Foreign leaders in Thailand have admonished US officials about the need to prioritize public health over corporate profits. That’s because Thailand is on the verge of banning 3 farming pesticides that scientific research has shown to be particularly dangerous to children and other vulnerable populations, and the US isn’t happy about the decision.
- Chlorpyrifo is an insecticide made popular by Dow Chemical that is known to damage babies’ brains.
- Paraquat is a herbicide scientists say causes the nervous system disease known as Parkinson’s that has been banned in Europe since 2007.
- Glyphosat is linked to cancer and other health problems.
The Trump administration is doing everything it can to protect these pesticides and continue their global distribution. Why? The pesticides generate enormous profits to big corporations. Agrochemical industry manufacturers are frequent and robust donors to US politicians. Ipso, facto — there seems to an understood quid pro quo for US political financial support from the agrochemical manufacturers.
On first glance, you wouldn’t think that Thailand’s decision to eliminate these farming pesticides would result in US trade pressure. But a glyphosate ban alone could cut hundreds of millions of dollars from US grain imports, since they’re often laced with the soon-to-be banned glyphosate residues.
If you are skeptical about the direct relationship between US pushback against farming pesticides and agrochemical influences, here is something that might persuade you: the Trump administration is pulling out every persuasive maneuver it has to make sure that the Thailand December 1 ban doesn’t go into effect.
Outraged Thai officials say they have been forced to “clearly explain” to US officials that Thailand’s priority is the health of Thai consumers. “Our job is to take care of the people’s health,” the public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said, according to The Guardian.
Is public health less a US priority than the interests of corporations? If farming pesticides are any indication, it would seem the answer is “yes.”
Reading the Research
Thailand’s leaders were persuaded to ban the 3 farming pesticides after reviewing research that pointed to 2 significant problems with the herbicides’ application.
- Farm workers become at risk due to repeated chemical exposures.
- Residues remain behind in fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods, affecting consumers who eat them.
Agrochemicals have more than duplicated food production during the last century, and the current need to increase production to feed a rapid growing human population can boost arguments for intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers. However, the Association of Applied Biologists (AAB) has reported that worldwide surveys reveal the contamination and impact of agrochemical residues in soils, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and coastal marine systems.
The result is toxic effects on humans and nonhuman organisms.
Although persistent organic chemicals have been phased out and replaced by more biodegradable chemicals, contamination by legacy residues and recent residues still impacts the quality of human food, water, and environment. Chlorpyrifos is so dangerous that the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a ban of the chemical in Europe, finding that there is no safe exposure level. And the herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate are both linked to cancers and other health problems.
Fernando Carvalho of the University of Lisbon, the AAB white paper author, argues that current and future increases in food production must be companion to better quality with less toxic contaminants. Alternative paths to the intensive use of crop protection chemicals could include genetically engineered organisms, organic farming, change of dietary habits, and development of food technologies.
Carvalho offers suggestions for agro industries to further develop advanced practices to protect public health, such as more cautious use of agrochemicals through prior testing, careful risk assessment, and licensing. Education of farmers and users could extend to measures for better protection of ecosystems and good practices for sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries, and aquaculture.
Farming Chemicals NIMBY? Wrong.
The effects of farming chemical must differ in the US, right? Farming pesticide residue is found in Thailand, but not in the western world, right?
Pesticide residues are so common in US domestic food supplies that a Food and Drug Administration report looking at 2017 data found more than 84% of domestic fruits, 53% of vegetables, and 42% of grains sold to consumers carried pesticide residues.
Yet, instead of seeking to protect US consumers and farm workers from farming pesticide endangerment at all costs, US regulators regurgitate corporate press releases. They assure everyone wholeheartedly that residual pesticides are nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here — move along — these are not the food safety issues you are looking for.
The US regulators mimic diatribes from Monsanto and others in the agrochemical industry by insisting that pesticide residues pose no threat to human health. Everyone just has to be sure that the levels of each type of residue fall under a “tolerance” measure set by the EPA.
Indeed, the EPA has approved several increases allowed for glyphosate residues in food. That agency determines that it need not comply with a legal requirement which states that the EPA “shall apply an additional tenfold margin of safety for infants and children” in setting the legal levels for pesticide residues.
Thailand plans to join dozens of countries that have already banned or are planning bans on some or all of these chemicals due to the dangers established by scientific evidence. It takes the support and objectivity of governments to write legislation that supports such measures, however.
What the Corporate Behemoths Want, They Usually Get
Dow, Syngenta, and Monsanto have each merged their way to become bigger corporate behemoths in recent years, wielding their enhanced power in Washington to keep these and other money-making pesticides on the market.
Dow merged earlier this year with DuPont, divesting itself of the agrochemical business that made chlorpyrifos but continuing to defend continued use of chlorpyrifos — despite scientific concerns.
Even though there is an abundance of pesticides found in US foods, the FDA, EPA, and USDA assert that pesticide residues in food are really nothing to worry about. Amid heavy lobbying by the agrochemical industry, the EPA has actually supported continued use of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos in food production. In continued research, Harvard is conducting a study about the association of preconception intake of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables with outcomes of infertility treatment with assisted reproductive technologies (ART).
Earlier this autumn, a group of 3 researchers with long-standing close ties to the companies that sell agricultural pesticides released a report seeking to soothe consumer worries and discount scientific research about the hazards of farming pesticides. The report stated that:
“there is no direct scientific or medical evidence indicating that typical exposure of consumers to pesticide residues poses any health risk. Pesticide residue data and exposure estimates typically demonstrate that food consumers are exposed to levels of pesticide residues that are several orders of magnitude below those of potential health concern.”
It’s all about the money, stupid.