09.03.2017 |

UN experts call on states to phase out pesticides and promote agroecology

Pesticides are a threat to the environment (Photo: CC0)

UN experts have debunked the myth that pesticides are needed to feed a growing world population. They called for a new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming and for a move towards sustainable agricultural practices. On Wednesday, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, presented a new report to the UN human rights council, which is severely critical of pesticide use. It says that pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, most of them occurring in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations are weaker. “Hazardous pesticides impose substantial costs on governments and have catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole,” the report reads.

The UN experts warn that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The consequences of the excessive pesticide use are contaminated soil and water sources, biodiversity loss and the destruction of natural enemies of pests. The experts denounce the systematic denial, fuelled by the pesticide and agroindustry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by pesticides, as well as aggressive, unethical marketing tactics. “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 report says. “Agricultural policies, trade systems and corporate influence over public policy must all be challenged if we are to move away from pesticide-reliant industrial food systems.”

The report also debunks the myth that pesticides are needed to feed the world. “The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it.” The authors describe it as ironic that many of those who are food insecure are in fact subsistence farmers engaged in agricultural work, particularly in lower-income countries.

The report includes a long list of recommendations. One of them is a comprehensive, binding treaty to regulate hazardous pesticides throughout their life cycle. Such an treaty should generate policies to reduce pesticide use worldwide and develop a framework for the banning and phasing-out of highly hazardous pesticides; promote agroecology and place strict liability on pesticide producers. The report urged states to develop national action plans that include incentives to support alternatives to hazardous pesticides, as well as initiate binding and measurable reduction targets with strict time limits. Non-chemical alternatives should always be considered first. Another gap identified by the report are the current risk-assessments. According to the experts, impartial and independent risk-assessment and registration processes for pesticides are needed which must be based on the precautionary principle. In addition, more funding for comprehensive scientific studies on the potential health effects of pesticides is required, including on exposure to a mixture of chemicals.

“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,” the authors concluded. States should encourage farmers to adopt agroecological practices to enhance biodiversity and naturally suppress pests, and to adopt measures such as crop rotation, soil fertility management and crop selection appropriate for local conditions. Incentives should be provided for organically produced food through subsidies and financial and technical assistance, as well as by using public procurement. Hilal Elver highlighted developments in agroecology, which replaces chemicals with biology, saying its approaches are capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed and nourish the entire world population, without undermining the rights of future generations to adequate food and health. “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,” the UN experts concluded. (ab)

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