WTO talks collapse, EPA sued over diazinon; Toxic levels fall in Arctic; U.S. exports banned pesticides; and more
July 31, 2008
WTO founders over agriculture policies
- PAN sues EPA over diazinon
- Orion magazine spotlights PAN's Drift-Catcher
- Toxic levels falling in the Arctic
- U.S. exports tons of banned pesticides
- Endosulfan taints Oz's tomatoes
- Maori Party calls for endosulfan ban
- Mustard to the rescue
On July 30, World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva collapsed after seven years, hitting "an impasse when the United States, India and China refused to compromise over measures to protect farmers in developing countries from greater liberalization of trade," the New York Times reports. The key issue stalling WTO's "Doha Round" has been global agricultural trade. “Finally, poorer countries are standing up to the US and saying no to our unfair trade policies,” says PAN Senior Scientist Marcia Ishii-Eiteman. "As international experts concluded in the recent UN Agricultural Assessment, trade liberalization and 'business as usual,' as represented by the WTO, are not a solution to the food crisis, but part of the problem. Instead, we need fair trade policies that recognize local and national sovereignty and that support diverse, smaller-scale ecological farming in all countries." Similar findings were presented last week in an authoritative new report on effects of trade liberalization in Latin America. Anuradha Mittal, founder of the nonprofit Oakland Institute, called the collapse “a victory for small farmers and workers in developing countries.”
On July 28, PAN joined a coalition of farmworker, health and environmental groups in filing a lawsuit challenging the U.S. EPA's decision to permit continued use of diazinon, one of the world's deadliest pesticides. Diazinon, an organophosphate pesticide -- a class of nerve-gas weapons created by Nazi scientists in WW II -- causes muscle spasms, seizures, vomiting, coma and death. Exposure to diazinon can cause liver damage and non-Hodgkins lymphona. Diazinon is so toxic that the EPA warns that farmworkers not touch crops within 45 days of spraying. Joshua Osborne-Klein, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the public interest law groups representing the coalition, warned that the EPA's "broken" system was protecting "the profits of pesticide manufacturers" and not the health of farmworkers and children. Diazinon in known to drift over homes and schools where it can decrease growth in children and trigger premature births. "We don't need poisons like diazinon to grow our food," says PAN Senior Scientist Margaret Reeves. "Americans increasingly are demanding pesticide-free food for their own health, their children's health, their community's health."
The July-August issue of Orion Magazine features a cover story that explains how "farmworker communities in the San Joaquin Valley and across the U.S. are collecting data on the hazardous chemicals that permeate the air they breathe." These grassroots monitors are using PAN's Drift-Catcher "to win changes that will protect the health of their families." California's Fresno County reported 273,000 pesticide applications in 2007 and Huron, one Fresno town, was sprayed with 32 million pounds of chemicals -- "enough to fill nearly six Olympic-sized swimming pools." The Drift-Catcher is a "vacuum cleaner-like mechanism [that] sucks air into two glass tubes, each about the size of a cigarette." PAN scientists check the air samples for traces of pesticide residues. For regulators "to acknowledge there's a problem would mean doing something about it," PAN scientist Karl Tupper told Orion. "It's easier to assume that bystanders simply aren't exposed to the pesticides." With the Drift-Catcher, this kind of denial is no longer possible.
The Canadian Press reports the first large-scale attempt in a decade to measure contaminants in Arctic food animals has found carcinogens such as PCBs and other pesticide toxins “have largely leveled off or have begun declining.” Survey researcher Laurie Chan of the University of Northern British Columbia says it’s good news that "organochlorines, like DDT or chlordane or toxaphene or industrial chemicals like PCB, are declining." Chan called the falling levels proof that "the Stockholm Convention is having some effect." The 2004 convention limited the use of the so-called "dirty dozen" chemicals that are pushed north into the Arctic by global air currents. Canada's Inuit once had some of the highest PCB levels -- up to 10 times the levels found in southern Canada -- and PCB was found in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. A 2003 study found statistically significant nervous system and behavioral changes in Inuit babies that may be linked to PCBs. Since 1997, PCB levels in whales, walruses and ringed seals have fallen by an average of 43 percent while the PCB contamination reaching local people has dropped by an average of 20 percent. Exposure to toxaphene -- an insecticide that damages the lungs, nervous system and kidneys -- has dropped an average of one-third across the Arctic. Unfortunately, the study found that levels of mercury, probably from the world’s growing number of coal-fired powerplants, is rising in some animals. Meanwhile, levels of some persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like the pesticide endosulfan remain high in the Arctic, underscoring the need for global action to ban POPs pesticides.
According to U.S. Customs records, between 2001-2003, the U.S. exported nearly 1.7 billion pounds of pesticide products -- 32 tons per hour. A study by the Foundation for Advancement in Science and Education (FASE), published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, notes that these exports included "27 million pounds of pesticides whose use is forbidden in the U.S.," including "500,000 pounds of known or suspected carcinogens." Endocrine disrupting pesticides were sent overseas at the rate of 100 tons a day. Most of the exports -- including shipments of deadly persistent organic pollutants (POPs) -- were destined for developing countries. Writing about these toxic exports in 2006, PAN Campaigns Director Kristin Schafer noted in a Foreign Policy in Focus essay: "Developing countries often lack the capacity to adequately evaluate and regulate highly toxic chemicals" and the tragic result is that "infants around the world are born with an array of POPs already in their blood." Schafer notes that as of mid-2008 the U.S. has failed to adopt the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions -- two international treaties now ratified by 156 and 122 countries respectively.
Independent residue testing commissioned by Pesticide Action Network Aotearoa and New Zealand's Soil & Health Association (SHA) has found endosulfan residues in New Zealand and Australian tomatoes. According to New Zeland's Scoop magazine, the joint study found endosulfan residues in cherry tomatoes from both countries but the Australian tomatoes had 4.5 times more endosulfan than New Zealand tomatoes. Australia's cherry tomatoes also contained methamidophos and piperonyl-butoxide. and large loose tomatoes contained residues of dimethoate and its metabolite omethoate. Dimethoate is a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide dip used to kill fruit fly larvae and omethoate is far more toxic and persistent than dimethoate. PAN's Dr. Meriel Watts cautioned that “dimethoate and omethoate don’t wash off the tomatoes and are not something consumers should be ingesting” since they are endocrine disruptors that can reduce testosterone levels, cause infertility, birth defects and "a variety of cancers including leukemia.” If the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) were to ban endosulfan (a highly toxic, persistent organochlorine insecticide banned in 55 countries and proposed for a global ban under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants), New Zealand growers would enjoy “a clear marketing advantage over their Australian competitors.” Because ERMA has proposed endosulfan’s continued use on New Zealand tomatoes, concerned organisations and individuals are calling on the Minister for the Environment to override ERMA and ban endosulfan. “Endosulfan is the worst pesticide still in use in New Zealand,” said Dr. Watts, calling it “a real risk for breast cancer at even very low exposure levels such as residues in food.”
On July 24, the Maori Party demanded that New Zealand's Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to ban endosulfan. ERMA is currently considering renewed approval for continued spraying of endosulfan on vegetables, fruit and flowers, golf courses, airports and other grassed areas. “This is a persistent poison,” said Ms. Tariana Turia, parliament member and co-leader of the Maori Party. “It affects birds that feed on poisoned worms, it gets into fresh waters systems, right to the sea, where it affects fish. The whole environment is affected.” Once this “hidden poison gets into the ecosystem,” Turia said in a speech to the New Zealand Parliament, “there’s no way to keep it out. So using this kind of poison is an attack on the mana [honor] of tangata whenua [“People of the Land”] and the traditional values of guardianship.” In a July 25 press release, the RESIST Agrochem coalition also called on the government to ban endosulfan. Dr. Romeo Quijano, Professor of College of Medicine in University of the Philippines, drew attention to "the extreme danger posed by hundreds of barrels of endosulfan still trapped inside the sunken vessel MV Princess of the Stars. Quijano criticized a government official for downplaying the risk of “massive marine pollution” by claiming that only a “very slight amount” of endosulfan would be dissolved in the seawater. “There is no question that a massive global environmental pollution (not only marine pollution) would occur if the 10 tons of endosulfan were released into the seawater,” Quijano stated. “Only shameless ignorance or cold-blooded vested interest could explain why one would callously ignore such a potentially catastrophic global disaster.” Dr. Giovanni Tapang pointed out that this “very slight amount” would be “sufficient to kill fish and cause adverse health effects in animals and humans.” Ironically, the Philippines banned endosulfan in 1994 but pressure from vested interests forced regulatory authorities to allow its continued use.
The agricultural fumigant methyl bromide is being phased out worldwide under the Montreal Protocol for its damaging impacts on the planet's protective ozone shield. The Bush White House, rather than enforcing a US ban scheduled for January 2005, instead appealed for extentions every year since. The fumigant still is widely used in strawberry fields in California but, as Living on Earth Correspondent Amy Coombs reports, a company called Farm Fuel Incorporated (FFI), may soon have "a non-toxic option available -- ground-up mustard seed." (See "Mustard Can Drive away Pests," PAN Magazine, Spring 2007.) The seeds contain glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, ingredients that give mustard and horseradish their tongue-searing kick and are the natural analogs of methyl isothiocyanate, another soil fumigant. According to Dr. John Kirkegaard, with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, "biofumigation" with mustard and other Brassica species can discourage weeds and soil-borne pests. Yields of "potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants can be increased by up to 40 percent in some cases," Kirkegaard adds. "Methyl bromide is a general biocide, so it kills pretty much everything," California Agriculture Commissioner Bob Roach told Coombs. But that's a problem because sterile soil becomes easy prey for new pathogens. By contrast, soils treated with mustard seeds maintain biodiversity and actually become healthier. "If tests go well," Coombs reports, "Farm Fuel will begin testing seed meal on large-scale farms next year." In addition to causing ozone depletion, methyl bromide poses substantial human health threats.