Pesticide Abuse: Protecting crops to harm humans

Looking fresh and appealing is not enough; consumer safety is also important.

Last weekend, I had a discussion with two friends and former college mates on the role of youth in agriculture, the challenges in making agriculture appealing to young people, the perceived unwillingness of corporate organizations to invest in media initiatives that could make agriculture attractive, and other general issues bordering on youth and agriculture.

During our conversation, one of my friends, a livestock officer with the state’s (Ogun state, Nigeria) livestock department (under the ministry of agriculture) – while trying to mention a few people he knows that are investing their energies in agriculture – gave an example of a farm near his livestock station, where the farmer had sprayed his crops with the same dosage of the pesticide Forceup (a variant of Roundup) on two consecutive days.

It had rained on the first day after spraying, and the rationale for this – two consecutive days of spraying – had been to compensate for the washing away of the initial pesticide sprayed on the first day. To my friend, the livestock officer, this made perfect sense and as he reported the crops have grown well with luxuriant leaves and good yield.

But to my other friend (who is also an agronomist and environmental biologist like me) and myself, the farmer had committed a great error of judgment. We were, not only, both surprised to hear our animal science-trained friend endorse the farmer’s act, but also nearly fell over ourselves to educate our friend on the consequences of such act to human/animal consumers of the crops and the wider environment – especially the organisms downstream.

The action of this said farmer is not an aberration. In fact, pesticide abuse has become a very serious issue in modern agriculture. Not only is it uneconomical, unhealthy and therefore burdensome for the farmers spraying the pesticide, it is really harmful to the environment and to the health of the human and animal consumers of the crops grown with such excess pesticides through residues in the food.

Besides, this abuse is also not limited only to field crops but is many times extended to stored crops too. In a report of a survey conducted over a decade ago in the Akwa-Ibom state of Nigeria – published by the Pesticide Action Network – it was reported that “thirty-three percent of the (farming) households use Lindane, a highly persistent and widely banned insecticide; 17% reported using DDT.” This is mainly due to inexpensive cost of these pesticides compared to certified ones.

Also, it was observed that many of the pesticides used should not be sprayed on crops less than 5 – 21 days before harvesting for safety reasons, yet none of the farming household surveyed observed the 21 days safety period and many (22%) actually harvested their farm produce as close as three days after the last pesticide application.

This poses health risks to, and again raises the issue of safety of, consumers who eat crops produced in this manner. Still, the most challenging part of this situation is that most farmers (over 43% from the survey) have little or no knowledge of pesticide safety for themselves and for the consumers – among who the farmers themselves are – of the crops they produce.

Hence, the onus lies on public officials, extension officers and pesticide toxicity experts to educate farmers more on the use, safety procedures and healthy application of pesticides. In addition, in cases where certain pesticides have been banned for reasons of human and environmental health, public officials should ensure that this ban is enforced, for agricultural food production to be made safer for humans and the environment.

So that in the end, while trying to solve the challenges of agricultural production and food security, we do not create other daunting problems such as that of chronic human health conditions and ecosystems degradation (that indirectly affect our ability to achieve our main objective – food security).

Photo: IITA



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