Guest blog by Julie Potyraj; read her previous post on community health here
For most of us, the point of choosing sustainably grown foods is to protect our own health and to minimize environmental damage. While these are important reasons for making better choices at the grocery store, what about the human side and the health of those who labor in the fields of the world? Can selecting foods that are grown more sustainably with methods such as integrated crop management also be more ethical?
To answer that question, we must start with the number 1.3 billion. That’s how many agricultural laborers there are in the world. Of that number, up to 41 million are affected every year as a result of pesticide poisoning. That means 32% of this group are harmed by the use of pesticides ever year.
To put this in perspective, in countries like Sri Lanka, the number of people who die as a result of acute pesticide poisoning (APP) can be up to twice as many compared to deaths from malaria, whooping cough, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, and tetanus. Similar trends can be seen in Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malaysia.
Clearly pesticides pose a huge acute health risk to those working with them. However, it’s also important to look at the impact of long-term exposure to agricultural chemicals. Years-long use of organophosphate (OP) pesticides, for instance, has been shown to create widespread neurological damage in farm workers. This can negatively impact everything from hand strength and toe sensation, to the ability to detect vibrations with touch. Perhaps even more troubling is the association with Parkinson’s disease. In addition, studies show that melanoma, leukemia, as well as cancers of the bladder, pancreas, colon, and prostate have all been found in increasing numbers among farm workers.
It’s important to note that these are the impacts reserved only for people who come in direct contact with farming chemicals. In addition to these victims, those on the periphery of the agricultural industry also bear the burden. For instance, researchers have found that bystanders are exposed when their homes border farms. Here, women and children often have higher exposure levels than those living in urban or suburban areas. This is due in part to agricultural drift whereby pesticides find their way into something as mundane as household dust. According to PAN Germany, additional health problems related to indirect pesticide exposure may include deficits in learning and attention abilities in children, as well as the disruption of endocrine systems in both men and women.
Not surprisingly, those at greatest risk for these health impacts, according to the World Health Organization are individuals living in less developed nations. Insufficient regulations and lack of enforcement, inadequate training and protective equipment, language barriers related to product labeling, as well as obsolete stockpiles and improper storage techniques all contribute to how much more common these problems are in less developed nations.
A direct comparison puts this in perspective: only 18.2 out of 100,000 agricultural workers in developed countries experience acute pesticide poisoning. By contrast, rates of APP for those working on farms in countries like Sri Lanka average closer to 180 per 100,000 — a full 10 times more. In fact, by one estimate, 70% of all poisonings and 99% of all APP deaths occur in developing countries, even though only 25% of global pesticide use takes place in these regions.
Keep in mind, the above APP statistics only show the acute health impacts of pesticides. Getting a grasp on how many people suffer the chronic effects of agricultural chemical exposure has been extremely difficult for researchers.
This brings us back to the issue of what we put on our plates every night. No doubt, until the use of agricultural pesticides can be curtailed worldwide through the work of organizations that encourage integrated crop management (like Plantwise), improving environmental health will require those of us on the purchasing end to choose sustainably grown foods. With crop rotation, water management, strategic site selection, and so on, by supporting these types of agriculture systems, we can significantly improve the lives of those working the land on our behalf — a change most global farmers will welcome.
Julie Potyraj is the community manager for MPH@GW, the online master of public health program offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. For several years, she served as a community development specialist in Zambia coordinating youth empowerment programs and reproductive health education. She is currently an MPH@GW student focusing on global health and health communications.