July 10, 2008
- EPA unveils new rules for fumigant pesticides
- What the Times' Bhopal story missed
- Christian Aid says G8 needed new food policy
- Investigations in wake of "endosulfan ship"
- Nicaraguans would pay more for safe alternatives
- Herbicides tied to UK's dud spuds
- Small farms, not GMOs, can feed the world
Washington, DC – After three years of deliberation, US EPA today proposed new rules for five highly toxic fumigant pesticides. Rural communities, environmental health advocates and farmworkers from across the nation had urged EPA to use this opportunity to help move American agriculture to safe, secure and sustainable pest management technologies. The most significant changes mandated by EPA require farmers to leave from 25 feet to half a mile between the fumigated field and homes, schools, and other places where people might be; posting warnings at the buffers; and monitoring after fumigation. These buffer zones are intended to lower the amount of fumigants in air that drifts away from the application site. However, the size of EPA’s buffers are "scenario based" and, under certain conditions, can be waived. In September 2007, 121 workers in Nevada more than ¼ mile from a fumigation site were rushed to the hospital because of fumigant drift. Lesser drift incidents often go unnoticed because people don't know why they are feeling sick. “Fumigation is an antiquated technology,” said Dr. Susan Kegley, Senior Scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “EPA has made some real progress with buffer zones, posting and monitoring –-- they heard some of what we've been telling them, and they've put the burden back on manufacturers for responsible handling of these highly toxic chemicals. But it’s time to help farmers move beyond this ‘scorched earth’ approach. The new rules are a small start.”
The plight of victims of India's Bhopal disaster gained major media attention on July 7 with a front-page story in the New York Times. “Decades Later, Toxic Sludge Torments Bhopal” recounts how more than 3,000 died in their sleep after a Union Carbide pesticide plant released 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas into the air in 1984. Since then, more than 22,000 have died and 150,000 remain chronically ill. While the often-overlooked second generation of survivors -- including small children and babies born with cerebral palsy, cleft lips and other birth defects -- is featured in the article, the Times failed to challenge Dow's contention that it is not liable for cleaning up hundreds of tons of toxic waste that continue to contaminate Bhopal's drinking water. As former Wall Street Journal reporter Ryan Chittum notes in a post to the Columbia Journalism Review, the Times "lets Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, off the hook too easily." Dow spokesperson Scot Wheeler told the Times his company bears no liability for the disaster because Dow gave the property to the Madhya Pradesh State government in 1998. "What Wheeler plainly ignores," says Shana Ortman, U.S. Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, "is that international law states clearly that the acquisition of a company includes both assets and liabilities.” In February, 50 Bhopal survivors marched 500 miles from Bhopal to Delhi, asking to meet with the Prime Minister. The Times report also failed to mention the two groups of Bhopalis who began an indefinite hunger strike in June, nor the nearly 1,000 Bhopal supporters across the globe who are now fasting for one- to 22-day periods in solidarity with the survivors.
The G8 countries, meeting in Japan this week, had an opportunity to seriously address the mounting global food problem. "Ruinous agricultural policies forced on poor countries by donor governments and international financial institutions are a prime cause of the food crisis," said UK-based Christian Aid. Reuters AidNet reports that in preparation for the G8 summit, the international development agency called on wealthy countries "to abandon the doctrinaire belief that trade liberalisation always acts as an engine of growth. 'Food security will be high on the agenda when the G8 meets. Rich countries must accept that nothing less than a new, pro-poor agricultural revolution is needed if future shortages are to be avoided.'" The G8 chose not to seriously address the issue. Calling the global food crisis a silent Tsunami, Chistian Aid's Food Crisis Report declares "a situation already dire has then been made worse by other factors such as biofuel production, climate change, speculation in food commodities and higher oil prices." The report notes that the UK recently signed on to the UN's International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology and calls on the UK government to "outline how it is going to put the recommendations of the IAASTD report into practice, adding that it should serve as a template for all discussion about how to avert future food shortages."
In the aftermath of the tragic capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars during Typhoon Frank (see PANUPS, July 3), three Philippine Senate committees are set to hold hearings on how a shipment of 10 metric tonnes of endosulfan, a highly toxic pesticide, wound up aboard the ill-fated passenger vessel. Search-and-retrieval operations were halted when Del Monte Philippines admitted that the ship contained endosulfan that it had imported for use in its pineapple plantation in Bukidnon. The Committee on Public Services will review the franchise given to Sulpicio Lines, the sunken ship's owner, while the Committees on Health and on Environment and Natural Resources will investigate the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority's decision make exceptions to the country's ban on endosulfan for Del Monte and Dole. Meanwhile, a "Letter from Durban to Manila," signed by 18 activists from eight African nations, informed the Philippine government that signers were " infuriated and dismayed" by the incident. "Coming from countries that are still struggling with the toxic legacy of obsolete pesticides in our communities, we could not help but seriously question why endosulfan, a neurotoxic organochlorine pesticide, was allowed to be used in the Philippines and even shipped through a vessel carrying humans." The activists, who had gathered in Durban, South Africa, for a conference on waste, incineration and toxic chemical issues concluded the letter with the "hope that the Government of the Philippines will decisively act to protect the public health and environment by banning endosulfan, without exemption."
Nicaragua's farmers would willing pay up to 28 percent more than the present costs of pesticides to purchase less-toxic products that posed lower health risks. This according to a study undertaken by Hildegards Garming and Hermann Waibel, of the University of Hanover, Germany. The findings, published in the June edition of the Journal of Health Economics, revealed that the amount farmers are willing to pay depends on the individual's experience with pesticides-- farmers who had experienced pesticide poisoning were willing to pay more. The investigators interviewed 433 farmers from Nicaragua's four main vegetable-producing regions and found that, while most farmers are aware of the risks, they still used considerable amounts of highly toxic compounds. The investigators attributed this behavior to a lack of knowledge of the existence of less-toxic alternatives. Pesticide poisoning is one of the main health hazards in the developing countries, with an estimated 7 percent of the world's farmers suffering from toxic exposures. In Nicaragua, 5.4 to 6.3 percent of the population has experienced pesticide poisonings and the study reports that "30 percent of vegetable farmers have undergone poisoning by pesticides at least once in their life."
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The Guardian reports that “grossly deformed” potatoes, beans, peas, carrots, and salad vegetables appearing in backyard gardens across the UK seem to be linked to aminopyralid, a pyridinecarboxylic acid-based herbicide not licensed for use on food crops. The affected gardens and allotments may have been contaminated by manure originating from farms where aminopyralid was sprayed 12 months ago on grass that was later fed to cattle during the winter. Guy Barter, head of the Royal Horticultural Society’s advisory services, says 'It is happening all over the country. A lot of cases we are seeing is where people have got manure from stables and the stable have bought their hay from a merchant, and the merchant might have bought hay from many farmers, possibly from different parts of the country.” While the toxic risk to consumers is believed to be low, PAN Staff Scientist Margaret Reeves notes "there is virtually NO toxicity info available." Gardeners "'have no idea where the hay came from,'" Barter says, “'So finding someone to blame is quite difficult.'" Dow AgroSciences -- the manufacturer of Forefront™, Pharaoh™, and other herbicides containing aminopyralid -- advises that aminopyralid should not be used on garden crops.
At the Organic World Congress meeting in Modena, Italy, in late June, members of the International Federation of Organic Food Movements reinforced the global consensus that small-scale farming is the answer to the food crisis. Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva noted that, while the World Bank pledged increased food aid during the U.N. Food Summit in Rome in June, "The $1.2 billion the World Bank says will solve the food crisis in Africa is a $1.2 billion subsidy to the chemical industry." This kind of “aid” leaves countries “dependent on chemical fertilizers when their prices have tripled in the last year due to rising oil prices. I say to governments: spend a quarter of that on organic farming and you've solved your problems." Meanwhile, in a revealing UK Guardian interview, Martin Taylor, the head of Syngenta -- one of the world's leading producers of genetically modified (GM) crops -- admitted that biotech "won't solve the food crisis, at least not in the short term." The Organic Consumers Association observes that “this is in stark contrast to the biotech industry's ongoing propaganda that the world must embrace genetically engineered crops in order to feed the world's growing population.” While biotech giants like Syngenta and Monsanto claim that GM crops are environmentally sustainable, Syngenta's Taylor confessed the industry's real focus is on selling high-priced seeds and pesticides with "hardly any environmental benefits."