Why you should care
The South American nation is bucking a global trend.
Last year, the Brazilian National Cancer Institute expected to see about 600,000 new cases of cancer, now Brazil’s second biggest killer. That’s a 75 percent increase on such diagnoses since 2000.
Some of those cancers are likely linked to Brazil’s use of pesticides. But that’s not all: Birth defects are reported more often in Brazil’s agricultural areas, where pesticides are most used. And while other countries have made moves in recent years to restrict pesticide usage — reflecting their effects not only on humans but on essential animals like pollinating bees — Brazil is speeding in the other direction.
Last year, Brazil released 474 new pesticides, the highest number in 14 years.
Of these products, 52 entered the market within the first 100 days of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government. The pesticides are composed of 96 substances, 25 of which are considered extremely toxic to humans. Twenty-eight of the substances are forbidden in the European Union, and 30 are illegal in India.
Since 2013, Brazil has been thought to be the world’s biggest consumer of pesticides, but there are many ways to measure that. “In terms of sales value, Brazil is, by far, the leader of this ranking,” says Alan Tygel, coordinator of the Permanent Campaign Against Pesticides and for Life, an advocacy network composed of more than 100 Brazilian organizations standing up for agroecology in Brazil. “In terms of quantity, Brazil is probably also the champion, although there is no reliable data from the [United] States, its biggest ‘rival’ in the pesticide race.”
Bolsonaro has scoffed at the notion that such chemicals are poison, and said “it’s impossible to feed the world without pesticides.” While the formerly ruling Workers’ Party supported agribusinesses, Tygel says, they also paid attention to agroecology. Now that’s changed. “All the policies built to promote agroecology and family agriculture are being destroyed,” he says.
Outside of Brazil, the use of pesticides has declined slightly in recent years, according to U.N. data. In 2012, the worldwide average was 5.9 pounds of pesticide per acre of cropland, and in 2017 that was down to 5.7. At the end of the month, the EU’s ban of chlorpyrifos, which has been shown to harm developing human brains, will come into effect. But in Brazil, that political will doesn’t seem to exist.
“The idea is to convince the population that pesticides are not poison,” says Antonio Andrioli, professor of agroecology and sustainable rural development at the Federal University of the Southern Frontier in Paraná. He says schools and universities may soon be forbidden to use the term “agro-toxic” for pesticides and replace it with “phytosanitary defensive.” Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina argues that the release of new pesticides will benefit the environment, as they’re likely to be more efficient and thus used in smaller quantities.
Another contingent in favor of pesticides: agrochemical and pharmaceutical transnationals with interests in Brazil, like Bayer-Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta. Such companies, along with advocates for pesticide use, have long argued that chemicals are essential to produce enough food for humanity — and with agriculture largely blamed for unprecedented clearing of the rainforest, land yield could be a key concern in years to come. But the companies’ motives aren’t pure either, says Andrioli: “Farmers have become dependent on these companies thanks to the consolidation of transgenic seeds, which are directly tied to the use of pesticides.”
The environmental consequences of pesticides can be especially hard on those who live near farms, especially the country’s indigenous populations.
“We currently hear from indigenous tribes who had their water poisoned with pesticides. It works as a ‘warning’ for them to leave their land,” says Tygel. “Pesticides are used as a chemical weapon.” Last month, Tygel’s organization completed a dossier on agrochemicals that found the water of one in every four Brazilian municipalities has been contaminated by 27 pesticides, 16 of which are considered extremely toxic by the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA). The dossier also reveals the Brazilian limits for pesticide residues in the water are up to 5,000 times higher than in Europe.
Producing such work can have consequences. Monica Ferreira, an immunologist at the University of São Paulo, published research in August at the request of Brazil’s health ministry that found 10 of the most common pesticides are harmful to humans even in small quantities. Afterward, she says the ministry discredited her work and that she saw professional repercussions.
“I was told I am no longer the director of the lab I have run for three years. They claim that I have done ‘independent research’ and been ‘insubordinate,’ which is not true. I was just answering a research request by the Health Ministry,” says Ferreira.
In the future, Ferreira plans to study Brazil’s water, which she says is currently a “toxic cocktail” of pesticides.
“Data released by ANVISA, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health shows the presence of pesticides in the water and food, including unauthorized pesticides,” she says. Last month, an ANVISA report found that such foods weren’t presenting “chronic risks” to consumers, but watchdogs have disputed their methods and findings. Meanwhile, a bill aiming to loosen the current law for pesticides, dubbed the “Poison Package” by opponents, is currently working its way through Congress.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil appears to be firmly on the pesticide train — whether its environment can take it or not. “If only 10 percent of the amount invested in pesticides during the last 60 years have been invested in agroecology,” Tygel says. “Brazil would be fully agroecological by now.”