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Pesticides: a global human rights concern

Pesticides: A Human Rights Concern

An investigation by two United Nations Special Rapporteurs on human rights has highlighted the many threats posed by excessive and unsafe pesticide use around the world. It asserts that our dependence on hazardous pesticides is undermining the right to food and health “for present and future generations”.

The report roundly rejects the argument that pesticides are an essential tool to achieve food security, calling such assertions “inaccurate” and “dangerously misleading”.[1] Indeed, the authors argue that far from securing affordable and nutritious food, pesticides are having a detrimental impact on human health, food safety and the environment. The report states that pesticide use represents a “global human rights concern”, and that existing international treaties and inconsistent national protections are not enough to deal with the scale of the problem.[2]

The report points to the estimated 200,000 deaths each year caused by acute pesticide poisoning, mostly in developing countries, and that millions more are adversely affected by pesticide exposure.[3] Long-term exposure to hazardous pesticides has been linked to major health problems – from various cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, to birth defects and miscarriage.[4]  These grave health risks affect farm workers and their families as well as consumers, with pregnant women and children most susceptible.

The investigation also considered the long-term damage that pesticides inflict on our environment, posing “a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends”.[5] Pesticides contaminate soils and water and are implicated in losses of wildlife, including perilous impacts on pollinators and pest-controlling insect species.

The report also notes that the human health and environmental risks posed by pesticides – particularly systemic chemicals (where the pesticide is taken up by all of the plants’ tissues) and pesticide mixtures – are often under-researched.[6]

The authors point the finger directly at the global agrochemicals industry. They accuse chemical companies of “systematic denial” of the scale of the damage inflicted by their products, and of “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics”.[7] If possible mergers go ahead, more than 65% of the global pesticide market could be owned by just three powerful corporations: Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and DuPont, and Syngenta and ChemChina.[8] These companies are known frequently to contest scientific evidence of health or environmental risks, with the UN rapporteurs reporting suggestions that some manufacture evidence and even that scientists are “bought” to reaffirm industry lines.[9] The authors also state that “scientists who uncover health and environmental risks… may face grave threats to their reputations and even to themselves”.[10] The report also covers the extensive lobbying carried out by these corporations – from employees shifting between government or regulatory agencies and the pesticide industry, to active attempts to block government intervention in pesticide use.[11]

The investigation also highlights significant issues with pesticide regulation around the world, noting that standards and levels of protection vary significantly from one country to another.[12]  Highly hazardous pesticides that are banned in some countries are sometimes exported to places with more lax regulations, in some instances to use up existing stock.[13] The authors also note that there are often big gaps in the way pesticides are licensed for use: toxicity studies often do not look at chronic health effects, reviews may not take place often enough, and industry may place regulators “under strong pressure to prevent or reverse bans on hazardous pesticides”.[14]

There are, of course, solutions to all of this. The report concludes with a specific recommendation that our intensive, industrial, pesticide-reliant agricultural systems must change. As the authors note, organic farming practices prove that farming with less or without any pesticides is possible, with studies showing that safe, nutritious food could be provided to feed the world’s population using agroecological methods alone.[15] They say, “The most effective, long-term method to reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals is to move away from industrial agriculture”.

The authors call for a comprehensive treaty to regulate pesticides around the world to level the regulatory playing field, reduce pesticide use, promote agroecological farming methods, and place strict liability on pesticide manufactures (‘strict liability’ is a legal term which essentially means that pesticide companies could be held responsible for damage caused by their products, without needing to prove that they were at fault through negligence).[16]

The Soil Association, alongside many other organisations all around the world, has been campaigning for stricter controls on pesticides and highlighting the benefits of organic farming methods and the need for further innovation in ecological approaches to farming.  So it’s hugely promising to see the positive contribution that organic farmers and growers make to public health as well as nature conservation presented by such a prominent, non-partisan and influential organisation.

If you would like to read the report in full, it is available here.   

[1] United Nations General Assembly ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’ (24 January 2017) UN Doc A/HRC/34/48, Para 91

[2] Ibid. Para 1

[3] Ibid. Paras 1 and 11

[4] Ibid. Paras 12, 24 and 25

[5] Ibid. Para 32

[6] Ibid. Paras 13, 35 and 37

[7] Ibid. Para 4

[8] Ibid. Para 86

[9] Ibid. Para 87

[10] Ibid. Para 89

[11] Ibid. Paras 87 and 88

[12] Ibid. Para 70

[13] Ibid. Para 73

[14] Ibid. Para 70

[15] Ibid. Para 90

[16] Ibid. Para 106