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close this bookCircle of poison - Pesticides and People in a Hungry World (Food First, 1981)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentPreface
View the documentChapter one - The circle of poison
View the documentChapter two - A victim every minute
View the documentChapter three - Dumping: Business as usual
View the documentChapter four - The pesticide boomerang
View the documentChapter five - Pesticides to feed the hungry ?
View the documentChapter six - The global pesticides super-market
View the documentChapter seven - Lubricating the sales machine
View the documentChapter eight - With the advice and consent of government
View the documentChapter nine - Breaking the circle of poison
View the documentBureaucracy glossary
View the documentAppendix A
View the documentAppendix B
View the documentAppendix C
View the documentFor more information
View the documentAbout the institute

Chapter five - Pesticides to feed the hungry ?

WE SEE NOTHING wrong with helping the hungry world eat," says an executive of the Velsicol Chemical Company, defending his company's overseas sales of Phosvel after it was banned in the United States.' And many would agree with his logic: since we need pesticides to produce more food for the hungry, pesticide dangers are a necessary evil - part of the price of averting famine. "Men will not starve because there are hazards in killing pests, is the way a Rohm & Haas official makes the same point.

But in the course of our investigation, we came to a startling conclusion: over half, and in some countries up to 70 percent, of the pesticides used in underdeveloped countries are applied to crops destined for export to consumers in Europe, Japan and the United States. The poor and hungry may labor in the fields, exposed daily to pesticide poisoning, but they do not get to eat many of the crops protected by pesticides.

In Central America a staggering 70 percent of the total value of agricultural production - mainly coffee, cocoa and cotton - is exported, despite widespread hunger and malnutrition there. Cotton is one of the biggest pesticide users. In tiny El Salvador, cotton production absorbs one fifth of all the deadly parathion used in the world. Twenty-four hundred pounds of insecticides are used each year on every square mile of cotton fields in the country. Yet cotton contributes to the global food supply only in processed cattle feed for Latin America's burgeoning beef production, almost half of which is exported to the United States and Europe.' The meat remaining for local consumption is eaten by the rich and the middle classes, not by the hungry.

Herbicides like 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (the basic ingredients of the infamous Agent Orange) are also used to help clear huge amounts of forest for grazing land in Latin America. The herbicide 2,4,5-T leaves residues of its contaminant, dioxin, in soil and water. Dioxin, one of the deadliest poisons ever developed, shows up later in birth defects, skin rashes and miscarriages.

In Indonesia, estate-style farms growing export crops - coconuts, coffee, sugar cane and rubber - consume 20 times the quantity of pesticides used by the small holders growing food for local markets. This, despite the fact that small holders cultivate seven times more acreage than the estates.

Some might argue that although export crops do not directly feed hungry people, at least the foreign exchange earned benefits them indirectly: it is used to import economic necessities for development. But even the most superficial look at development in most third world countries belies this assumption. Foreign exchange earned by agricultural exports does not return to improve the lives of the workers through better wages, housing, medical care, or schools. Instead the foreign exchange is most often plowed into luxury consumer goods, urban industrialization, tourist facilities, and showy office buildings - all geared to the budgets and tastes of the top 10 to 20 percent living in the cities.

The perfect banana

ONE REASON pesticide use is so much more intense on export crops than on subsistence food crops is that the multinational corporations which control the production and marketing of exports demand a blemish-free product. Nothing less, they say, will meet the discriminating standards of the consumers in Europe, North America or Japan.

"The Japs eat with their eyes" is how the manager of a Philippine banana plantation explained why they went to such lengths to produce a blemish-free fruit to ship to Japan. In the United States, too, it is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of insecticides used on fruits and vegetables serve only to improve their appearance.

Most people think of multinational food corporations in the third world as big plantation owners. But over the last 20 years, corporations have become leery of owning land directly. As the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation warns, the possibility of "expropriation, revolution or insurrection {makes}plantations a poor risk.'' l' Multinational food producers and marketers such as Del Monte, United Brands (formerly United Fruit), and Castle & Cooke (Dole brand) have hit upon a safer strategy - contract farming. Rather than own land directly, these companies now often contract with large local landowners to produce crops for export to consumers in the industrial countries.

A contract farming boom hit southern Mindanao, the Philippines, in the late sixties. Before that time there were no bananas growing on its rich coastal plains. Small farmers and tenant farmers grew rice and abaca. Then came the multinational corporations, seeking contracts with local entrepreneurs to produce bananas for the lucrative Japanese market. Within ten years the entire area was transformed: now 21 giant plantations cover 57,000 acres, and bananas have become one of the country's top agricultural exports. In order to fulfill their banana contracts, the local entrepreneurs had to push small holders, tenants and "squatters" off the land. (Some of the so-called squatters had worked the land for more than a generation.)

Although the multinational corporation may not own the land, it still calls the shore. When the corporation signs a local entrepreneur under contract, it specifies not only the amount of fruit or other commodity to be produced but also the amount of fertilizers and pesticides to assure high yields and blemish-free products.

Lifetime debt to pesticide companies

ONCE LOCKED INTO the banana export contract, the plantation owner is totally dependent on the multinational firm. "Money is deducted from the banana grower's earnings to pay for things like pesticides and irrigation," explains Father Jerome McKenna, a U.S. missionary who worked in the area. "It's part of the contract. Those banana growers will be in debt to the pesticide companies for the rest of their lives."

Typically pesticides are applied at three stages in the banana production process. Workers with heavy tanks strapped to their backs (and no masks or protective covering) routinely spray every tree. Twice a month a pesticide plane passes over the plantation, blanketing everything, including the drinking water supply. A group of banana workers recently petitioned Castle & Cooke to stop heavy pesticide spraying after local studies showed that the workers have dangerously low oxygen levels in their blood, making them more susceptible to disease.

In the packing sheds, the bananas are dumped in long water-filled troughs to remove some of the pesticides. "What bothers me most," says McKenna, "is that these people have very little protection from the chemicals they come in contact with. The women have their hands in the water up to their elbows all day long. They don't wear any gloves. Their only protection is plastic-type aprons they fashion for themselves." Finally, to protect the fruit during its long ocean voyage, women workers in the packing sheds spray every bunch of bananas with a fungus-killing agent.

McKenna checked at two nearby hospitals for reports of pesticide poisonings. One, run by Castle & Cooke, "didn't have any cases." But the other hospital, run independently of the company, had "reports all around of people poisoned by pesticides."

The contract farming system also gives the multinationals an easy way to avoid responsibility for pesticide poisoning. They can simply blame the local plantation owner for being careless.

The examples of cotton in El Salvador or bananas in the Philippines tell us that, in large measure, pesticides in the third world actually feed the well-fed, but endanger the poor and the hungry. Since the mid - 50s, the growth rate of export crops - which receive the overwhelming bulk of pesticides - has exceeded that of food crops. Between 1952 and 1967, for example, cotton acreage in Nicaragua increased fourfold while the acreage in basic grains was cut in half. 20 Thus it is hardly surprising that the demand for pesticides in the third world has soared. What is surprising is how many believe that their principal use is to save crops to feed the hungry.

More food and yet more hunger

WHILE IT IS TRUE that most pesticides in the third world are used on luxury export crops, in the last 20 years third world farmers growing basic food crops - especially rice and wheat - have also been encouraged to use ever greater quantities of pesticides. As part of the "green revolution," hybrid seeds were developed which produce higher yields, given the correct amount of fertilizer and water; but the hybrids are much more susceptible to pests. Bred in the laboratory and in test fields in a foreign setting over only a few years, these "miracle seeds" do not have the pest resistance characteristic of traditional seeds, bred over thousands of years in the same locality in which they are used. To make up for this vulnerability, the new seeds must be protected with more pesticides.

Throughout much of the third world, international lending agencies and government development programs have encouraged the use of these new seeds, often making their use a condition for receiving farm credit. Once third world farmers begin using the new, more vulnerable seeds, they have no choice but to vastly increase their use of pesticides.

Few dispute that the new seeds and their accompanying inputs - fertilizers and pesticides - have increased grain production, notably in Asia. But growing more food doesn't necessarily mean alleviating hunger. What we have learned is that food production can increase while the poor majority gets even more hungry.

Take the Philippines. It is the home of the prestigious International Rice Research Institute which helped instigate the "green revolution" in Asia. During the 1970s, use of the new seeds spread throughout the country. Accompanying their proliferation, pesticide imports leapt fourfold between 1972 and 1978. As a result of the new seeds and new inputs, rice production almost doubled in the Philippines in little more than a decade. Indeed, in the late 1970s, the Philippines became a rice exporter. But has this production success reduced the hunger of the Philippine poor? No. According to studies by the Asian Development Bank and the World Health Organization, Filipinos are now the worst fed people in all of Asia, with the exception only of war-torn Kampuchea.

How can there be more food produced and yet greater hunger? The answer is that the green revolution strategy for producing more food forces more and more people off the land. Mechanization robs them of work. Dependency on irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers - all required by the new seeds - favors the wealthier, literate farmers who have access to credit and political pull. Without land to produce food or money to buy it, people go hungry no matter how much their country produces.

This dramatic transformation is documented in the International Labor Organization's study of rural poverty. After studying seven Asian countries, comprising 70 percent of the rural population in nonsocialist underdeveloped countries, the ILO reported that the rural poor have become measurably poorer than they were IO or 20 years ago. The study concludes: "The increase in poverty has been associated not with a fall but with a rise in cereal production per head, the main component of the diet of the poor."

Another ILO study of the "green revolution" points to vast increases in wheat yields in the Pun jab district of India in the 1960s. Yet simultaneously, the portion of the rural population living below the poverty line increased from 18 to 23 percent. "Economic prosperity has not simply missed these people," the study concludes. "Their ability to supply their own basic needs has been gradually but unrelentingly reduced...."

The poor: not a lucrative market

THE NARROW PRODUCTION push embodied in the "green revolution" strategy, helping to enrich the well-placed farmers and further impoverish the rural poor, has itself encouraged the shift toward export crop production that we discussed above. This is true in part because impoverished people simply do not make up a lucrative market. So, as in the Philippines, a staple food like rice is exported while Filipinos - without money enough to buy the rice - go hungry. Or production shifts from staple foods needed by the poor and toward luxury items demanded by the rich. Corn and bean production in Mexico, for example, has declined while production of luxury fruits and vegetables for the U.S. market and feedgrains such as sorghum have greatly increased. Almost 32 percent of basic grain staples are now fed to livestock in Mexico. In Brazil the figure is 44 percent.

Thus the rationale of using more pesticides to protect crops to feed the hungry simply does not hold up. First, we discover that most pesticides are not used to protect food crops anyway! Second, pesticides to protect the more vulnerable grain seeds of the "green revolution" are part of a production strategy benefiting the better off. While increasing production, this strategy cannot eliminate hunger because it fails to address the question of who controls that production. Under these conditions, the extra food which pesticides help to grow is frequently either eaten by the better off, exported or fed to livestock. The whole equation bypasses the fundamental problem: the hungry have neither money to buy food nor land to grow it on.