Managing safer use of pesticides

Post Source: Dawn economic and business review

By M Tariq Javed

THE indiscriminate use of agricultural pesticides has created serious health and environmental hazards in many developing countries including Pakistan. Millions of farm workers suffer pesticide poisoning every year and at least 20,000 die annually from toxin exposure. During 2010 in particular, thousands of people across Pakistan reported falling ill after drinking polluted water. The increasing levels of pollution in drinking and agricultural water supplies lead to water scarcity problems as well. According to a World Bank report “despite the enormity of the problem, surveys of pesticide use have been few and far between, and much of the information to date has been mostly anecdotal.”

In 1989, the sale and distribution of pesticides were transferred from the public to the private sector, which increased pesticide consumption five-fold in one year but the yield in agricultural crops did not rise significantly that year. About 80 per cent of total pesticides are now being used on cotton plants, the remaining 20 per cent is applied to other crops.

Farmers are often unable to distinguish the symptoms of pesticide poisoning from other health problems. Regular medical checkups and blood tests should be carried out for those who handle toxic pesticides. Also, farmers should be encouraged to switch to lower-hazard pesticides and use protective gear to reduce individual health risks.

Even when individual farmers are careful, pervasive contamination from others’ pesticide use and persistent pesticide residues in local water, air and soil may pose significant health risks.

Quite obviously, there are large information gaps in the supply chain of pesticide use. Farmers identified pesticide traders as one of their main sources of information. However, 54 per cent of traders themselves reported frequent health symptoms commonly associated with acute pesticide poisoning and 92 per cent freely admitted that they did not take any protective measures while handling pesticides.

Local agricultural pollution also has global effects. For example, toxic compounds from pesticides accumulate in oceanic food chains. Even the tissues of land mammals in ‘pristine’ Polar Regions now contain significant toxic accumulations. Chemically polluted runoff from fields has contaminated surface and ground water, damaged fisheries, and destroyed freshwater ecosystems. It has also created growing “dead zones” in parts of oceans close to river mouths that drain agricultural regions.

Integrated pest management (IPM) comprises a range of approaches, from carefully targeted use of chemical pesticides to biological techniques that use natural parasites and predators to control pests. The productivity of IPM rice farming is not significantly different from the productivity of conventional farming. Since IPM reduces pesticide costs with no accompanying loss in production, it seems to be more profitable than conventional rice farming.

Again, collective adoption of these methods is a must. Neighbour’s continued reliance on chemicals to kill pests will also kill helpful parasites and predators, as well as exposing IPM farmers and local ecosystems to chemical spillovers from adjoining fields.

The herbicide usage in Pakistan is increasing rapidly creating severity of the problem. Allelopathy is an environment-friendly science which has emerged rapidly during the past two decades.

Allelopathy is a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces one or more – bio-chemicals – that influence the growth, survival, and reproduction of other organisms. It has different applications in sustainable agricultural systems.

A group of researchers is working at the Department to Agronomy, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, to figure out the possibilities of developing a technique for reducing herbicide usage. The crop water extracts foliar sprays have shown weed suppression by 40-50 per cent and significantly improved yield of wheat, maize, canola, cotton, and mungbean, with relatively little cost as compared to herbicides. Moreover, it has been observed that crop water extracts combined with lower doses of herbicides gave effective and economical weed control.

Keeping in view above considerations, there is an urgent need to actively promote safer pesticide use and hygienic practices among people who handle these chemicals.

The policymakers should design effective, targeted outreach programmes that address pesticide risk, safe handling, and protection. The approach should ideally be participatory, to address the most dangerous information gaps.

An important observation is that specific crops and geographic locations experience more overuse than others. Therefore for the most measurable results, interventions should focus on these crops and regions.

It should be the concern of environmental scientists to assemble and analyse detailed survey data on the risk perceptions of pesticide users, their pesticide-handling behaviour, and the effects of pesticides on their health.

There is a need to figure out hands-on methodology to identify toxic hotspots even in the absence of detailed information on pesticide use.

In addition, it should analyse the potential adoption of safer production methods.

To establish testing facilities of pesticide residue determinations in all the four provinces for water, soil, plants, aquatic life, and in biological fluids of the field workers can be a milestone towards the solution.

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