A new UN report has found that pesticides are not vital to ensuring food security and that their excessive use is a danger to our health and the environment.
The report, presented to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva earlier this month, gives an overview of the impact of global pesticide use on human rights, health, the environment and society at large.
It was prepared by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak.
Special Rapporteurs are unsalaried independent expert selected by the HRC to examine specific human rights issues.
According to the report, prolonged exposure to pesticides has been linked to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
People in close contact, such as farmers, agricultural workers, and communities living near plantations, are most at risk of exposure, the report states.
Pregnant women and children are also particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protection according to the Special Rapporteurs, who noted the high number of children who are killed or injured by food contaminated with pesticides.
Pesticides cause an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, according to the report. Nearly all cases are in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations are generally weak.
The impact of certain pesticides can be felt for decades, the report adds, posing a long-term threat to soil and water sources, as well as potentially reducing the nutritional value of food.
The use of neonicotinoid pesticides, in particular, is noted as being particularly worrisome due to the impact on bee populations across the globe, threatening almost three-quarters of crop species that rely on bees for pollination.
The National Biodiversity Research Centre estimates that one third of Ireland’s bee species are currently threatened with extinction.
The Special Rapporteurs also called for a new global treaty to regulate and phase out dangerous pesticide use in farming, which they said are not necessary to grow food.
“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 added.
Although current international treaties offer protection from some pesticides, they stressed that the vast majority are not regulated throughout their life cycle.
They expressed concern about “aggressive, unethical” marketing tactics used by chemical companies, industry’s influence over policymakers, and the “shifting of blame” to farmers for supposedly misusing pesticides.
“Without harmonized, stringent regulations on the production, sale and acceptable levels of pesticide use, the burden of the negative effects of pesticides is felt by poor and vulnerable communities in countries that have less stringent enforcement mechanisms,” they said.
The Irish government, however, disagreed that there are gaps in international and national legislation that would allow the use of unsafe pesticides in Ireland.
Responding last December to a questionnaire sent by Ms Elver, the Irish government said that current legislation has ensured that “extremely complex and conservative” risk assessment practices are in place when authorizing pesticides for the Irish market.
While recognising that certain pesticides have negatively impacted upon human and environmental health “in some instances”, the reply added that pesticide use has also contributed to a “dramatic increase” in crop production.
“As there is an increasing world demand for food which must be met using sustainable production systems it is important to further improve the way in which we apply inputs, such as PPPs [pesticides] and artificial fertilisers,” Ireland’s response continued.
Ms Elver was appointed Special Rapporteur on the right to food in June 2014, and is a Research Professor at the Food Law and Policy Center of the University of California’s law school. Mr Tuncak was also appointed in 2014.