Lena Luig and Ludger Weß discuss the role of synthetic pesticides.
Photo: Luig/Weß

Pesticides – a blessing or a curse?

What are the consequences of using synthetic pesticides in agriculture? Lena Luig, speaker at the development organisation INKOTA, and science journalist Ludger Weß discuss this very topic.

What role do synthetic pesticides play in agriculture in African countries?

Ludger Weß: Without them, farming would be difficult. Look at the swarms of locusts that attack parts of Africa and the fall armyworm that eats its way through the fields and even reaches Japan and Australia. There are many tests being done on biological pesticides but they are not yet efficient. 

Lena Luig: I know many partner organisations that do excellent agroecological work on smaller areas. Especially during the corona crisis, they have coped better on average because they are not dependent on imports of seeds, fertilisers or pesticides from other countries. With regard to locusts: In this extreme crisis, we cannot stop using chemical pesticides overnight. But partners in Kenya have also had positive experiences with organic treatments, such as neem oil. There are options available, but they fail because they cannot currently cover the demand. At a minimum, the use of highly dangerous pesticides to tackle locusts should be avoided - for example those that are banned in the EU. But these are imported by African countries.

Weß: That is up to the African supervisory authorities to decide, they don’t live under a rock. In your report, you list countries that have banned glyphosate for example - they are watching. And if we are going to talk about danger, we need to look at the standards because there are many, those from the pesticide action network PAN, from the OECD and from the FAO. The European manufacturers follow the OECD standards.

As a manufacturer, you could say: I think this product is too dangerous for other living creatures. Are some standards too lax?

Luig: The OECD standards definitely are. The PAN criteria are based on the WHO and FAO standards, but they are more specific. In the EU, there is now also more awareness about substances that are toxic to humans, but awareness about environmental toxins is lagging behind. Of course, the African authorities do checks. But if we in Europe stick to criteria that certain substances are harmful, then it is the responsibility of the manufacturers to say: The human body is the same all over the world. If a pesticide is banned in Europe, why should I be allowed to export it?

Weß: We always have to weigh up the hazards and risks. If I touch an electricity line that runs behind me in the wall, I would be dead - that is a fatal risk. But I can manage this by insulating the line and concealing it behind plaster, then it is no longer a danger, but a low risk. It is similar when approving pesticides: How high is the risk if I use this pesticide properly and how high is the risk if I do not use it? Some countries with high rates of pest infestations come to a different conclusion than we do in Europe. Here, we do not have locusts or the fall armyworm.

Is Africa under more pressure than Europe because of pests?

Weß: Absolutely, and this pressure will only increase with climate change because this improves the living conditions of insects, viruses and fungi. We tackle many fungi and viruses by tackling the insects as the spreaders. But this is ridiculous because the insects are not the problem. Plant breeding would help to develop the resistance to these fungi and viruses.

Luig: The issue of danger and risk is the crux of the matter. Those who are familiar with the conditions of using pesticides know that proper use is simply not possible in large parts of Africa and Latin America due to poverty. What about the countless farmers who live right next to their fields and are “using pesticides properly”? Storage is also a big problem. Farmers often reuse large canisters and store them in their houses. And then there is protective equipment: This first has to be obtained and maintained; farmers can often not afford them, and agricultural workers certainly can’t. After conducting many interviews, we found that the employers on plantations simply do not provide this protective equipment. This is the rule rather than the exception. Even if Bayer were now to say that training courses on pesticide use should be conducted, this does not change the local structures.

If proper use cannot be guaranteed, is this an exclusion criterion?

Luig: I think it is.

Weß: Would that also apply to antibiotics? In many African and Asian countries, antibiotics are not used properly, they are often available over the counter and as individual tablets. This creates resistant bacteria. While this is a big problem, we do not solve it by banning the active substances. For me, this is a very slippery slope. It is more important for us to be lobbying for pesticides to be used properly.

Mr Weß, antibiotics don’t kill insects.

Weß: No, but they do kill people.

Are we not also talking about interfering in biodiversity?

Weß: But the logic is clearly the same. Antibiotic resistance is spreading and with fatal consequences - the conditions for use are abysmal.

Luig: I’m not sure whether the comparison with antibiotics will help us, let’s stick to pesticides. What do we want to lobby so that pesticides can be used properly? We know from interviews in South Africa that inspections do not work. Here, standard inspections are registered and certain pesticides that are actually banned can be concealed.

Weß: We can lobby to collect money - just as money was collected to give families in Africa mosquito nets. This is extremely effective against malaria.

Luig: This kind of action is not sustainable. In this case, protective equipment is distributed once. Will this be repeated every year?

Weß: This kind of equipment is more durable. We need to build on this and not say: These countries are being too irresponsible with it - they are not getting any more.

Luig: That is not what this is about. What I have seen when working with local groups is that for years now, they have been demanding that it should not be permitted to use pesticides that are banned in the country of manufacture. We did not come up with this in Germany. They contact us because Bayer and BASF are on our front door step here.

Weß: I also think the use of synthetic pesticides should be restricted. But what I do not understand is that organisations like yours treat new methods like genome editing as the Devil’s work - as if this would create Frankenstein plants. Look at Bangladesh: There, they created a type of aubergine - by themselves and without external help I might add - that reduces pesticide use to a third and generates bigger harvests. Why do NGOs in the West oppose this?

Luig: Partly because the farmers lose some of their sovereignty in the process. As an example, it is important to our partners in Mozambique that they can reproduce and exchange their own seeds for farming. They are convinced that this works well and is the most resistant option, particularly in the face of climate change. It allows them to avoid getting into a viscous cycle of having to buy hybrid seeds and the right pesticides as well as fertiliser every year. Independence is a valuable asset.

But seeds for farming are very widespread in large parts of Africa.

Luig: But there are developments that are cause for concern. For example, a new study has shown that in the 13 countries of the major initiative AGRA, where input-based projects such as hybrid seeds were implemented, the number of starving people has increased by 30 per cent. The country that fared best was Mali, where there is a strong movement for food sovereignty and agroecology.

Is it fair to say that the number of starving people has increased due to the methods used by AGRA? Or are there other reasons?

Luig: There are certainly other factors. But the aims were not achieved. And in Mali, they were achieved to a greater extent, despite resistance to subsidising fertilisers and pesticides.

Weß: You are just creating an enemy that does not really exist. African scientists work with local varieties, these are charitable projects; it is not as if a large company from the north is turning up and saying grow this or that. This research is conducted in cooperation with the farmers and focuses on their needs.

Luig: To be honest, I am not an expert in genome editing and I cannot speak for those NGOs. But from what I understand, the farmers cannot use their own seeds in this case, it creates dependency.

Weß: But if they are given the seeds, there is no need to buy them. You are treating the seeds like a fetish. We had this here in Germany up to the 1920s. The farmers saw that the newly developed seed companies gave them better harvests. That is the way of the world. Hundreds of years ago, one farmer fed four people, and today it is completely different.

Luig: Yet we are seeing a huge number of farms failing in Germany and in Europe. Please explain to me why German agriculture should work particularly well.

At least productivity has increased. Is there anything in the development of German agriculture that farmers in African countries could copy?

Luig: My arguments are in no way against increasing harvests. We are seeing that this is very important to our partners from them to get out of poverty. But with what methods can they achieve this? There is a fascinating study by Misereor that looked at semi-arid regions in Brazil, Senegal and India: Agroecological methods increased harvests and incomes in these countries and there were also clear benefits compared to a comparison group.

Weß: I am aware of these studies. This is, of course, due to the fact that these training courses provided knowledge that was not there before. But the question remains by how much can harvests be increased and what yield security looks like. Many methods from organic farming such as crop rotation and mixed crops were used in Europe and America. But why not in Africa? Why not be pragmatic and use synthetic pesticides for a while in a situation like with the locusts and then see?

Luig: Maybe it is not yet clear how serious the situation is. In a blog, you criticised the figure of supposedly 200,000 deaths caused by pesticides each year - and rightly so. Current global figures are not yet available. But a new study on this will be published at the end of this year. If we look at the latest reliable figures from the 1990s, then the deaths from pesticides at work reach 20,000 to 40,000 each year. This does not include suicides. There are also country-specific figures, for example from 2017 in Brazil: There are 7200 registered cases of pesticide poisoning, and it is estimated that the real figure is seven to ten times higher; for 2019, two million people are suspected of being poisoned. There is a huge global divide: The south sees 99 per cent of all poisonings. And companies like Bayer and BASF are making up to a third of their profits from highly dangerous pesticides - 60 per cent of which in emerging and developing countries. I find these figures alarming and therefore do not take the situation lightly.

Weß: I found the figures in Bangladesh alarming too. When the new variety of aubergine was not available, the fields had to be sprayed every day with pesticides. In India, hundreds of farmers are now exerting pressure and calling for this variety to be approved there. Some are already growing it in an act of disobedience by obtaining it illegally from Bangladesh. I believe this to be fatal as this requires resistance management.

Mr Weß, if you strongly argue in favour of genome editing, could you argue just as strongly against synthetic pesticides?

Weß: These two things are interlinked. We can get rid of insecticides and fungicides if we use genome editing - including in Germany. But this is not being well received as there are fear campaigns against it. And you, Ms Luig, are using unfair and irresponsible means. Last year, an agroecological conference was organised in Kenya. Notable figures were invited, such as Mr Séralini with his absurd claim “genetically modified rats cause cancer”, which has been disproven multiple times in studies. Or Don Huber, a retired plant research who has now completely lost it and claims that the use of genetic engineering and glyphosate would create new organisms that science has never seen before. For ten years, he has been spreading fear – this is completely irresponsible. German NGOs with whom you work were also invited. Why is it necessary to invite such figures if you supposedly have such good arguments

Luig: These irresponsible practices exist on all sides. I am not buying that argument because I do not work in genome editing. I was not there. And not all NGOs are the same. However, I am sceptical of glorifying technology. It reminds me of the debate on precision farming where it was said that if we use the great agricultural machines with sensors, then the use of fertilisers and pesticides can be dramatically reduced; but who has access to these technologies? Are they widespread? The partners of our NGO tell us that a holistic approach to agriculture benefits them the most.

Weß: I am not fixated on technology. I just think we should not exclude certain methods from the get-go. This debate reminds me of the debate about genetic engineering in medicine in the nineties. This was to be banned back then with the same arguments that are used today against green genetic engineering on the fields. But now it is accepted as the standard and has saved thousands of lives.

Luig: I am sure we can agree that the different aspects of every single technology needs to be taken into account. It is just that the sovereignty of the famers is very important to me. What do they need to remain independent, not just from large companies but also from investments that they would have to make?

Weß: And where will the sovereignty of African counties be if they are punished for doing certain research such as in genetic engineering – by creating trading hurdles or cutting off funding?

Luig: And who is lobbying African universities that they are not allowed to do that

Weß: The universities are welcome to research, but please don’t release any pesticides or grow any GM crops. There are so many campaigns and initiatives that sell this to people as Frankenstein.

Is specific pressure being exerted?

Weß: There are resolutions from the European Parliament that blatantly threaten African countries.

Luig: What do German NGOs have to do with this parliament?

Weß: I see that you and your approaches in agroecology have plenty of support in the parliament.

Luig: Plenty would be nice…

Weß: …maybe not plenty, but take for example the pesticide reduction strategy of the new EU Commission – that was demands that you made.

Are African universities being specifically prevented from doing their work?

Weß: They see the problem that they will have difficulties when they want to apply their knowledge to the field. And then their governments tell them that they shouldn’t. They no longer receive funding. They complain of the many hurdles they have to jump over along the way.

Luig: I also know other examples. Monsanto tried to have drought-resistant maize grown in Africa – studies show that this did not work. But the approvals for it were issued very quickly.

Weß: I am only talking about so-called “orphan crops”, i.e. local fruits that are of no interest to the global market but play a huge role in food security, especially for small-scale farmers. Monsanto & Co are only interested in uniform varieties that can be grown everywhere.

Ms Luig, the number of starving people is serious. Productivity must be increased somehow - particularly in the face of the growing population. Should we only rely solely on agroecology?

Luig: That is a complex question. As I have said, small-scale farmers need more productivity. But I would like to focus attention on the huge monocultures, both in the north and the south: They have to be transformed to make them less harmful to health and the environment. Also, we cannot only look at productivity. What are the world’s grain harvests being used for? A third is used for animal feed and another large amount for industrial use such as biofuel. That’s a big problem. In Bolivia, for example, farming cash crops for export has increased massively in the last decade, while food sovereignty and the supply of staple foods has plummeted. This question is just as important as productivity.

Let’s go back to the pesticides. We have heard about the number of casualties. Is it worth the risk?

Weß: It is up to the local authorities to decide this. I do not believe it is the manufacturers’ responsibility. Take, for example, the export of second-hand cars to Africa. There is no mandatory vehicle inspection there, which causes a lot of accidents. Are the manufacturers responsible in this case? Should we stop sending second-hand cars to Africa?

Luig: There is a different basis for evidence and facts for pesticides than in the vehicle inspection. The comparison is misleading.

Weß: I don’t think so because fatal car accidents due to bald tyres and failing brakes are part of daily life in Africa.

Wouldn’t the dealers be responsible in this case and not the manufacturers?

Weß: Yes, but the dealers deliver the cars and then they are driven around for 20 years. Should we make the dealers responsible here? I don’t think so.

One last question: What would you like to say to each other to finish up?

Weß: I would like you to be more open to new strategies that relate to technology.

Luig: And I would like you to widen your contact with people from the Global South so that you can understand their difficulties with the use of pesticides.

Author: Jan Rübe, journalist, Germany. He is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. 

This article first appeared at weltohnehunger.org and is part of a media cooperation between and Rural 21 and One World - No Hunger.

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