Impact of Pesticides on Human Rights

United Nations

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:


  1. 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.


  1. Short-Termism

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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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:

How Much Can You Safely Take Out From the Land?

One thing that we are not short of in our society is experts, and it would be supposed that amongst all the university professors and government scientists there would exist a considerable body of knowledge relating to how much produce it is safe to take from a particular area of ground before it starts to suffer a loss of fertility. However, if this knowledge does exist, it has never been put in the public domain.
This may be because modern farming has evolved in such a way that its proponents do not fully acknowledge the concept of soil fertility at all: agricultural science treats a field as though it is composed of more-or-less inert matter, a soil analysis is conducted, and nutrients are added in the quantities and proportions required for a particular crop. Once the crop reaches maturity, one hundred per cent of the harvested material can be sold to the food-processing industry, and, in theory, the land is left no worse than at the beginning. One problem with this technique is that it leaves the farmer completely at the mercy of the global agro-chemical and agricultural-equipment industry – they have to have a modern tractor, modern equipment, and prairie-like fields in order to be part of the system, and they then have to use the latest crop varieties (possibly genetically modified), and the latest chemical formulations, backed up by expensive agricultural consultants, in order to operate. If they are lucky, the price they are paid for their produce will offset all these costs, and compensate them for their work, but they have no personal control over whether or not their farms are profitable, or how they manage them.
An even more significant problem faces the consumer, who, by purchasing a food products, may find themselves financing industries of which they do not approve, and which may even be having a direct, or indirect negative impact upon their health
For a growing number of people, the answer is to buy organic, and to support small-scale producers: but then they come back to the question of how much produce can safely be removed from a farm before fertility is reduced.
This is not a trick question (i.e. the answer isn’t nothing). Nature is able to capture the sun’s energy, and convert it into vegetable matter, simply using the basic ingredients of water, air and minerals which plants can extract from the ground. If everything is consumed locally, then the land becomes richer and richer in organic matter and minerals, its fertility increases, and it produces more crops. The most important element of soil fertility is derived from the presence of organic matter which is a source of food for soil-based organisms – fungae, bacteria and insects. These organisms help to aerate the soil, making it possible for plant roots to thrive, and helping in water retention. They also provide a food source for animals higher up the food chain, i.e. a sizable proportion of the produce produced on a self-sustaining farm goes to feed wildlife, and the presence of wildlife is both an indicator of fertile soil, and an essential element in maintaining soil fertility.
When working a piece of land, the amount of wildlife that you see can be taken as a guide to whether or not you are taking too much away. If the area of land is small, you cannot expect to see an immediate rise in the number of large mammals and birds – the process starts with small insects, and worms that you see when you are working the ground. If your land is surrounded by large, industrially-farmed fields, then it might always be difficult for larger creatures to survive, but Nature is very resourceful, and over time, a stable eco-system will be established, the soil will become richer, small birds will restrict their territories to the area of your land, frogs and toads will start to appear, there will be lizards, and snakes, bumble bees, butterflys, voles, and small mammals.
The more fertile a piece of land becomes, the more that can be taken from it – but there is no short cut; bringing in fertilisers and chemicals from outside, might boost the crop, but does not help the soil organisms, and the task of restoring soil fertility is simply put off till another day.

An Antidote to Globalisation

Does Globalisation need an antidote? For many people it clearly does not – globalisation is promoted by business and political elites as the process by which everyone can get what they want at a price they can afford. As far as one can judge, the majority of the world accepts this claim at face value, and if people have any problem with it at all, it is generally that they are worried about not having enough money to buy as many of the things offered by globalisation as they would like.
However, no matter how good something might appear to be to the majority, there is bound to be an awkward minority who do not want it, and, in a democratic society, this minority is generally tolerated, and allowed to opt out.
One of the problems with globalisation, however, is that the more people talk about opting out, the more enmeshed they often become. An example of this has been provided by the Brexit debate in the UK; many voters appear to have been attracted to the idea that Britain could return to simpler, pre-EU, times where communities were stronger, products on sale were British made, and everyone felt safer. However, few people seriously wanted to go back to a life without computers, the internet, or any modern technology, and, as a result, it now looks as though British people will have to accept being even more subject to the exigencies of the global economy than before.
Hoe farming is an antidote to the global economy, not necessarily because it offers the chance to completely opt out of it, but because it offers the chance to opt out completely in one particular field of activity. For example, if you can grow a potato crop without having to resort to the use of a rotovator or chemicals, but still produce a large surplus, it gives you a taste of freedom from the need to shop for food. Similarly, if you have one wood-burner in your home supplied with fuel that you cut yourself from coppiced trees, you gain freedom from the idea that even renewable energy involves buying products manufactured in Chinese factories, using products mined in the wilds of Mongolia.
Hoe farming in the twenty-first century is an antidote to globalisation because it puts power back into the hands of those individuals who want some control over their own lives.