On December 3, the anniversary of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, people around the world commemorated "No Pesticide Use Day" with somber remembrances and grassroots campaigns. Thirty-two years ago, more than 2,000 people were killed by a deadly gas leak from a pesticide plant in India.
From production accidents to pesticide drift near schools to contaminated water and soil, these agricultural chemicals continue to impact millions of lives around the world. And still, industry keeps the pesticide treadmill spinning faster.
Can we imagine a day, a year or a world without using hazardous chemicals to grow our food? I can. And we must.
Lessons in history
It may be hard to picture how priorities like healthy rural communities, food safety and fair working conditions for farmworkers can possibly move forward in the U.S. under a new presidential administration that seems so hostile to our values. Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who has been tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has made a name for himself nationally by fighting the agency, and describes himself as "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda." And given Pruitt's close ties to the agribusiness and fossil fuels industries, key federal posts may be occupied by men and women who will be guided by the corporate interests they are tasked with regulating — a classic scenario of the fox guarding the hen house.
Still, we have seen dark days before. When Pesticide Action Network International was founded in the 1980s, we aimed to nurture and leverage people power — often on the community or state level — and build momentum for federal change. Despite flagrant imbalances of power, with many foxes guarding many hen houses, we kept our eyes on the prize, believing that another world is indeed possible.
Today, people are continuing to stand up for the future of food and farming, speaking out against harmful pesticide use in Hawaii, Iowa, California and beyond even when it draws the ire of corporate bullies like Monsanto and Dow. And internationally, often under daunting, even dangerous circumstances, grassroots groups in our global network are creatively and courageously drawing attention to the harms of chemical-intensive industrial farming in their countries.
“It has become clear that the problems we have today with children’s lives being continuously wrecked by pesticides are because of institutional failures to acknowledge that pesticides are not necessary,” charged our sister organization PAN Asia & the Pacific on No Pesticides Use Day. Amen.
A better world
Our vision of a better world for our children and for future generations is a powerfully motivating factor — and we've made important progress on many continents in recent years. But there is clearly more work to do.
For our children, we need to push back against corporate control over scientific and agricultural policies at every level — including in our state legislatures and in academic research on college campuses. For our children, we need to advocate for buffer zones to protect them from pesticide drift in agricultural areas. For our children, we need to provide farmers the tools and support to step off the pesticide treadmill.
If we can imagine a world for our children without hazardous pesticides, we must begin now to invest in non-chemical alternatives to provide more and more of the food we’ll need for coming generations. As the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.”