Pesticides in Agriculture

Every country in the world is turning organic, including Bangladesh. All except India where, in spite of groups of determined NGOs, the government persists in foisting chemicals onto farmers and giving them misleading information. We are the only country who has not joined the Stockholm Treaty. Our entire agriculture is run by chemical companies, multinationals and corrupt politicians and it doesn’t matter how many farmers commit suicide, how many go bankrupt, how many enter hospitals every day with cancer. It doesn’t matter how little our water is – because chemically sprayed crops need more water – or that we do not have the electricity to lift this water to the fields. It doesn’t matter that the children of the people who continue to allow chemicals on the land, also eat poisonous food every day and that our health problems due to these chemical laden foods are truly staggering. I once asked a business who owned one of the large insecticide plants in the country why he continued to
produce his poison when he know that it had no impact on pests , just on humans , birds and other animals. It gives employment, he said. That is the tragic answer that every bureaucrat and politician, every third rate scientist, gives. And when I argue that drug smuggling and prostitution, thuggery and terrorism give far more employment so they should be encouraged as well, they simply look away. The point is that a Monsanto sends their children to tennis schools in America and pays for their retirement benefits. Everyone knows that 5 years after 1958 when we started using DDT to control mosquitoes, they were completely resistant. In 2004 we continue to buy DDT from chemical companies, long after the world has abandoned it.

Here is an amazing success story from China. It comes in the light of all the crop failures that India continues to have and the money we spend on thousands of scientists to “discover” yet another chemical combination. How many cotton crop farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh? How many of these were due to the enormous debts they had piled up by buying chemicals, water and electricity – only to have all their efforts destroyed by pests.

Worldwide, about a million people are directly poisoned by pesticides each year. The risks are greatest in developing countries where 99% of the deaths caused by agricultural chemicals occur. Many farmers cannot read the warning labels about careful use, because they do not know how to read or because the label is in a foreign language. The farmers may be totally unaware of the dangers of handling these chemicals. Often they don’t know that they should avoid reusing pesticide containers for food or water. And when they do understand the warnings, they often don’t have protective clothing or proper storage facilities.

The malaria story – an intensive pesticide campaign followed by new generations of pests who outlive any attempt to kill them – by now is a familiar one. It’s happened in efforts to wipe out insects that carry diseases, and it’s happened when farmers have tried to rid their fields of pests.

Nearly 25% of the world’s pesticides are used on cotton – in the United States nearly 50%. But despite this massive bombardment with chemicals, yields are declining in much of the world. In the United States, cotton growers have given up vast acreage of cotton when pesticides became too costly and ineffective. With chemical dependence, shrinking yields, and decreasing income from crops, the cotton picture is a grim one for the US, China- which is the world’s largest producer- and India.

Cotton is the chief crop in Hubei Province. People who work in the cotton fields of Hubei Province once relied solely on pesticides. But even as they spent more and more money on them, they saw their harvests dwindle, and sickness increase. One of the chemicals, parathion, was used heavily on cotton and food crops. Parathion killed more than fifty farm workers who have handled it. By drifting through the air or collecting in groundwater, it has poisoned many more people. India continues to use it.

Nearly two thousand years ago, in the orange groves of China, farmers came up with a new way to do battle with insect pests. Beetles, mites, and stinkbugs plagued their trees. Farmers would release ants among the trees, and the ants would dine on the uninvited guests. The farmers knew which species of ants to use – how to breed the ants – and the ideal time of year to put them to work. Dr. Zhao Jingzhao, President of the University of Hubei, has renewed the use of this ancient technique.

The main cotton pest in China as everywhere is the boll weevil .Fifteen years ago Zhao found that spiders were the best answer. He conducted a nationwide survey analyzing the range of different spiders active in cotton fields. Rice paddies, fruit trees and corn fields were also studied. In looking for natural predators to control cotton pests, Dr. Zhao found 600 predators, more than 100 were varieties of spiders.

After Dr. Zhao and his colleagues selected the best spider for the given region they faced the challenge of finding ways to maintain the spider population. Spiders cannot be bred in captivity as they eat each other.

So, in Hubei Province, cotton is planted after the wheat harvest. During the harvest, and in the winter, they dug shallow holes and filled them with grass and also put grass among the branches of plants. The spiders stay in these grassy areas and when the cotton bloomed, they came out and ate the pests. A truly simple and inexpensive method.

Zhao started training farmers to identify the spider. By setting the spiders loose in their fields, the farmers found their crop yields increased. They have cut down on chemical use by 80%. One difficult associated with integrated pest management was the cost of providing a continuous diet for the predators, when supplies of pests fall. Tide-over artificial diets for beneficial insects need to be provided. Dr. Zhao spent several years developing such a diet for spiders. He tried dozens of ingredients before he found a combination that worked. The ingredients are simple – egg, honey, and sugar, several vitamins and enzymes, milk powder, and water.

Zhao encourages farmers to think of a farm, not as a short-term factory that produces a single annual product, but rather as part of a diverse ecosystem that has to be there for the long haul. He stresses the importance of planting a variety of crops rather than just one, that it is crucial to preserve and use a variety of seeds, and that it’s the ecologically healthy, balanced agricultural system that works.

Farmers in other parts of the China, inspired by Zhao’s success, are applying integrated pest management to cotton and to other crops as well. Zhao’s discovery of a successful natural means of controlling the boll weevil, a centuries’ old problem, can now benefit cotton growers not only in China, but India as well. Cotton farmers throughout Hubei now use fewer pesticides, yet produce bigger crops. Their standard of living is improving. They now spend less money on pesticides and make more from their crops, and they have fewer health problems. The United States is now consulting with Zhao and his colleagues for their own pest management for cotton. Why doesn't our government invite them here to work with us?

Maneka Gandhi

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*