The pesticide industry is the only industry on earth which has, as its primary intention, the dispersal of poisons throughout the environment in order to kill living organisms. Only small amounts of toxins applied actually reach the intended target. The bulk of these chemicals are liberated into our soil, air, water and food, where they can remain active for decades, sometimes for ever.
Fifty years ago this month an eloquent book was published which heralded the birth of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was an uncompromising expose of the dangers of the rapidly increasing use and abuse of pesticides across the United States. Its publication was met with shock, appreciation and denial in almost equal proportions.
Silent Spring became an immediate best seller, remaining on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks. Besides receiving massive support from citizens and scientists alike, Silent Spring triggered a presidential review of the pesticide industry that totally vindicated Carson’s arguments. More than 40 bills to regulate chemical use were introduced within a few months after its publication.
Most importantly this book awoke people to the huge environmental and health risks that industry was willing to take in order to maximise profits. Carson detailed how scientists and industry failed to disclose the dangers of pesticides, either for risk of losing funding or for reducing profits. Silent Spring clearly showed how human activities can have global consequences.
The reaction to Silent Spring from the chemical and pesticide industry was predictably vehement and aggressive. Lawsuits were threatened but Carson’s book was so impeccably researched that no fault has ever been found with her claims.
Huge amounts were spent on public relations campaigns that viciously attacked her, as a scientist and as a woman. But the realities of extermination of swathes of birds – hence the title – of poisoned rivers and land, led to improved regulation of pesticides.
“But what exactly are pesticides?” you may ask. They are chemicals devised to kill pests; weeds, insects, fungus, bacteria, viruses and rodents and sometimes even birds viewed as pests. When Silent Spring was published in 1962 the most widely used chemicals were persistent organochlorines like DDT and heptachlor.
Most of these were subsequently banned under the Stockholm Convention on persistent chemicals. Some limited use is still allowed. For instance DDT is still permitted for malaria control, even though it is a known hormone disruptor and has other negative health and environmental impacts.
Persistent chemicals problematic because they biomagnify. This means that the concentrations of chemicals increase as they move up the food chain. For example plankton can magnify DDT residues by thousands of times. These are in turn magnified in small fish or shrimp, then by dolphins eating the fish or by whales consuming shrimp.
Apex predators like polar bears, seals, sharks and people consequently carry the highest pesticide loads even though they are far removed from the source. Each of us carries a significant chemical burden, the body burden; we have been polluted by the pesticide industry. Chemicals like organochlorines, organophosphates, pyrethrins and their breakdown products remain present in the environment and our bodies for long periods.
DDT and many other chemicals concentrate in fat – so cows eating grass from a DDT treated pasture will concentrate the chemical, together with its breakdown products which are also dangerous. These are then expressed in butter and meat fats, eaten by us, who in turn pass these chemicals through our breast milk to our young.
Pesticides can have many negative impacts on humans and the environment. They can be neurotoxic (nerve poisons) or hormone disrupting, causing sexual abnormalities or sterility; they can impact learning, cause cancers and in concert with other chemicals are capable of magnifying their impacts many tens of times.
This is of real concern. In South Africa we have increased pesticide use by more than 5 times since 1994, from just over 15 million kilogrammes to over 80 million in 2011. We have only recently banned some particularly nasty chemicals like endosulfan. Even so many banned and outdated chemicals have been found on farms.
There are more than 500 pesticides registered for use in South Africa, marketed under thousands of trade names. There is no compulsory tally of sales and it is impossible to ascertain exactly what is used, where. The government registers chemicals but not much more. Our pesticide regulatory system is outdated and inadequate.
This failure was explicitly acknowledged by the Department of Agriculture, which published a draft “Pesticide Management Policy” in 2010. This unambiguously recognised that existing legislation, dating back to 1948, is dysfunctional. The primary role of existing legislation is to provide a register of pesticides and say who can sell them.
We have no compulsory or functional monitoring or management of pesticide residues on food at any of our major food markets. Therefore no random testing is done on any meaningful scale, except on export fruit. No progress has been made since the policy was published toward updating our archaic legislation.
The only oversight of the pesticide industry is self-oversight. The industry body AVCASA (the Association of Veterinary and Crop Associations of South Africa) attempts to portray itself as a responsible industry body. However this is fundamentally contradictory as its central aim is to increase sales, which it has excelled at.
AVCASA appears equally frustrated with the states failure to update legislation. Even so AVCASA has not, for instance, enforced any compulsory deposit system on pesticide containers. This remains a major problem as they remain used by the poor for food and water containers.
While the industry maintains some statistics there are huge gaps in the record. There is no record of pesticide sales from 2000 – 2006. Statistical details remain proprietary. But at least AVCASA maintains some statistics; this is a darn sight more than the Department of Agriculture, which should be doing this job.
Have we made progress since the 1962 publication of Silent Spring? South Africa has only a few dozen experts on pesticide use, pollution, management and oversight. There is a tiny number of functioning and accredited laboratories to measure, manage or oversee these chemicals. Huge gaps remain. For instance there is no facility to measure or quantify residues of the most widely used herbicide in South Africa, glyphosate; nor is there a set maximum residue level for the crops it is used on.
Cancer is an increasing problem in South Africa, impossible to pin down to any specific cause. Liver, kidney and hormonal diseases are also increasing. The pesticide industry knows it is impossible to trace back what is killing us. Even so, as Rachel Carson said in Silent Spring, this is not about banning all of these chemicals; it is about using them responsibly. The fact remains we are not yet using them responsibly.
Tiny amounts of the over 80 thousand tonnes of chemicals liberated across South Africa last year actually do the job they were meant to. The rest pollute our waterways, fields, food, animals and us. We continue to use these substances wastefully, recklessly and without due care for future generations. Silent Spring has been followed by equally comprehensive books such as “Our Stolen Future” and “Living Downstream” that have reinforced the dangers of these chemicals.
It is immoral and wrong to permit the unlimited, unregulated sale of these products for profit. We urgently need legislation to introduce a transparent regulatory regime. We have the right to know on what foods and where these products are used so we can, at the very least, take action to protect our communities and ourselves from exposure to the intentional use of these chemicals.
Were Rachel Carson still alive today she would be horrified at our lack of progress in pesticide regulation over the past half century.
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