are adapted to local environments and stimulate beneficial biological interactions between different plants and species to build long-term fertility and soil health.

The amount of pesticides needed to protect crops depends on the robustness of the farming system. If crops are cultivated in unsuitable locations, they tend to be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Over the past decades, diversity in farming systems has been greatly reduced in terms of crops and varieties grown in natural habitats. The result is a loss of ecosystem services like natural pest control through predators and a loss of soil fertility. Rather than encouraging resistance, crop breeding in industrial agriculture has focused on high-yielding varieties that respond well to chemical inputs but that are more susceptible to pests and diseases. As most seed companies are now owned by agrochemical companies, there is limited interest in developing robust varieties. In order to succeed with pesticide reduction, it is essential to reintroduce diversity into agriculture and move away from monocultures of single varieties.

In ecological farming, crops are protected from pest damage by enhancing biodiversity and encouraging the presence of natural enemies of pests. Examples include developing habitats around farms to support natural enemies and other beneficial wildlife or applying functional agrobiodiversity, using scientific strategies to increase natural enemy populations. Crop rotation and usage of cover crops also help protect the soil from various pathogens, suppress weeds and increase organic content, while more resistant crop varieties can help prevent plant disease.

Agroecological farming can help secure livelihoods for smallholder farmers and those living in poverty, including women, because there is no heavy reliance on expensive external inputs. If properly managed, biodiversity and efficient use of resources can enable smallholder farms to be more productive per hectare than large industrial farms (A/HRC/16/49).

Measuring success

Despite their widespread use, chemical pesticides have not achieved reduction in crop losses in the last 40 years. This has been attributed to their indiscriminate and nonselective use, killing not only pests but also their natural enemies and insect pollinators. Efficacy of chemical pesticides is also greatly reduced owing to pesticide resistance over time.

Such resistance is particularly likely and rapid in monoculture of genetically engineered crops. As a result, genetically engineered crops may create a cycle of entrapment for farmers, with herbicide-tolerant crops eventually requiring more herbicides to fight pest resistance. Farmers using genetically engineered seed are obliged to buy the pesticides that go along with it, benefiting the pesticide industry without considering the economic burden on famers or the cost to the environment. Farmers’ right to assess technologies such as genetically engineered crops and weigh these in the light of other possible alternatives has also been ignored under the assumptions of conventional economics. Indeed some argue that the development of alternatives has been undermined by the emphasis on investment in genetically engineered technologies.

Replacing highly hazardous pesticides with less hazardous pesticides is necessary and overdue but not a sustainable solution, as many pesticides initially considered relatively “benign” are later found to pose very serious health and environmental risks. Measuring the success of agroecology in comparison with industrial agricultural systems requires further research. Studies using short time frames and focusing on individual crop yields underestimate the potential long-term productivity of agroecological systems. Comparative studies are increasingly showing that diversified systems are advantageous and even more profitable when looking at total outputs, rather than specific crop yields. Aiming to build balanced and sustainable agroecosystems, agroecology is more likely to produce constant yields in the longer term owing to their greater ability to withstand climate variations and naturally resist pests.

Success must be calculated in terms other than economic profitability, and take into consideration the costs of pesticides on human health, the economy and the environment. Agroecology prevents direct exposure to toxic pesticides and helps improve air, soil, surface water and groundwater quality. Less energy intensive, agroecology can also help mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses and by providing carbon sinks.

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.

Challenges of the Current Pesticides Regime

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

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.

Other challenges

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.

Adverse Impact of Pesticides on Human Rights

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

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 1/4 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 Pam Link.


Hazardous pesticides impose substantial costs on Governments and have catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole, implicating a number of human rights and putting certain groups at elevated risk of rights abuses.

Human health

Few people are untouched by pesticide exposure. They may be exposed through food, water, air, or direct contact with pesticides or residues. However, given that most diseases are multi-causal, and bearing in mind that individuals tend to be exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals in their daily lives, establishing a direct causal link between exposure to pesticides and their effects can be a challenge for accountability and for victims seeking access to an effective remedy. 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.

Pesticide poisonings remain a serious concern, especially in developing countries, even though these nations account for only 25 per cent of pesticide usage. In some countries, pesticide poisoning even exceeds fatalities from infectious diseases. Tragic accidents involving poisoning 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. Other cases include 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.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable, global statistics on the number of people who suffer from pesticide exposure. Recently, the non-profit organization Pesticide Action Network estimated that the number of people affected annually by short- and long-term pesticide exposure ranged between 1 million and 41 million.

Of grave concern are the impacts of chronic exposure to hazardous pesticides. Pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. They can also cause numerous neurological health effects such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced visual ability and reduced motor skills. Other possible effects include asthma, allergies and hypersensitivity. These symptoms are often very subtle and may not be recognized by the medical community as a clinical effect caused by pesticides. Furthermore, chronic effects of pesticides may not manifest for months or years after exposure, presenting a significant challenge for accountability and access to an effective remedy, including preventive interventions.

Despite grave human health risks having been well established for numerous pesticides, they remain in use. Even where pesticides have been banned or restricted, the risk of contamination can persist for many decades and they may continue to accumulate in food sources. In many cases, possible health impacts have not been extensively studied before pesticides are placed on the market. This is particularly true for “inactive” ingredients that are added to enhance the effectiveness of the pesticide’s active ingredient and that may not be tested and are seldom disclosed on product labels. Moreover, the combination effects of exposure to multiple pesticides in food, water, soil and air have not been adequately studied.

Certain groups are at substantially higher risk of pesticide exposure, as detailed below.

Farmers and agricultural workers

Agricultural workers are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides via spray, drift or direct contact with treated crops or soil, from accidental spills or inadequate personal protective equipment. Even when following recommended safety precautions, those applying pesticides are subject to higher exposure levels. Families of agricultural workers are also vulnerable, as workers bring home pesticide residues on their skin, clothing and shoes.

Studies in developed countries show that annual acute pesticide poisoning affects nearly 1 in every 5,000 agricultural workers. Globally, however, it is unknown what percentage of farmworkers experience acute pesticide poisoning owing to a lack of standardized reporting. Poor enforcement of labour regulations and lack of health and safety training can elevate exposure risks, while many Governments lack the infrastructure and resources to regulate and monitor pesticides.

The exposure risk of children engaged in agricultural work is particularly alarming. Although little data are available, the International Labour Organization estimates that about 60 per cent of child labourers worldwide work in agriculture, and children often make up a substantial portion of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. Their increased sensitivity to the hazards of pesticides, the inadequacy of protective equipment and their lack of experience may leave them particularly exposed.

Seasonal and migrant workers are also more vulnerable, as they may work temporarily at various agricultural sites, multiplying their exposure risk to pesticides. Language barriers may further prevent these workers from understanding labels and safety warnings, they may experience poor working conditions without access to adequate safety equipment and they may have difficulty accessing medical care and compensation for pesticide-related diseases. Workers may also have little control over the types of pesticides used.

Communities living near agricultural lands

Those living close to industrial agricultural lands and plantations may also be at grave risk of pesticide exposure. Aerial pesticide spraying is particularly dangerous, as chemicals can drift to nearby locations. Communities may be forced to reside closer to pesticide use areas owing to financial or other constraints, and the malnutrition that may accompany extreme poverty can exacerbate the adverse health effects of toxic pesticides. For example, low levels of protein, resulting in low enzyme levels, enhance vulnerability to organophosphate insecticides.

Examples of exposure owing to proximity to plantations include Costa Rica, where children living close to banana plantations were found to be exposed to high levels of insecticides.19 In India, inhabitants of the Padre village in the State of Kerala, located near cashew plantations, were found to suffer from high rates of illness and death that have been linked to the highly hazardous pesticide endosulfan; disability rates among inhabitants are reportedly 73 per cent higher than the overall rates for the entire state.

During the 1970s, the pesticide DCBP was used extensively on banana and pineapple plantations around the world. In Davao, the Philippines, where the pesticide was used in the 1980s, high levels of sterility were scientifically proven to have resulted from exposure. Other conditions, including cancer, asthma, tuberculosis and skin disease were also detected, but a linkage was not scientifically proven. While local authorities banned aerial spraying following community protests, the Supreme Court of the Philippines reversed the ban, allegedly under pressure from banana corporations. Further, suits brought by plantation workers have been dismissed, leaving victims without compensation. Twenty years on, despite a global ban on DBCP, soils and water sources remain contaminated.

Indigenous communities

In various countries, agribusinesses have taken over lands belonging to indigenous and minority communities and instituted pesticide-dependent intensive agriculture. As a result, communities may be forced to live in marginal situations alongside such farms, regularly exposing them to pesticide drift.

Traditional food sources of indigenous peoples are regularly found to contain high levels of pesticides. This is also true in the Arctic, because chemicals travel northward through long-range environmental transport in wind and water, bioaccumulating and biomagnifying in traditional foods such as marine mammals and fish. 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.

Pregnant women and children

Children are most vulnerable to pesticide contamination, as their organs are still developing and, owing to their smaller size, they are exposed to a higher dose per unit of body weight; the levels and activity of key enzymes that detoxify pesticides are much lower in children than in adults. Health impacts linked to childhood exposure to pesticides include impaired intellectual development, adverse behavioural effects and other developmental abnormalities. Emerging research is revealing that exposure to even low levels of pesticides, for example through wind drift or residues on food, may be very damaging to children’s health, disrupting their mental and physiological growth and possibly leading to a lifetime of diseases and disorders.

Pregnant women who are exposed to pesticides are at higher risk of miscarriage, pre-term delivery and birth defects. Studies have regularly found a cocktail of pesticides in umbilical cords and first faeces of newborns, proving prenatal exposure. Exposure to pesticides can be transferred from either parent. The most critical period for exposure for the father is three months prior to conception, while maternal exposure is most dangerous from the month before conception through the first trimester of pregnancy. Recent evidence suggests that pesticide exposure by pregnant mothers leads to higher risk of childhood leukaemia and other cancers, autism and respiratory illnesses. For example, neurotoxic pesticides can cross the placental barrier and affect the developing nervous system of the fetus, while other toxic chemicals can adversely impact its undeveloped immune system.

Pesticides can also pass through breast milk. This is particularly worrying, as breast milk is the only source of food for many babies and their metabolism is not well developed to fight against hazardous chemicals. Pesticides are also found in baby formula, or in the water with which it is mixed.


Pesticide residues are commonly found in both plant and animal food sources, resulting in significant exposure risks for consumers. Studies indicate that foods often contain multiple residues, thereby resulting in the consumption of a “cocktail” of pesticides. Although the harmful effects of pesticide mixtures are still not fully understood, it is known that in some cases, synergistic interactions can occur that lead to higher toxicity levels. High cumulative exposure of consumers to pesticides is particularly worrying, especially with lipophilic pesticides, which bind with fats and bioaccumulate in the body.

Traces may remain on fruits and vegetables that are extensively treated with pesticides before they reach the consumer. The highest levels of pesticides are often found in legumes, leafy greens and fruits such as apples, strawberries and grapes. While washing and cooking produce reduces residue levels, food preparation can sometimes increase these levels. Also, many pesticides used today are systemic — taken up through the roots and distributed throughout the plant — and therefore washing will have no effect.

Pesticides may also bioaccumulate in farmed animals through contaminated feed. Insecticides are often used in poultry and eggs, while milk and other dairy products may contain a range of substances through bioaccumulation and storage in the fatty tissues of the animals. This is of particular concern as cow’s milk is often a staple component of human diets, especially for children.

Certain pesticides, such as organotins, accumulate and magnify through marine food web systems. As a result, people who depend on or consume greater amounts of seafood tend to have particularly high concentrations in their blood, causing significant health risks.

Pesticides also present a serious threat to drinking water, particularly in agricultural areas, which often depend on groundwater. While it can take several decades before pesticides applied in fields appear in water wells, high levels of herbicides in agricultural areas have already caused health problems for some communities. For example, 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.

Environmental impact

Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides result in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.

Pesticides contaminate and degrade soil to varying degrees. In China, recent studies released by the Government show moderate to severe 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.

Water contamination can be equally damaging. In Guatemala, for example, contamination of the Pasión River with the pesticide malathion, used on palm oil plantations, killed thousands of fish and affected 23 species of fish. This in turn deprived 12,000 people in 14 communities of their primary source of food and livelihood.

While regulators are mostly concerned about health risks through pesticide residues, their effects on non-target organisms are hugely underestimated. For example, neonicotinoids, a commonly used class of systemic insecticides, are causing soil degradation and water pollution and endangering vital ecosystem services such as biological pest control. 38 Designed to damage the central nervous system of target pests, they can also cause harm to beneficial invertebrates as well as to birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Neonicotinoids are accused of being responsible for “colony collapse disorder” of bees worldwide. For example, heavy use of these insecticides has been blamed for the 50 per cent decline over 25 years in honeybee populations in both the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This decline threatens the very basis of agriculture, given that wild bees and managed honeybees play the greatest role in pollinating crops. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), of some 100 crop species (which provide 90 per cent of global food), 71 per cent are pollinated by bees. The European Union, unlike the United States, restricted the use of certain neonicotinoids in 2013.

Many of the pesticides used today, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of dietary exposure,are systemic. Seeds treated with systemic pesticides are commonly used in soybean, corn and peanut production. Similarly, crops may be genetically engineered (so-called GMOs) to produce pesticides themselves. Proponents of systemic pesticides and genetically engineered crops claim that by eliminating liquid spraying, the risk of exposure to farm workers and other non-target organisms is greatly reduced. However, further studies of chronic exposure are needed to determine the extent of the impact of systemic pesticides and genetically engineered crops on human health, beneficial insects, soil ecosystems and aquatic life.  For example, transgenic corn and soybean varieties have been developed that are capable of producing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) endotoxins that act as insecticides.While the use of Bt crops has led to a reduction in conventional synthetic insecticide use, controversy remains about the possible risks posed by these crops.

The prime example of controversy around genetically engineered crops is glyphosate, the active ingredient of some herbicides, including Roundup, that allow farmers to kill weeds but not their crops. While presented as less toxic and persistent compared to traditional herbicides, there is considerable disagreement over the impact of glyphosate on the environment: studies have indicated negative impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and soil nutrient content. There are also concerns regarding human health. In 2015, WHO announced that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen.

In Europe, genetically engineered crop regulations exemplify the precautionary principle. If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on those taking the action or policy to demonstrate that it is not harmful. In contrast, in the United States, the biggest producer of genetically engineered crops, regulations have generally followed the concept of “substantial equivalence”, whereby a novel crop or food is compared to an existing one and if judged adequately similar, it falls under existing regulations.49 Considering their probable grave effects on health and the environment, there is an urgent need for holistic regulation on the basis of the precautionary principle to address the genetically engineered production process and other new technologies at the global level.

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.