Human Rights Council
The Impact of Pesticides on Human Rights
A report published by the United Nations in January this year, looked at the impact of pesticides on basic human rights, it highlights a rage of problems resulting from the use of pesticides, which can can be summarised as follows:
- Death By Poisoning
Pesticides are estimated to be directly responsible for 200,000 deaths by poisoning per year. Most of these deaths are in developing countries where their use is not well regulated.
The reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution to increases in demand for food, but the food being produced does not necessarily meet basic standards of health and safety.
- Systematic Denial
The systematic denial by the pesticide industry of the damage inflicted by pesticides has made it more difficult to deal with their impact on human health and on the environment.
- Human Rights
At the heart of the report is the assertion that the use of pesticides is infringing peoples’ basic human rights to adequate food, to health, to be protected by the state, and to be able to live in a safe environment.
Who is Affected?
It might be imagined that pesticides do not pose a significant threat to people living in developed countries, or people living in towns and cities, but the report points out that in addition to farmers, agricultural workers, and communities living near agricultural land, all consumers, but particularly women and children, are at risk of being exposed to toxic levels of pesticides.
The Risk to Consumers: One problem is that little is known aout how different pesticides interact with each other. An individual consumer may take in a “cocktail” of pesticides by eating a variety of foods each of which may have been treated with a different chemical.
The highest levels of pesticides are found on some of the foods that are promoted as being the most healthy: vegetables, leafy greens and fruits. Many pesticides used today are systemic — taken up through the roots and distributed throughout the plant — and therefore washing will not remove them.
Pesticides may also bioaccumulate in farmed animals; this is of particular concern in relation to dairy products. Seafood can also contain particularly high concentrations of pesticides due to the complexity of the marine food chain. Pesticides also present a serious threat to drinking water.
Problems with Human Rights Law
One of the main concerns of the report is the failure of existing human rights law to protect people from pesticide exposure: human rights laws have been painstakingly developed over decades through inter-governmental negotiations, and they focus on holding governments to account when basic human rights of their citizens are not respected. There is no effective framework, however, for regulating the activities of large transnational corporations. Recent mergers have resulted in just three powerful corporations – Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and Dupont, and Syngenta and ChemChina – which together control more than 65 per cent of global pesticide sales and almost 61 per cent of commercial seed sales. These companies are in a position to control the direction of agrochemical research, and also to influence legislative initiatives and regulatory agendas in different countries.
It is now difficult to find ‘experts’ in this field who have not at one time or another either worked for, or had their research funded by, one or other of these large companies, and it is therefore next to impossible to establish independent regulatory agencies.
Arguments for Pesticides
The argument used to defend the use of pesticides is that without them we would not be able to feed all the people in the world. The authors of the report could find no scientific evidence to support this assertion, and found such claims to be dangerously misleading. In the medium to long term, pesticide use could increase the risk of crop loss, due to pests becoming resistant, and natural control mechanisms being destroyed.
Alternative to extensive use of pesticides: agroecology
Despite its bleak assessment of the current state of affairs in global agriculture, the report concludes with an up-beat assertion that a different approach to agriculture could radically change everything for the better. It cites evidence that sustainable ‘agroecology’ is capable of feeding everyone in the world, without the need for toxic chemicals. If the ecology of the entire food system is taken into account, agricultural practices can be adapted to local environments, and pest populations would be kept under control by biological mechanisms. This would build long-term fertility and soil health, and, in addition, would help to secure livelihoods for smallholder farmers.
The report concludes ‘that while 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. 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.
Political will is needed to re-evaluate and challenge the vested interests, incentives and power relations that keep industrial agrochemical-dependent farming in place.’
The full text of the report can be found on the United Nations website: