Pesticides in the balance

Debate stirs over proposed regulations on pesticides—the mainstay of large-scale farming but a hazard to the environment and the health of rural communities

A tractor spraying pesticides on a wheat field in Rio Grande do Sul

Ricardo Azoury/Olhar Imagem

Brazil, one of the world’s agricultural commodity powerhouses, is also a voracious consumer of pesticides—chemical or biological substances used to protect crops against the introduction and spread of pests such as insects, fungi, bacteria, viruses, mites, nematodes (parasites that attack the roots of plants), and weeds. The pesticide market in Brazil is worth US$10 billion per year, or 20% of a global market estimated to be worth US$50 billion. In 2017 Brazilian farmers used 540,000 metric tons of active ingredients, about 50% more than in 2010, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), an agency linked to the Ministry of the Environment. An active ingredient is the active compound in a pesticide product.

The pesticide debate has intensified in recent months since a House committee approved Draft Bill 6299/02 last June. Introduced in 2002 by the current Minister of Agriculture, Blairo Maggi, the bill proposes new rules on the approval and use of new pesticides. To come into force, the bill will need to pass the Brazilian House and Senate and be signed into law by the president.

The large-scale use of pesticides—also referred to in Brazil as “agrotoxins” (agrotóxicos), agrochemicals, or phytosanitary products—stems from several factors. As a tropical country, Brazil lacks the pronounced winter season that temperate climates have to disrupt pest life cycles. Pesticide use has grown in tandem with agricultural production—the grain harvest leaped from 149 million tons in 2010 to 238 million in 2017—and the expansion of monoculture, a farming system that upsets ecosystem balance and affects biodiversity, creating conditions for the spread of pests and disease.

While pesticides have helped to increase yields, making Brazil the top producer of important commodity crops, their use has also raised concerns over the harm they can cause to the environment—they contaminate the soil and groundwater, and are health hazards to the workers handling these substances and to rural communities near plantations.

A report released last year by United Nations (UN) experts estimated that around 200,000 people worldwide die each year from acute pesticide poisoning—mostly rural workers and communities. In Brazil, 84,200 people were poisoned from exposure to pesticides between 2007 and 2015, or an average of 25 people per day, according to data from the Ministry of Health’s 2018 National Health Surveillance Report on Populations Exposed to Pesticides. Research suggests that farm worker exposure to agricultural pesticides increases the risk for various forms of cancer, as well as hormonal disorders and birth defects. But studies linking foods containing pesticide residue to an increased risk for cancer and other diseases have been less conclusive.

In Brazil, 84,000 people were poisoned from exposure to pesticides between 2007 and 2015

Crop scientist and pesticide expert Edivaldo Domingues Velini, a professor in the School of Crop Science at São Paulo State University (FCA-UNESP), says the problem is not the pesticides themselves, but the amounts and the application methods. “Adequate and knowledge-based application is effective in reducing risks associated with pesticide use,” he says. “Pesticide consumption in Brazil is comparable to that of other countries regarded as benchmarks for development and food safety.”

Advocates for the new legislation, including pesticide manufacturers, agribusiness associations, and the Ministry of Agriculture, argue that Brazil’s legacy pesticide legislation, Act 7,802, needs to be modernized. Introduced in 1989, the current rules, they say, prevent more advanced and safe products from reaching the market and farmers quickly.

“Getting approval for new pesticide molecules in Brazil is a very slow process, to the point that some technologies can never be put to use. By the time they’ve been approved, they either have already been made obsolete by a more efficient technology or the pest is no longer as much of a threat,” says crop scientist Mario von Zuben, executive director at the Brazilian Crop Protection Association (ANDEF), a pesticide industry association. The Brazilian Agriculture Confederation (CNA) has also expressed support for the bill. “Since 2005 we have been advocating a reformulation of the current approval system and have supported the changes approved by the House panel,” says CNA Technology Coordinator Reginaldo Minaré.

On the other side of the trench, health-related organizations such as Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) and the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (ABRASCO), agencies such as the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), the Ministry of Health, and IBAMA, and environmental advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace have fiercely opposed what they have dubbed the “Poison Bill”. They allege it will make the country’s already overly permissive pesticide market even more flexible, allowing products onto the market that could increase health risks and exacerbate environmental contamination.

“We are all out against the bill. It will set us back by 30 years. Progress, to us, would mean taking better care of people’s health and the environment, but the bill would instead increase risks and expedite approvals without high-quality due diligence, allowing more dangerous pesticides to reach the Brazilian market,” says biologist Fernando Carneiro, a researcher at FIOCRUZ Ceará and a member of ABRASCO. ANVISA has also stood in opposition to the legislative changes, arguing that they will neither provide safer foods or new technologies for farmers, nor strengthen the regulatory framework for pesticides.

Renato Costa/Framephoto/Folhapress Advocates and critics of Brazil’s pesticide bill during a special House committee session this yearRenato Costa/Framephoto/Folhapress

Points of disagreement
Supporters and critics of the bill disagree essentially over four topics. To begin with, industry representatives disagree with the very term—agrotóxicos—given to pesticides in Brazil. “The term pesticide, as proposed by committee chairman Luiz Nishimori, is the term most widely used internationally and would seem more fitting,” says von Zuben of ANDEF.

Currently, Brazilian legislation refers to substances used against agricultural pests as agrotóxicos, a term coined in 1977 by professor Adilson Paschoal of the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture of the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP), in Piracicaba. The term was adopted in place of the multiple names that had been used previously, including praguicida (pesticide), remédio (medicine), veneno (poison), and defensivo agrícola (crop protection chemical). Critics of the current name-change proposal say that it is designed to dissociate pesticides from their toxicity and their health and environmental risks.

Another area of disagreement is over which agencies can approve new pesticides. Under current law, approval authority is shared by the Ministry of Agriculture, which is responsible for assessing a product’s agronomic efficiency; ANVISA, which is responsible for assessing a product’s toxicity and human-health risks; and IBAMA, which assesses products for environmental risks. A veto from any of the three is enough to bar the approval of a new pesticide.

The new bill, according to critics, gives the Ministry of Agriculture the final word on whether or not to approve a substance, confining ANVISA and IBAMA to a minor role of ratifying assessments of product applications—they can make recommendations, but not necessarily veto a product if they disagree. “The text in the bill says ANVISA and IBAMA can assess and, where applicable, ratify approval decisions, but omits wording such as “approve” or “authorize”. It fails to clearly state that they can veto a product,” says agricultural engineer Marina Lacôrte, a farming and food expert with Greenpeace. The agribusiness caucus disagrees and says nothing has changed in the approval process. Instead, it argues that centralizing the process under the Ministry of Agriculture, but without reducing the decision-making authority of other stakeholders, will help to fast-track the approval process.

The third point of contention concerns the assessment criteria used for new products. Under current legislation, pesticides that are potentially carcinogenic (able to cause cancer), mutagenic (capable of altering DNA) or teratogenic (able to cause birth defects) cannot be approved. Products that cause hormonal disorders are also forbidden. This is known as a hazard-based approach. The bill now before Congress would replace hazard-based with risk-based assessments, which take account of not only the potential toxicity of a product but also the methods of application, climate conditions during application, the amount of exposure to the pesticide, among others factors.

“Assessing products based on actual exposure to risk is a less dogmatic and a more science-based approach,” says Minaré of the CNA. Edivaldo Velini, of UNESP, concurs. “Shifting from hazard-based to risk-based assessments will align Brazil’s legislation with international technical, scientific, and regulatory standards,” he says.

Not everyone agrees, however. “If the regulatory changes are implemented, what little is left of the precautionary principle will be gone,” says geographer Larissa Mies Bombardi, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH) at USP. “It is unacceptable that substances posing these hazards [carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, and teratogenicity] should be marketed in Brazil. If the bill passes Congress, those most adversely affected will be, by order of impact: farm workers, communities surrounding farms where pesticides are used intensively, and the general public.”

Bombardi argues that if the aim of the bill is to modernize Brazil’s legislation, then it would be important for product safety to be periodically reevaluated. “In the US, pesticides are reevaluated after 15 years and in the European Union after 10 years. But in Brazil, products are registered indefinitely,” says Bombardi, author of an atlas titled Geografia do uso de agrotóxicos no Brasil e conexões com a União Europeia (Geography of pesticide use in Brazil and links to the European Union), published in 2017.

Automatic registration
Lastly, there is also disagreement over the time allowed for the approval of pesticide products. Under the draft bill, products will be granted automatic temporary registration if the approval process has taken over 24 months without a final recommendation being made and the product has been approved in at least three countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of the 37 most developed nations in the world. “The conclusions from environmental risk assessments conducted in these countries are not necessarily transferable to environmental and product usage conditions in Brazil,” says Marisa Zerbetto, head of the Chemical Evaluation and Control Department at IBAMA.

A new product takes, on average, eight years to be approved and registered in Brazil. “In other countries where agriculture has a large weight in the economy, such as Australia, Argentina, and the US, new product approvals take about two years,” notes Silvia Fagnani, executive director of the National Union of Crop Protection Products (SINDIVEG), who supports automatic registration.

Marina Lacôrte of Greenpeace says temporary registration is wholly inadmissible: “With the limited resources they have today, government agencies will be unable to evaluate new molecules in such a short space of time.” According to Lacôrte, policymakers fail to appreciate that the effects pesticides have are irreversible. “And if a substance approved on that basis is later disapproved, what will happen to the people who have already been exposed to it?” she asks.

Marisa Zerbetto, of IBAMA, adds: “What is slowing products on their way to the market is limited staffing at IBAMA, ANVISA, and the Ministry of Agriculture to review applications. Altogether there are fewer than 50. In contrast, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has 600 staff dedicated to new product applications in Washington alone.”

The House committee’s approval of the bill has drawn international attention. UN special rapporteurs on issues such as human rights, hazardous substances, and the right to food sent a statement to the government expressing concern about the legislative changes. If approved, they warn, the changes will violate rights of rural workers, local communities, and people consuming foods produced using pesticides.

“The amendments would significantly weaken the criteria for approving the experimental and commercial use of pesticides, posing threats to a number of human rights,” said the UN rapporteurs. They also note that an alternative bill—PL No. 6670/16—establishing a National Policy for Pesticide Reduction (PNaRA), proposed two years previously by ABRASCO, received a lower level of priority by Congress (see the article about alternatives to pesticides).

Fact or myth?
But do Brazilian farmers really use pesticides excessively? Is Brazil truly a paradise for pesticide manufacturers? “We are the largest global market for phytosanitary products because we are one of the countries with the most arable land in the world,” explains José Otavio Menten, a crop scientist and engineer at ESALQ-USP. “But consumption in Brazil is much lower than in France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and other countries as a ratio of pesticide volume to crop area or crop production.”

A study by FCA-UNESP professors Edivaldo Velini and Caio Carbonari shows that Brazil ranks seventh for pesticide use per area of cropland and thirteenth for pesticide consumption per unit of crop production. Based on 2013 data from market research firm Phillips McDougall and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the paper compared Brazil with the world’s 20 top pesticide consumers.

Ricardo Azoury/Olhar Imagem Workers spraying pesticides on a sugarcane plantation in rural Rio de JaneiroRicardo Azoury/Olhar Imagem

Critics of the intensive use of pesticides argue that, however you look at it, Brazil is still among the leading consumers of pesticides and, to make matters worse, many pesticides sold in Brazil are banned in developed countries. “About 30% of the pesticides applied on crops in Brazil are banned in the European Union, including the insecticides atrazine and acephate, two of the most-used pesticides in Brazil,” says Larissa Bombardi of USP.

The use of pesticides that are banned elsewhere on Brazilian crops means that foods consumed in Brazil could be contaminated. Trade associations representing agribusiness and the pesticide industry deny this is happening. “The food we eat in Brazil is safe and high-quality,” says Reginaldo Minaré of CNA. “Pesticides protect crops and ensure that food gets to the market in sufficient quantity and in healthy condition,” adds Silvia Fagnani of SINDIVEG.

Last year, fruits and vegetables sold at distribution centers in São Paulo and Brasília tested positive for residual pesticides. The tests were commissioned by Greenpeace from the Pesticide Residue Laboratory at the São Paulo Biological Institute. Of the 50 samples tested, 13 had pesticides not allowed for that crop and 15 had more than one type of pesticide. “Nobody knows what effect different molecules combined will have on the human body,” says biologist Amir Bertoni Gebara, head of the laboratory where the testing was done.

Environmentalists also criticize the highly permissive maximum residue limit (MRL) for pesticides in food and drinking water under Brazilian regulations. As its name suggests, MRL is the amount of residual pesticides allowed in food and water. “The lower the limit, the more stringent the regulations in a given country. And Brazil’s are not stringent at all,” says Bombardi. The bill before Congress is silent on this issue. According to the researcher, the MRL for glyphosate on soy in Brazil is 200 times higher than in the European Union, and even higher—5 thousand times—for drinking water:

Glyphosate is a herbicide used as a chemical defoliant on transgenic soybean crops, and is the most widely used pesticide in Brazil and globally. But the substance has seen increased scrutiny from authorities. In early August, a federal court in Brazil’s Federal District issued an injunction suspending product approval in Brazil pending completion of ANVISA’s toxicological reassessment, which has been dragging on since 2008. At the beginning of September, however, the injunction was reversed. In France and California, pressures are mounting to ban the product. The World Health Organization (WHO) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015, but retracted this classification the following year.

Recently, Monsanto—one of the world’s biggest pesticide corporations and owner of glyphosate-based herbicide brand Roundup—was sued in a US court over the link between cancer and its glyphosate product. The jury found that Dewayne Johnson, a groundskeeper and pest-control manager at a Northern California school district, had contracted cancer directly in connection with his use of the herbicide. The company was ordered to pay US$289 million in damages.

This was the first lawsuit to allege a link between glyphosate and cancer—another 5,000 similar suits are now pending before US courts. Monsanto in a statement said, “today’s decision does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews indicate that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer.”

Globalized agriculture and the dialectics of pesticide use in Brazil and in the European Union: differences, constraints and impacts of Brazilian commodities on the European market (no. 16/05506-8); Grant Mechanism Research Grant; Principal Investigator Larissa Mies Bombardi; Investment R$109,197.50.

Bombardi, L. M. Geografia do uso de agrotóxicos no Brasil e conexões com a União Europeia. São Paulo: Laboratório de Geografia Agrária – FFLCH-USP, 2017.