The Pesticide Detox book coverExcerpt from: The Pesticide Detox

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 2005
  • ISBN: 978-1-84407-142-5

“There was once a town where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… There was a strange stillness… It was a spring without voices… The people had done it themselves.”

With these words, Rachel Carson’s fable of a Silent Spring became famous worldwide. She painted a picture of a healthy community in town and countryside. This idyll, which could be anywhere in the past, delights visitors and locals alike. But it falls into a mysterious silence, “which lay over fields and woods and marsh”. The community had withered and died, and apparently all because of the widespread use of pesticides. This simple story is so compelling that more than two million copies of the book have been sold, and it continues to sell well. This is impressive for any book, let alone one mainly documenting the ills of the world.

Of course, the truth behind the fable plays out rather differently in real life, as no town has died solely because of agricultural pesticides, and neither have all the wildlife been eliminated. But there is something in what she says that remains significant more than forty years later. Since the early 1960s, the world population has more than doubled, and agricultural production per person has increased by a third. Over the same period, the use of modern inputs for farming has grown dramatically, and they have been very effective in helping to increase agricultural yields. Pesticides are now available in the remotest of regions of the world. Farmers can see their short-term effect – killing insects, weeds and diseases, and leaving the crops and animals to flourish. Yet there has been a hidden cost to pay. Harm to environments and human health has accompanied some of these fundamental changes in food production systems. For far too long, we have accepted these costs as the unfortunate but necessary side-effects of progress.

Yet in the last decade of the 20th century, many communities around the world have begun to see some remarkable revivals. The pesticides that harm environments and human health are increasingly being identified, and alternative, cheaper and safer management methods have been developed and now adopted by several millions of farmers. Food production by these farmers has not been compromised, which is a surprise to many. Something is happening. The spring may have been silent, but the prospects for the 21st century are now changing. In a small Asian village, a rice farmer says “my fields have been silent for thirty years, now they are singing again”. Pesticides had eliminated the unnecessary wildlife, but now the frogs are back. What brought about these changes? When Asian rice farmers first began to learn about the beneficial effects of predators and parasites in field schools, and about how to grow rice with limited or no pesticides, then they changed their practices by the tens of thousands. Yields were maintained or improved, and costs cut substantially – good for both families and the environment. This time, the people have done the right thing for themselves.

Remarkably, this story is beginning to be played out in different ecological and social settings around the world. But progress towards safer agriculture is still relatively rare. Each year, pesticide use in agriculture amounts to some 2.5 billion kilogrammes, about 400 grammes for every person on the planet. Yet we still have limited knowledge about the causal relationships between harmful products and adverse health and environmental problems in the field and at home. Some people say these costs simply have to be accepted as sustainable alternatives cannot work for both environments and food security. Despite great progress, the world’s agricultural and food systems are still not well geared up to take on board the principles of sustainability.

This book seeks to address some of these difficulties and set out some new solutions. Pests, diseases and weeds eat, infiltrate and smother crops and grab their nutrients. If farmers stood back and let nature take its course, then there would be insufficient food. They must do something. Pesticides are easy to use, though often costly for farmers. In addition, they often involve considerable costs to society in the form of public health and environmental costs. Alternatives often appear more difficult to implement, but are more sustainable in the long term. Their broad introduction, however, continues to face many challenges.

There is perhaps less of a choice than many may like to think. Recent food scares have underscored the importance of food safety. Contamination of water resources with pesticide residues is increasingly becoming an important issue in a growing number of countries. And recent studies are indicating that poisoning of farmers and their families in developing countries is far worse than previously thought.

Governments are now beginning to tighten their pest and pesticide management policies supported by a growing body of evidence to show that food can be produced in more sustainable ways. There is an enormous scope for further reduction of pesticide use, and where pesticide use remains justified, there are often less hazardous alternatives to products in current use. This book describes the problems associated with pesticide use and highlights a range of initiatives that provide viable alternatives, with special attention for Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

The International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides defines IPM in this way: “IPM means the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment. IPM emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms”.

In this book, this approach to IPM is sometimes called community-IPM, low-toxicity IPM, ecological IPM or even just ecological pest management (EPM), implying that the approach is something more than just reductions in pesticide use. Despite many positive national and international intentions and commitments, and even though there is often good availability of less hazardous alternatives, large quantities of undesirable pesticides continue to be used in many parts of the world. These include products with acute toxicity hazards or chronic health hazards. Some are persistent in the environment and/or disrupt ecosystem functioning.

This book explores the potential for the phase-out of hazardous pesticides and the phasing in of cost effective alternatives already on the market. The priority criterion for phasing out is acute mammalian toxicity in view of the high incidence of farmer poisoning, especially in the tropics where protective clothing is not available or too costly or uncomfortable to use. Other criteria include chronic health hazards and hazards to ecosystems. But such phasing out of undesirable products and the phasing in of new ones will need to be accompanied by supportive policy measures. Such policy changes may include removal of subsidies on products scheduled for phase-out, taxation of products with high social costs, financial incentives to encourage local development and production of new products, incentives to encourage partnerships between local producers in developing countries and producers of non-toxic products in OECD countries, a review of lists of registered pesticides, the establishment, monitoring and enforcement of maximum residue limits, and the investment in farmer training through farmer field schools.

There has been promising progress, with many of these policy measures now implemented in various countries. But what is still missing is a comprehensive and integrated approach by all countries, in which the idea of agricultural sustainability is put centre-stage. What would happen if this occurred? Would there be sufficient food to meet growing demand? Will the rural towns come to life? Will the birds and frogs sing again? The answer could be a resounding yes, if we come to appreciate that fundamental changes in pest management in agriculture are beneficial for farmers, consumers and the environment. Such collective wins are clearly very hard to achieve, but this book sets out some of the opportunities to make progress.

This book is a compilation of chapters on selected subjects that together form a larger picture about the necessary changes for pest and pesticide management. It describes the current concerns about the side-effects of pesticides, and demonstrates the feasibility of change on the basis of a number of concrete cases from both developing and industrialized countries.