UK agrochemicals kill peasants across the Global South

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 | News and analysis
A small low-flying aircraft spraying pesticides on a field of green crops.
The UK is the lead exporter in Europe of deadly agrochemicals such as Paraquat that have devastating effects on humans, animals and the environment across the Global South.

A recent report from Unearthed and Public Eye exposed the shocking export levels of Paraquat among one of a great number of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, hormones and other chemical growth agent, banned in the countries where they are produced for health and safety reasons. Our partners in peasants’ organisations around the world have been fighting and organising against the import of these poisons.

Meanwhile, as the US-UK trade deal talks push ahead, fears about food and farming standards are soaring among Brits – from chlorine chicken to hormone-stuffed beef, people in the UK rightfully want to protect what’s on their plate. But concern about post-Brexit British food and farming standards should call on us to address the devastating impacts of UK trade in toxic chemicals to the Global South.

Toxic trading

On Monday 12 October, tractors rolled into Parliament Square in London, as farmers joined a broad coalition of people across the country deeply concerned about food standards in the UK. The farmers were there to push Conservative MPs to protect British food and farming standards by supporting critical amendments to the Agriculture Bill. Conservative MPs failed to do that, rejecting the amendments and ignoring a growing chorus of voices. 

The threat of weaker standards for human, animal and environmental protection is something that has struck a chord amongst people across political divides in the UK. Multiple polls show a vast majority of the public do not want lower food and farming standards through post-Brexit trade deals. Major supermarkets including Tesco, M&S and Waitrose have said that they won’t stock chlorinated chicken from the US if a trade deal is struck. High profile restauranteurs, chefs and critics from Joe Wicks to Jay Rayner have condemned the move. Even Michael Gove described what the Conservative government did on Monday as ‘wrong’ and stated that importing lower standard food was ‘absolutely’ a red line for the Party, in a much re-tweeted 2018 segment of BBC Countryfile that has racked up 1.5 million views.

While chlorinated chicken has grabbed headlines since the days of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), people are becoming more aware of the other threats posed by a deregulatory approach. Hormone injected beef from cows raised on overcrowded feed lots, inhaling particles of their own excrement in what a Channel 4 dispatches episode this week called ‘faecal dust storms’. Pigs trapped in sow stalls and fed ractopamine, a growth enhancer that causes animal organ failure, death and birth defects and has been banned in the EU, Russia and China, but is allowed in the US. Crops grown using pesticides and other chemicals banned in the UK for years, because they are too dangerous. Paraquat is one such pesticide.

Paraquat is a highly toxic weed killer. A significant portion of the tens of thousands of fatal pesticide poisoning that happen every year are attributable to it. If Paraquat is inhaled or ingested, even in small amounts (5 millimetres is enough to kill), it can be fatal, causing coma, heart failure, respiratory failure, kidney failure, and liver failure, within hours or days. It can also be absorbed through the skin, causing severe chemical burns, eye injury, nail damage, and nosebleeds. Associated long-term and delayed health effects include Parkinson’s Disease, lung disease, and skin cancer. On the grounds that it is too dangerous for European farmers even when wearing protective equipment, it has been banned in the UK since 2007, and since 1989 in Switzerland, where Syngenta, who have been producing this drug since the 1960s, is based.

However, Paraquat is one of a number of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, hormones and other chemical growth agents banned in the countries that produce them for health and safety reasons, but exported to countries with looser regulations and where communities and farmers lack the resources to protect themselves against exposure to potentially fatal chemicals.

The irony of concern in the UK about low standard imports is that the UK plays a key role in the production and export of highly toxic agrochemicals, including to the US, and profits from the sale of chemicals we have deemed too dangerous for use in the UK. Paraquat is made in Huddersfield – and 28,185 tonnes of mixtures containing paraquat were exported from the UK in 2018. It makes up the bulk of banned pesticides that are exported from the UK to the US, Brazil, Mexico, India and Indonesia, among others.

The UK is the leading country in the list of European countries exporting agrochemicals that are banned at home. Many of these pesticides have carcinogenic effects and cause reproductive problems and damage to the nervous system. Many are also endocrine disruptors, causing adverse effects with the hormone system. War on Want’s partners and allies in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Paraguay are all too familiar with these consequences to human health, but also to the effects on the land, environment and the social fabric of farming communities. 

Kenyan Peasants League fight unregulated pesticides from Europe and the UK

In Kenya, 70% of the population are small scale farmers who have been the backbone of food production in the country for years. But recently, the government, with the support of transnational corporations, is trying to persuade family farmers to use chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

A recent report from Route to Food in Kenya revealed that approximately 700 types of agrochemicals products are imported into Kenya from around the world, out of which 288 come from the EU and UK markets. Of the 247 active ingredients registered in the country by the Kenyan Pest Control and Poisons Board, only 150 are approved in Europe and 11 are not listed in the European database. Another 78 have been withdrawn from the EU and UK for their high toxicity and potential threat to human health, the toxic effects on the environment (particularly insects and bees) and their very long persistence in the environment.

It’s not only farmers themselves who are directly affected. According to the Route to Food report, “family members who live close to the farms, with children and pregnant women” are highly vulnerable to the health impacts of these chemicals.

But there is a growing movement of people who are concerned for the long-term effects. Our partner organisation Kenyan Peasants League (KPL) is working to create practical alternatives, by training their members on agroecology and integrated pest management, with a focus on food sovereignty.

“We have developed a program to produce organic pesticides to distribute to our members and other farmers so that we can protect them from the adverse health effects of banned chemical pesticides that are coming from the UK and other parts of Europe,” said David Otieno, a member of KPL.

“And we are doing this because the reasons why these chemical pesticides have been banned in Europe is because of the adverse health effects it has on human beings there. If a chemical pesticide can cause cancer in UK, it can also cause the same cancer in Kenya. We are also asking the UK government and the EU to follow suit by issuing a ban on these chemical pesticides that are continuing to affect our people.”

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Deadly soy production in Paraguay

In Paraguay, 58,000 tons of chemical pesticides were imported into the country in 2019, and it is suffering the deadly consequences. In the 'Southern Cone' of the continent, industrial soybean production dominates the landscape. The region is a bleak reminder of the devastation of the process of extractive capitalism on the land and its peoples.

Syngenta itself in 2003 christened an area covering Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, the "United Republic of Soybeans". And it is clear why Syngenta has a stake in the area: genetically modified (GM) soybeans – sold by Monsanto – are grown on millions of hectares in the region, and these GM variants depend heavily on pesticides and other agrochemicals. Independent research centres and environmental activists in the Southern Cone have been working for more than 20 years to expose the devastating effects of this chemically-dependent commodity crop model: landlessness, mass migrations and chronic diseases.

Paraquat is used in huge quantities in Paraguay’s farming industry, mostly imported from China and Brazil – although, Brazil imports the agrochemical from Syngenta’s UK factory, according to the Unearthed and Public Eye investigations.

BASE-IS, an independent research organisation in Paraguay, exposes the devastating effects of industrialised soy cultivation on the environment and the health of communities. It has reported on the heavy, unregulated use of agrochemicals used in soy production, frequently within rural school premises. In 2018, according to BASE-IS research, 8,770,068 kg of paraquat was imported in agrochemical mixtures as the main active ingredient, and a further 3,932,692 kg was imported mixed with DIqUAT.

Those most vulnerable to the effects of this vast use of imported chemicals are the peasants and indigenous communities. In 2011, a farmer named Rubén Portillo died after suffering the symptoms of severe agrochemical intoxication. Another 22 people from the same community were admitted to hospital with similar symptoms.

This deadly and deeply troubling case led to multiple official complaints to the Paraguayan state, spanning different administrations, but no answers and no justice came of them. In 2013, communities appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which ruled against the Paraguayan state in 2019, finding that it was responsible for polluting the community and for clear violations of the right to life.

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Toxic agrochemicals in Sri Lanka: chronic diseases among paddy farmers

Sri Lanka entered the international markets a few years after the global Green Revolution. The use of agrochemicals – which was virtually unknown in the early 1960 – accelerated exponentially. In 2014, over 15,000 tons of agrochemicals were imported annually. The country, particularly its peasantry, has suffered the deadly effects.

Until 2008, Sri Lanka allowed use of Paraquat for agricultural use. Beyond the health risks linked to its use for pesticides purposes, Sri Lankan farmers were also taking their own lives by ingesting the weed killer: the country was experiencing around 400-500 deaths each year from Paraquat poisoning, the majority of which were due to “impulsive ingestions” of chemicals stored in or near homes.

Other more common pesticides are still used in Sri Lanka that have had devastating health consequences, such as glyphosate – an agrochemical that has been the target of multiple health campaigns and is completely banned for use in the EU and the UK, but still exported. 

Our Sri Lankan partner Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) has worked with farmers on building more sustainable agroecological models and finding alternatives to chemical-laden agriculture. MONLAR has campaigned for the last ten years against the devastating effects of glyphosate and other unregulated pesticides on the health of the farmers. Ten years ago, the country suffered an outbreak of chronic kidney disease of unknown origins, especially among paddy farmers in the North-Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, who were using glyphosate on their cultivations. 

In 2012, a joint team of doctors from the Sri Lankan government and the WHO published a report on the effects of agrochemicals on the health of farmers and rural communities. The report states:

Exposure to a combination of factors that are toxic to the kidneys (rather than one single factor) seems to cause this kidney disease. Toxic factors identified up to now include nephrotoxic agrochemicals, arsenic and cadmium.”

While conclusions are not definitive, authorities are not applying any precautionary principles to regulate the import, production and distribution of agrochemicals in the country.

Chintaka Rajapakse, moderator of MONLAR, recently declared:

“Almost five years ago a debate on whether to ban glyphosate began; we started a movement assisting the government to implement such a ban. When glyphosate was banned in March 2015, we began to strengthen the case for such a ban by promoting the theory behind it and by creating a movement that stood with that decision.”

Mr. Gamini, a volunteer who has been campaigning to promote organic fertilisers in the Anuradhapura District and to educate farmers on how agrochemicals can lead to chronic kidney disease of undetermined causes, said:

“We go to villages and educate the farmers on the dangers of agrochemicals and the importance of switching to organic fertiliser. The thing is there is no need to tell them. They already know that agrochemicals are bad. They know that these toxins harm them. They know that those who will consume these foods will get sick. But if they don’t use agrochemicals their yield will be low because the seeds that they buy don’t respond well to organic fertiliser. These farmers already suffer from economic difficulties and most of them suffer from chronic malnutrition.”

Unfortunately, glyphosate was reintroduced in 2019 after the election of the new government. MONLAR is now organising nationally with other Sri Lankan organisations to create a Peoples’ Tribunal on Agrochemical Transnational Companies and make corporations responsible for their actions, whilst at the same time lobbying with national authorities to reintroduce the national ban on imports.

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They mean agribusiness

A legal opinion by the NGO ECCHR in 2013 found that producing and exporting Paraquat was a “clear” violation of Syngenta’s responsibility to respect human rights. MONLAR, frustrated at the lack of accountability, recently declared:

“Transnational agrochemical companies who hold the primary responsibility have not accepted any of the blame or have attempted to ameliorate the situation through assistance of better practices. The transnational agrochemical companies have not taken responsibility for their actions.”

That the UK is the biggest exporter of banned chemicals like Paraquat, is the clearest example of a shocking double standard on the value placed on human life in the UK, and the value we place on human life elsewhere.

More worrying still, is that Brexit is offering the UK the opportunity to diverge from EU standards – and become a hub for deregulated standards that is even worse for people and planet than it already is. The government has consistently said that Brexit will mean a ‘levelling up’ rather than a watering down of standards. Leave aside for the moment that we see nothing but evidence to the contrary. There is another problem: in a globalised world and on a planet that does not recognise our national borders, there can be no meaningful ‘levelling up’ while we continue to level down standards in other countries, the same ones that we have impoverished through decades of colonialism and exploitative trade rules and debt regimes.

There is no clearer indication that we need our trade policy to be aligned with our human rights commitments, and for those commitments to be written into law, as well as needing an effective and legally binding international instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, to end corporate impunity and make corporations accountable.

In the UK, we need a Trade Bill that sets out a democratic, environmentally and socially just framework for the UK’s new independent trade policy. Critically, we need a Trade Bill that includes a framework for accountability and scrutiny of trade, and recognises the primacy of international human rights law. As the Trade Bill is due to enter its final stages over the next couple of weeks, we can take action to pressure on our MPs and peers to make sure our trade deals aren’t done in the dark and at the expense of our human rights obligations.

We also need a new 'Failure to Prevent' law that mandates companies to undertake “human rights and environmental due diligence” right across their supply chains and holds them to account when they fail prevent human rights abuses and environmental harms.

Change can begin at home. We must put an end to an approach that sees the lives and wellbeing of food producers in the South as expendable, and disrupts and devastates the planet.