Building capacity related to Multilateral Environmental Agreements in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP MEAs 3)

Finding alternatives to highly hazardous pesticides key to Agenda 2030, experts say at FAO side event of the BRS conventions

Sound chemicals management is vital to SDGs 3, 6 and 12

Phasing out highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) in agriculture is key to achieving the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), experts said at a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) side event on July 29.

Titled "Finding alternatives to HHPs in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries", the side event organized by the EU-funded ACP MEAs 3 programme at the 2021 meeting of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) conventions presented country examples from Mozambique, Guyana and Fiji.

"HHPs constitute a small percentage of pesticides used globally, but cause a disproportionate level of harm to health and the environment," said Rotterdam Convention Executive Secretary and FAO Plant Production and Protection Division Deputy Director Rémi Nono Womdim. "Recent studies have shown that unintentional acute pesticide poisoning cases exceed 350 million a year, 44% of which involve farmers."

He was echoed by FAO ACP MEAs 3 Regional Coordinator for the Pacific Francesca Mancini. "Sound chemical management can contribute to sustainable development, but unsound chemical management can seriously undermine the achievement of Agenda 2030," she said.

The common threads that emerged from the three presentations are that while farmers lack information on pesticide risks and using PPE, they are reluctant to relinquish HHPs because they see the alternatives as risky, expensive, and unproven.

As well, all three countries reported that knowledge about alternatives and the technical capacity to use them need to be strengthened so that they can reach farmers in the field.

Farmers must trust the alternatives: lessons from Mozambique

In Mozambique, where 80% of the population works in agriculture, a survey found that farmers hardly ever use PPE, and a majority reported symptoms from pesticide exposure, explained FAO National Project Coordinator Khalid Cassam, who also serves as Mozambique's Designated Authority of the Rotterdam Convention.

Involving farmers so that they will trust the alternatives is key to phasing out toxic chemicals, said Cassam, adding that Mozambique had communicated to the Rotterdam Convention Secretariat the banning of 11 HHPs.

"Sometimes the farmers aren't comfortable with the alternatives, because they are familiar only with HHPs...and some of the alternatives are more expensive," Cassam recounted.

"We learned that (when) policymakers...know the risks people are facing by using those pesticides, it's easier for them to take action," said Cassam, adding that "industry and civil society are also interested in protecting the environment and people's health."

Porous borders and lack of regional harmonisation on HHPs are another issue for Mozambique. "All our neighbours are still using them, and we are seeing illegal imports of those substances. So it is very important to have harmonisation in the region," Cassam explained.

Regional harmonisation in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is a step ahead on harmonisation as it has set up the Coordinating Group of Pesticides Control Boards of the Caribbean (CGPC), a 17-country facilitating body on HHPs. 

"This body has allowed us to phase out HHPs on a regional level," explained CGPC Chairperson Trecia David-Garnath, who also serves as Registrar at the Guyana Pesticides and Toxic Chemicals Control Board. "Our mission is to promote sustainable agriculture and protect human health and the environment."

Like Mozambique, the CGPC surveyed farmers on pesticide use and found that of 208 respondents, only 3% were trained in the proper use of PPE and 45% reported symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning within 24 hours after applying a pesticide.

Changing farmers' mindset is "quite the challenge", said David-Garnath. 

"When you tell them...the reasons why HHPs should be phased out, they reply that 'you want agriculture to fail'. And that trickles up a lot of times to the policymakers," she explained, adding that there is a perception that the alternatives cost more.

Fijian farmers "want alternatives that work"

Mereia Fong, who serves as the Registrar of Pesticides at the Ministry of Agriculture in Fiji, reported that in 2019 her country banned two commonly used HHPs "in recognition of their negative effects on human health, on the environment and on our ecosystem."

The two chemicals, paraquat and imidacloprid, were used in Fiji on taro, cassava, pineapple and vegetables for weed and insect control.

Fong told participants the government banned imidacloprid after "hearing concerns from the Fiji Beekeepers Association that they were seeing a decline in bees, and also studies found that traces (of the chemical) were being found in honey."

Farmers in this country of under one million people, where 28% of the land is used for agriculture "were not happy" with the ban, which was put in place without consulting with them first, Fong recounted. As in Mozambique and the Caribbean, they objected that the alternatives are costly and may not be effective, and requested training on PPE and safe pesticide use.

"Farmers want alternatives that work," said Fong.

The event was one of many FAO-led activities to raise awareness of the risks of HHPs, including an Action Plan aiming to significantly curb their use in agriculture by 2030.

Some 250 people attended, including pesticide regulators, policymakers, scientists, and representatives from civil society, the private sector, the European Union (EU) and intergovernmental organizations in over 80 countries across all continents.