(Beyond Pesticides, March 8, 2017) A report released by the United Nations finds that human rights are adversely affected by pesticide use. With chemicals, like pesticides, long advanced by the synthetic pesticide and fertilizer industry as the answer to feeding the world, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food report concludes that industrialized agriculture has not succeeded in eliminating world hunger, and has only hurt human health and the environment in its wake. The report will be presented before the Human Rights Council today, and aims to give the international governing body an in-depth understanding of the state of global pesticide use in agriculture and its impact on human rights, specifically as it relates to food security. It also looks at the impact of pesticides on the environment, highlighting the need for a transition to more sustainable agricultural practices on a global scale.
Authors of the report, Hilal Elver, Ph.D., the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, and Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on toxics, highlight the overarching problem with their observation that “reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution that undermines the rights to adequate food and health for present and future generations.” They begin the report by dismantling industry claims that industrialized agriculture, characterized by high use of chemical inputs, like pesticides, is necessary to feed the world.
“It is a myth,” says Dr. Elver. “Using more pesticides has nothing to do with getting rid of hunger. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we are able to feed 9 billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.”
The authors find that the right to food “obligates States to implement protective measures and food safety requirements to ensure that food is safe, free from pesticides and qualitatively adequate.” The breadth of human rights violation extend to hurting farm workers, agricultural communities, children, and pregnant women in the process.
One of the main challenges in addressing the impacts of pesticide use on human health, accordidng to the report, is that “establishing a direct causal link between exposure to pesticides and their effects can be a challenge for accountability and for victims seeking access to an effective remedy,” especially in developing countries. The report points out that “while scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fueled by the pesticide and agro-industry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics.” The links between pesticide use and a variety of diseases is well documented, and can be explored by visiting Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Disease Database.
The report also focuses on the impact that pesticides have on the environment, outlining an array of harms caused by their pervasive use. Pesticide runoff from crop treatments pollutes the ecosystem and can lead to imbalances in biodiversity. For example, “reductions in pest populations upset the complex balance between predator and prey species in the food chain, thereby destabilizing the ecosystem.” The report also acknowledges the role of pesticides in impairing soil health through the reduction of biodiversity within the soil. An issue long acknowledged by Beyond Pesticides, the authors point out how decreased soil health leads to lower crop yields, an issue of growing concern for countries and individuals still trying to achieve food security. Their findings reveal that “without or with minimal use of toxic chemicals, it is possible to produce healthier, nutrient-rich food, with higher yields in the longer term, without polluting and exhausting environmental resources.” However, that solution requires a holistic approach to agriculture, one that eliminates toxic pesticide use, protects human rights, and implements practices that promote long-term sustainability.
Despite the comprehensive and eye-opening nature of the report, addressing its findings offers a challenge for the international governing body. As the authors point out, “Although certain multinational treaties and non-binding initiatives offer some limited protections, a comprehensive treaty that regulates highly hazardous pesticides does not exist, leaving a critical gap in the human rights protection framework.” This gap in protections is addressed at varying degrees by individual countries, with developing countries typically having little to no protections against pesticide misuse. The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management, established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO, offers a framework to guide governments, the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders on best practices for managing pesticides, and is meant to be used particularly in countries where there is no, or inadequate, national legislation to regulate pesticide management in order to help fill the regulatory gap and protect human health and the environment.
The findings of this report are in line with other studies that show organic agriculture is essential to a sustainable future. Good organic practices work to build the soil and maintain an ecological balance that makes chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides unnecessary. Claims that organic agriculture cannot feed the world because of lower yields are contested by scientific studies showing that organic yields are comparable to conventional yields and require significantly lower inputs. Therefore, organic agriculture is not only necessary in order to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, it is necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of food production, the environment, and the economy.
For further information, check out Beyond Pesticides’ webpages on Organic Agriculture.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides