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Brazil’s pesticide poisoning problem poses global dilemma, say critics

Franciana Rodrigues de Araus, 30, mother of 7 children, with another on the way. She became critically ill in April after pesticides rained down on her from a plane spraying neighboring soy fields. Image by Thomas Bauer.

This is the third in a series by journalist Anna Sophie Gross who traveled to the Brazilian states of Tocantins and Maranhão in Legal Amazonia in May for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.

TOCANTINS, Brazil — In April, Franciana Rodrigues de Araus, who was then 5 months pregnant, left home on her brother’s motorbike. As she sped away from her community, bordered by two large soy farms, a plane flew directly overhead and rained pesticides down over her exposed body. Immediately, her legs started aching; she felt sick and dizzy. As her condition worsened, Franciana was driven to a local hospital where blood tests revealed pesticide poisoning.

Rushed 5 hours further away to a second hospital in the Tocantins state capital of Araguaína, she was admitted for 7 days. “I couldn’t breathe, I almost died,” Franciana recalled. “I’m still taking antibiotics, one month later, which I shouldn’t be, because I’m pregnant,” she told Mongabay in an interview in May. At the time, her doctor warned that she had extremely high blood pressure, suffered from a kidney infection, and that her baby would require a caesarean due to Franciana’s breathlessness.

“If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet I would have been done for,” she said.

The soy farmer who owns the land on which the pesticides were sprayed visited Franciana shortly after she entered the hospital. He offered to pay her medical costs and for her food over the months leading up to the baby’s birth; in exchange, he asked for silence, that she not report the incident to police.

Pesticides being sprayed by tractor onto soy fields. In 2016, 4,208 cases of intoxication by exposure to pesticides were registered across Brazil – the equivalent of 11 per day (killing 355 people). Image by Thomas Bauer.

Franciana’s experience is not unusual. At the end of July, Human Rights Watch released a 52-page report documenting cases of acute intoxication caused by pesticide drift in seven locations across rural Brazil.

The Human Rights Watch report, entitled “You don’t want to breathe pesticides anymore,” tells how rural residents live in fear of reporting pesticide poisonings, and stay silent rather than advocate for protective regulations assuring the safe use of these toxic substances. They worry that they will be subjected to reprisals from large landowners who possess significant political and economic clout.

Franciana, for one, did not report her incident for fear of losing the small amount of financial aid the landowner had offered her.

While Franciana’s problem may seem solely Brazil’s own, the fact that this Latin American nation exports vast amounts of sprayed fruit, vegetables and coffee, along with meat fattened on pesticide-laden soy, should give consumers the world over pause.

The boom in Brazilian pesticide use

There are a variety of social concerns involved with tilling Brazilian fields, but the most insidious by far is pesticide intoxication. In 2016, 4,208 cases of intoxication by exposure to pesticides were registered across the nation – the equivalent of 11 per day (killing 355 people). Tocantins is the state with the highest levels of poisoning caused by agricultural pesticide use, according to data from the Notification of Injury Information System (SINAN).

Despite this clear and present danger, the issue of pesticide use in Brazil is highly divisive, with the politically powerful agricultural sector on one side, pushing for greater deregulation, and environmental and social NGOs and academics on the other side, demanding a more rigorous, precautionary approach to legislation. Activists often lead off their arguments by pointing to a long list of herbicides and insecticides that are legal and liberally used in Brazil, but which have been found to be carcinogenic or otherwise hazardous to health and banned in the EU and United States.

Brazil today is one of the most voracious consumers of pesticides in the world, second only to the U.S., and is the largest user in the developing world, spending $9.6 billion on agricultural toxins annually as of 2015.

At present, there are 150 pesticides authorized for use in Brazil on the soy crop alone, 35 of which are outlawed in Europe, according to University of Sao Paulo (USP) professor Larissa Bombardi.

Among those considered most dangerous and used widely on Brazilian farms are Acephate, Atrazine, Carbendazim and Lactofen; all four substances are banned in Europe.

Acephate can cause negative cardiac responses, central nervous system impairment, eye and gastrointestinal problems, and death due to respiratory failure, according to researchers at Cornell University in New York state. Last year, it was banned in China.

Atrazine can have damaging effects on hormones and reproductive systems, and is believed to be carcinogenic, according to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), while Carbendazim is also believed to be a carcinogen, contributing to genetic defects and infertility.

Silvia Fagnani, Executive Director of the National Syndicate for the Vegetation Defence Industry (Sindiveg), a powerful pesticide lobby group, defends the disparity between EU and Brazilian regulations, saying, “products used here [in Brazil] may not be necessary in countries whose harsh winter – often with snow – naturally reduces pests and their damage.”

Academics and environmentalists see the disparity differently: “Brazil is more negligent [than other countries] because it still has a very fragile democracy compared to European countries,” said Victor Palaez, a Professor in the Department of Economics at Paraná Federal University, and Coordinator of the Observatory on the Agrochemical Industry. Government “institutions are more engaged with private interests than public interests,” he added.

Various agrochemicals to be mixed and applied to the soy crop. Pesticides are rarely applied one at a time, but rather in toxic combinations whose interactions on people and the environment are largely unstudied. Image by Thomas Bauer.

Changing the law

The argument over pesticide safety and regulation has been fought in the Brazilian legislature for decades, but now seems about to come to a head. An amendment now before the Congress (6.299/2002), dubbed ‘The Poison Bill’ by critics, would change Brazil’s 1989 pesticide rules in several key ways, and grant concessions for which the pesticide industry has lobbied for years.

If the bill is passed, future approval of new pesticides would be based not on their inherent toxicity or the risk of a particular substance, but instead on dose (a model rejected by the EU in 2011). Also, pesticides would be licensed for an unlimited period without review to evaluate new scientific evidence. The U.S. requires a review every 15 years, while the UK has a 10-year review period. Further, the bill calls for the streamlining of the pesticide approval process, placing final decision-making responsibility with the agriculture ministry alone, taking away all oversight from the health and environment ministries.

Sindiveg’s Silvia Fagnani asserts a need to amend the existing law in order to “modernize” the sector. “It is important to clarify that this amendment does not exclude scientific rigor and transparency in the registration process, which is essential for the safety and development of national industry,” she said. “It came from the need to modernize current legislation to bring even more technology to the field, ensuring more innovation, efficiency, investment and progress in Brazilian crops, and more food at the Brazilian table.”

Rows of soy, as far as the eye can see. Brazil is the second largest user of chemical pesticides in the world, after the United States. Industrial agribusiness relies heavily on their application to achieve high production rates. Image by Thomas Bauer.

The so-called Poison Bill is supported by the powerful ruralist agribusiness political bloc, whose chief proponent is Minister of Agriculture, Blairo Maggi, once known as the Soy King, and an unabashed industrial agribusiness advocate and former governor of Mato Grosso state. Maggi is also the person who authored the original 2002 pesticide bill amendment that congress is pushing forward today.

On 25 June, a special congressional committee comprised of 26 deputies – including 20 members of the Parliamentary Agriculture Front (FPA) – approved the bill’s wording, which now must be voted on by the house of deputies and senate, and if passed, approved by the president.

ANVISA, Brazil’s federal health protection agency, has firmly stated its opposition to the bill, as have a long list of governmental organizations, NGOs, academics and lawyers.

Pesticides being applied on soy field. A bill now moving through congress would ease Brazil’s current pesticide regulations. Image by Thomas Bauer.

Professor Palaez is clear in his criticism of the amendment. He agrees that the current approval process for new pesticides is unacceptably slow, noting that there are 2,500 chemical toxins currently waiting evaluation. However, he believes this is caused not by incompetence, but by a dire lack of staff and funding – implementation support never given to the original 1989 law. While the U.S. employs 650 technicians to evaluate new pesticides, Brazil has just 67 similarly assigned.

Palaez also points out that in many developed countries the funding needed to test and approve pesticides is obtained by imposing high product registration fees on the private companies who will sell the products. But unlike the U.S., registration fees charged by Brazilian agencies are not passed onto the regulatory agencies, he says.

“We all know that in this country resources are systematically redirected to the central government’s emergency spending,” Palaez said. “This prevents the construction of a coherent and consistent public policy for capturing and utilizing the resources of, and for, the companies directly benefiting from activities which pose a risk.”

Antonio Luis da Silva Oliveira, 40, a victim of pesticide poisoning. Image by Thomas Bauer.

Perils of pesticides extend from farm to plate

Antonio Luis worked on a soy farm in Maranhao state, in northern Brazil, where he prepared pesticides for use. In 2009, when his protective mask stopped working properly, he alerted his manager to the trouble, but was told to get back to work and stop complaining.

Three days later, Luis collapsed. A year later he suffered a stroke. His doctor confirmed that Luis had pesticide poisoning.

As is typical, the toxic brew Luis mixed up each morning consisted of not just one pesticide, but several; in this case, a blend of Zap, 2,4-D and Cobra. Zap is a trade name for glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, the world’s most commonly used, but a highly controversial herbicide linked to human and animal health problems, and to declines in biodiversity.

Glyphosate remains legal in most nations, though moves to ban it or limit its use are underway in numerous countries and communities. However, the maximum glyphosate residues permitted on food for consumption are drastically higher in Brazil than they are in Europe; 10 times higher on coffee, 20 times higher on sugarcane, and 200 times higher on soy. In August, it was reported that over 80 percent of breast milk samples examined in a recent study in Urucui, Brazil, contained agro-toxins, especially glyphosate. Also in August, a Brazilian judge suspended the use of products containing glyphosate until the government reevaluates their toxicology. Agribusiness groups have already announced they will appeal.

Cobra is a brand name for Lactofen, an EU banned substance used legally across Brazil. In 2008, after extensive pressure applied by NGOs and academics, ANVISA began reassessing its use. Eight years later, in 2016, the agency ruled that Cobra could stay on the market without alterations. That finding isn’t surprising to critics of Brazil’s pesticide assessment process. According to ANVISA’s latest report, only eleven pesticides have been banned in Brazil since 2006, despite dozens of chemical pesticides having been banned in the EU, U.S. and other nations as new scientific evidence of harm came forward.

The danger these pesticides present doesn’t only put farm laborers ­at risk – after spraying, many chemical pesticides remain extremely persistent in the environment and in the food we eat.

Screenings by regulators show that a significant portion of food grown and sold in Brazil violates national residue regulations (limits far more lax than those set in the EU). ANVISA’s latest analysis of pesticide residue in foods across Brazil found that of 9,680 samples collected between 2013 and 2015 ­– with testing done on crops ranging from rice, to apples to peppers – that 20 percent contained residues that either exceeded allowed levels or contained unapproved pesticides – that’s one fifth of the food examined.

Carbendazim (another pesticide banned in the EU) won the dubious award for highest detection levels in the ANVISA study, appearing in 21 percent of the food samples analyzed, while Acephate (also EU banned) was a close third.

Pesticides sprayed by plane across cotton fields in the Batavo region of Balsas in Maranhao state. Plane spraying has added health and environmental risks, as winds can unexpectedly shift pesticides to where they weren’t intended to go. Image by Thomas Bauer.

Following the pesticide supply chain

The top ten makers of pesticides sold in Brazil achieved $7.9 billion in sales last year with those firms cornering more than 83 percent of the Brazilian market. Many of these are transnational corporations, who legally manufacture pesticides in developed countries where the toxic chemicals are banned for use, while exporting them to developing nations, where they are legal.

Syngenta, Bayer and BASF are three examples. All are large European-based transnational companies; all produce pesticides which are considered highly hazardous – so hazardous in fact, they are banned in their countries of origin; but these firms also sell these chemicals in high quantities to Brazil and other developing nations.

Syngenta produces Atrazine and Paraquat – both EU banned, both sold in Brazil. Though ANVISA has deemed Paraquat to pose unacceptable health risks, and will ban it in Brazil from 2020 onward, Syngenta defends its continued sale. “It is a highly effective contact herbicide and ideal for sustainable agriculture, including no-till practice, [and is] a strong ally of farmers in land management, which reduces the [environmental] impact of agriculture and the use of agricultural machinery,” a Syngenta spokesperson said.

When contacted by Mongabay, Bayer conceded that it sells Carbendazim. BASF clarified that “BASF in Brazil” does not produce Atrazine, Paraquat, Acephate or Carbendazim, but it did not confirm whether or not it produces these substances in the EU or elsewhere and then sells them in Brazil.

The health and environmental threat that these pesticides pose does not only extend to farmworkers and Brazilian consumers. The crops on which these pesticides are liberally sprayed are also exported globally. Brazilian soy, citrus, grapes and coffee are all widely consumed in the EU and United States, while Brazilian soy is fed to Brazilian and EU livestock, including Britain’s poultry, which is then served up at McDonalds, and major supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons.

For this reason, ANVISA’s findings regarding pesticide residues in food raises serious concerns regarding Brazilian produce sold and consumed abroad. This is a question China may especially want to ask, as it considers shifting its major soy and beef purchases from the U.S. to Brazil due to Trump’s tariff-driven trade war. Brazilian growers use huge amounts of pesticide in soy production.

Last year, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF), an independent body which provides advice to the UK government, found concerning levels (above the legal limit) of the pesticide Carbofuran on limes imported from Brazil. The PRIF report stated that if the entire contaminated fruit was consumed, “people might experience transient signs of cholinergic toxicity (e.g. headache, stomach upset, salivation and reduced pupil response).”

Carbofuran has been banned in the UK since 2001 and was outlawed in the U.S. almost a decade ago for posing “an unacceptable dietary risk, especially to children, from consuming a combination of food and water with residues.” It was only banned in Brazil in the second half of last year, hence its recent appearance in limes in the UK.

“It is a double standard that the European Union is happy to import produce that is grown using pesticides that have been deemed unsafe to use in the EU as a result of human health or environmental harm concerns,” said Nick Mole, Policy Officer at Pesticide Action Network UK.

Wanderlei Pignatti, an academic and leading pesticide expert in Brazil, believes the Brazilian government must act urgently to tackle health and environmental problems caused by pesticides. “We need to see an immediate ban on substance spraying by plane, and for all substances banned in the European Union to be banned in Brazil,” he said. Clearly, this is an issue not only of import to Brazilian farmworkers, but to consumers of Brazilian fruit, vegetables and meat the world over.

Mongabay contributor Anna Sophie Gross was accompanied on her trip by Thomas Bauer, a photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting and supporting communities in the Cerrado and Amazon for over 20 years. He produced nearly all of the photos and videos for this series.

Correction: This story when originally published on 28 August incorrectly identified glyphosate as an “insecticide.” It is in fact an herbicide, and the text has been revised to reflect that fact.

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A Cargill facility in the Campos Lindos region of Tocantins state. Where this facility now stands, there was once an open plain growing thick with native plants, habitat for wildlife. Image by Thomas Bauer.