A new report by two United Nations human rights experts has rejected the notion that pesticides are necessary in feeding the world, claiming that they undermine “the rights to adequate food and health for present and future generations.” The authors, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, highlight the excessive and increasing use of hazardous pesticides, as well as the negative consequences they have had on human health and ecosystems all over the world. In the report, they call for a global treaty to phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming and to move towards more sustainable agricultural practices.
The report outlines the “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health, and society as a whole” from excessive and unsafe pesticide practices. These include: an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, 99 percent of which occur in low-income countries; contamination of soil and water sources; loss of biodiversity and beneficial insect populations; and a range of chronic health problems including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and developmental disorders.
The burden of these negative effects falls largely on farmers and agricultural workers, but also communities living near agricultural land, particularly those from impoverished areas. Children, especially those engaged in agricultural work, are most vulnerable to pesticide contamination, as exposure to even low levels of pesticides can dangerously harm their health and natural development.
The authors criticize the pesticide industry’s “systematic denial” of the hazards of toxic pesticides, exposing the industry’s extraordinary power and influence. Unethical marketing, inappropriate shifting of blame onto farmers misusing their products, and ongoing efforts to influence policymakers and contest scientific evidence are all industry tactics that obscure the damage inflicted by these chemicals, the authors argue. The combination of these tactics, they add, “have obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions globally.”
Urging a move to more sustainable farming methods, the authors state, “It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”
They do not just denounce the use of pesticides, but the entire industrial agricultural system.
“While efforts to ban and appropriately regulate the use of pesticides are a necessary step in the right direction, the most effective, long-term method to reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals is to move away from industrial agriculture.”
Elver highlights recent developments in agroecology, claiming agroecological farming will facilitate the transition to more productive, sustainable, and inclusive food systems. As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology works to enhance biodiversity functions that are adapted to local environments, building long-term ecosystem health and resilience. As a movement, agroecology seeks to strike a balance between ecological soundness, economic viability, and social justice for those who grow the food, those who eat it, and those in between. By replacing chemicals with biology, agroecological approaches are capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed and nourish the entire world population, according to the report.
Providing a long set of recommendations, the report calls on the the international community to build a comprehensive, binding treaty to regulate hazardous pesticides. This would include: generating policies to reduce pesticide use worldwide; developing a framework for the banning and phasing out of highly hazardous pesticides; placing strict liability on pesticide producers; and promoting agroecology.
It calls for food system change, where all citizens have a right to food that has been produced in a way that is safe for both human health and for the environment.