AGRITRENDS: Bombs in the food chain

(First of Two Parts)

“…Long before the age of man, insects inhabited the earth – a group of extraordinarily varied and adaptable beings. Over the course of time since man’s advent, a small percentage of more than half a million species of insects have come into conflict with human welfare…” – Rachel Carson (1962)


Twenty-three-year old Jose (not his real name) was barely a month in his new job but he already felt something strange. He experienced stomach cramps and so he decided to go home. He barely entered his room when he suddenly threw up. What happened next, he couldn’t remember since he fainted. “When I woke up, I couldn’t move,” he said.

Jose was brought to the hospital, where he stayed for more than a month. Although he recovered, he could only use partially of his limbs and still couldn’t walk properly.

His job involved spraying a pesticide to bananas on a Davao del Sur plantation. No one had given him protective gear nor his supervisor warned him of the dangers of inhaling the chemical or absorbing it through his skin.

Jose was lucky; he survived. While there is little reliable data on the numbers of people poisoned by pesticides every year, 90% of the deaths are believed to occur in developing countries like the Philippines, according to the London-based Panos Institute.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that globally at least three million people are poisoned by pesticides every year, of whom 20,000 people die.

An earlier study published in the World Health Statistics Quarterly put the figure much higher, estimating that 25 million people, mostly poor farmers in developing countries, suffer severe poisoning annually.

At the height of the Masagana 99 program in the Philippines during the time of the presidency of Ferdinand E. Marcos, “pesticides killed 4,000 farmers in Central Luzon alone,” reported Nicanor Perlas of the Center for Alternative Development Institute.

While most of the illnesses and deaths occur in developing countries, most of the pesticides used are imported from industrialized countries. The companies that profit for this hazardous trade argue that pesticides help solve the “food shortage” of those exporting countries.

One company that export pesticides to developing countries puts this in its promotional material: “Given the abundance of food in the industrial countries, it is easily forgotten that people in other parts of the world are in dire need… There can therefore no doubt that crop protection is of crucial importance in the fight against hunger. It is more necessary than ever before.”

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that up to 35% of the losses in annual crop production worldwide are due to pests – insects, weeds, plant diseases, rodents and birds. Of the estimated one million insects in the world, between 150 to 200 species frequently cause serious damage to crops.

When losses due to pests are combined with postharvest losses, worldwide food losses would amount to 45%. “This is almost one-half of the world’s potential food supply,” FAO said.

The Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) defines pesticide as “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any insects, rodents, nematodes, fungi or weeds, or any other form of life declared to be pest.”

Pesticide also refers to “any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant.”

Pesticides come in two forms: synthetic or botanical. “The synthetic organic compounds constitute the majority among the pesticides,” FPA says. “They are synthesized from oil.” Examples include malathion and paraquat.

Botanical or “natural” pesticides, on the other hand, are extracted from vegetative parts. Well-known examples are pyrethrum from the pyrethrum flowers, rotenone from derris roots, nicotine from tobacco leaves, and azidiracthine from the neem tree.

“Although botanicals have a natural origin,” FPA reminds, “some of these compounds can be extremely toxic for man and other vertebrates.”

There are also two types of pesticide formulation. “Dry” formulation are products sold in dry form (as powder or granules). This does not necessarily mean that they should also be applied on the crop in dry form. Most of the time, they need to be mixed with water before use.

“Wet” formulations are those sold in liquid form. In general, they still need to be diluted with water before use.

Pesticides are classified according to their degree of danger. The pesticide’s label should give a warning notice in the shape of a symbol. Skull and crossbones on the label means that the pesticide is extremely or highly toxic. A highly toxic pesticide may be lethal when an adult ingests less than a teaspoon.

Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington, D.C., said that the first records of pesticides come from the ancient Greeks. Pliny the Elder compiled a list of common compounds like arsenic, sulfur, caustic soda, and olive oil used to protect crops. The Chinese later recorded using similar substances to combat insects and fungi. In the 19th century, European farmers commenced using heavy metals like copper sulfate and iron sulfate to fight weeds.

For a long time, no one seemed to question the safety of pesticides. Not until 1962, when marine biologist Rachel Carlson wrote the now classic, “Silent Spring.” In her book, she described how pesticides cause long-term hazards to birds, fish, other wildlife, and humans, but provides only short-term gains to controlling the pests.

As a result of Carson’s book, then American President John F. Kennedy formed a science advisory committee to investigate her findings. They were soon confirmed, and DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) – which won for its discoverer, Dr. Paul Muller, a Nobel Prize – and several other pesticides were banned from the United States six years later.

But despite a number of problems that have surfaced since what experts called as “the Era of Optimism,” pesticides use still continues. “Farmers now apply about one pound of pesticides per year for every person on the planet, 75% of it in industrial countries,” reports Worldwatch’s Peter Weber.

This situation alarms scientists. “Pesticides are like bombs being dropped in the food web creating enormous destruction,” deplores entomologist Dr. K.L. Heong, who used to work at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna.

Unknowingly, pesticides are killing more than just the pests. “Some pesticides harm the living organisms other than the targeted pest,” the Davao-based Technical Assistance Center for the Development of Rural and Urban Poor (TACDRUP) observes. “Some (pesticides) travel to the food chain to bioaccumulate in higher organisms.”

Gretta Goldenman and Sarojini Rengam explain in their book, Pesticides and You, that pesticides concentrated even to toxic levels via the food chain. Thus, an increase feeding on plants sprayed with pesticides might be eaten by another insect which might be eaten by a bird.

“Traces of pesticides too small to kill the targeted pest can accumulate to levels high enough to harm species further on up the food chain,” the two authors warned.

Pesticides are also hazardous to human beings. They can enter the human body through the mouth, lungs, digestive system, or skin, according to health experts. Depending on the pesticide, health effects can be immediate (acute) or they can occur after years of low-level exposure.

Acute poisoning generally occurs after an accident on the skin or drinking a bottle of pesticides. Medical doctors say the symptoms of acute poisoning occur within 24 hours: vomiting, headache, respiratory problems, heart failure, etc.

Long-term effects of pesticides include skin disorders, damage to internal organs (liver, kidneys, lungs), increased sensitivity to pesticides and effects on the progeny, according to medical experts.

The United Nations health agency expects poisonings to increase as pesticide use in developing countries, now concentrated on cash crops like rice, cotton, coffee, intensifies and expand to other crops.

“In industrialized countries, where people are exposed to a mix of chemical hazards, the lines of cause and effect aren’t so clear,” Weber reports. “Isolated illnesses can be impossible to link to a cause.”

According to Dr. Susan Cooper, an ecologist with the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, scientists still hardly understand the effects of exposure to one chemical, and they have little idea what happens when people are exposed to many. “The risks could be worse than we think,” she said.

Then, there’s that problem of pesticide resistance. “Resistance to pesticides is as natural as evolution,” Weber reminds. “In fact, it is natural selection in fast forward, provoked the very chemicals meant to control the pest. Resistant strains develop particularly quickly when farmers overuse pesticides and try to eliminate pests rather than control them. Kill 99.9 percent of the insects in a field, and the survivors are a superstrain.”

That’s not all. Pesticides are also believed to damage the ozone layer. Methyl bromide, the second most widely-used pesticide in the world, is five times more destructive than the chlorofluorocarbons, according to scientists.

Farmers spray methyl bromide onto agricultural products before shipping and storage, and also inject it into soil to kill pests. Between 80%-100% of the gas is subsequently released into the atmosphere, the environment pressure group Friends of the Earth reports. (To be concluded)