Despite government efforts to control pesticide misuse, farmers in Bangladesh continue to expose themselves and their communities to high health risks, experts say.
“Both farmers and the communities are at high risk of some serious health problems due to excessive and indiscriminate use of pesticides,” Shah Monir Hossain, a senior food safety adviser at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangladesh, told IRIN.
In June, 14 children died after eating or coming into contact with litchi fruit that had been grown with chemical pesticides in the northern district of Dinajpur, 280km northeast of the capital, Dhaka, local media reported.
“Consumers should be aware [of pesticides] so that they wash foods,” said Mahmudur Rahman, director of the government-affiliated Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) “One of the dangers of pesticides is their mixing with water and the spread of waterborne diseases”.
According to the Ministry of Health, some 873 people died as a result of pesticide poisoning in 2011. But experts said the number is higher than the official figure as most cases go unreported.
Athula Kahandaliyanage, director of the department of sustainable development and healthy environments at the World Health Organization (WHO) in New Delhi, warned that “the chronic pesticides poisoning can cause organ failure and increases the risk for various types of cancer.”
“Along with health risks, pesticides are also responsible for destroying fish, birds and many plants,” said Farida Akhter, director of the Dhaka-based Policy Research for Development Alternatives (UBINIG) an NGO advocating a ban on pesticides.
About 84 percent of the population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, making pesticide usage a multimillion dollar industry.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|A local vegetable seller prepares his produce for market|
A 2009 report published by the Department of Agricultural Extension on pesticide use said 89 percent of farmers used medium to strong chemical pesticides for vegetable cultivation.
Data from the Bangladesh Crop Protection Association show that in 2009, 45,172 tons of chemical pesticides were sold in the country against 15,632 in 2000 - an increase of almost 300 percent.
Production versus safety
Farmers say they use plenty of pesticide to boost production. “When we invest a good amount of money [in our harvest], we use a lot of pesticide to make sure that our crops are not affected by insects,” said Sankar Das, a farmer in Raban village in Narshingdi District, 50km northeast of Dhaka.
Das, who grows vegetables and pineapples, admits that most farmers avoid eating their own produce because of the “bad taste” which they attribute to pesticide usage. But according to Aminul Islam, another pineapple grower from the same village, pesticide vendors have convinced farmers that more pesticides mean more production without risk.
Both Islam and Das say they are unaware of the dangers of pesticides and do not take any protective measures when spraying.
“All farmers should be trained on safety measures of pesticide use,” said FAO’s Hossain. “There should be a strong food inspection system to avoid food-borne diseases.”
Training for safe pest management is provided by the Department of Agricultural Extension through the Integrated Pest Management project (IPM), initiated in the 1980s by FAO. In 2011, some 900,000 farmers received training, out of 12 million farming families in Bangladesh.
“Safe pest management should be promoted to avoid danger caused by pesticides,” says Akhter of UBINIG. “If farmers use good seeds and bring some changes in agricultural systems, pesticides will not be necessary.”