- Brazil has been recognized as the world’s largest pesticide consumer since 2008, which has resulted in widespread application and in significant environmental contamination. Since then there has been an explosion of new pesticide registrations, first under President Michel Temer, now under Jair Bolsonaro.
- While research is scant, evidence points toward pesticide harm to Brazil’s wildlife, including the death of 500 million bees in four Brazilian states between December 2018 and February 2019. Another report found that 40 percent of samples collected from 116 tapirs were contaminated with insecticides, herbicides and heavy metals.
- High concentrations of the insecticide carbamate aldicarb were detected in 10 of 26 stomach content samples. Because the animals much prefer native vegetation to crops, this suggests that aerial spraying — with residue carried by wind — may be resulting in the spread of the pesticide from croplands into unsprayed natural areas.
- The Bolsonaro administration and bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress are moving rapidly to deregulate pesticides, especially pushing for passage of amendment 6299/2002, dubbed “The Poison Bill” by critics. It would transfer pesticide regulation to the Agriculture Ministry, a move that analysts decry as a serious conflict of interest.
The number and rate of pesticides registered for use in Brazil rose rapidly in the first year of the Bolsonaro government. In 2019, 474 new products were approved, the highest rate since the Ministry of Agriculture (MAPA) started documenting the registrations, in 2005.
The explosion of pesticide approvals arrived during Michel Temer’s presidency in 2016, when the ruralist agribusiness lobby gained great influence within his administration. In that year the number jumped to 277 registrations, compared to 91 in 2005, for example. In 2017, a total of 405 pesticides were approved, and in 2018, another 451, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture (MAPA).
According to a survey by the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, of the 96 active ingredients that make up the pesticides released this year up to September, 28 are not available or registered in the European Union (29 percent) and 36 are not available in Australia (37 percent). Among the active ingredients approved this year in Brazil is dinotefuram, an insecticide classified as extremely toxic. It is not registered in the European Union, but it is marketed in the United States.
Generic pesticides represent the majority of approvals so far under Bolsonaro. According to MAPA, the purpose of their approval is to lower the price of the products, which in turn lowers the cost of production. In Mato Grosso, the largest producing state, pesticides account for 22 percent of the spending on the soybean crop.
Last year, Brazilian agriculture used 549,200 tons of pesticides, according to IBAMA, the nation’s environmental agency. Of that total, 195,000 tons were glyphosate, more commonly known as the herbicide Roundup, produced by Bayer/Monsanto. The herbicide was banned in Austria this year and will be banned in Germany in 2023.
Last February, Brazil reached a controversial conclusion. After completing a toxicological re-evaluation of the product, Brazilian regulators said that the glyphosate, while it presents “a greater risk to workers working with crops and to people living near [agricultural] areas,” it does not harm those who consume products treated with the herbicide in acceptable doses.
Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in Brazil, but is classified by the World Health Organization’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as category 2, or “probably carcinogenic in humans.” At the end of March, a U.S. federal court awarded an $80 million settlement to a man who said that Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup had caused his cancer, in what the judge described as a “bellwether” case.
Pesticide harm to wildlife
While the approval of pesticides in Brazil has far outstripped the ability of scientists to study their impacts on Brazil’s people, habitats and wildlife, there is disturbing evidence that is raising red flags.
Exposure to pesticides containing neonicotinoids and fipronil caused the deaths of more than 500 million bees in four Brazilian states between December 2018 and February 2019, according to an investigation by Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil.
A technical report released earlier this year revealed that 40 percent of Brazilian tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) in the Cerrado savanna region of Mato Grosso do Sul state suffer from a variety of types of pesticide contamination. That state is a locale for booming agribusiness plantations producing huge amounts of soy, corn, and sugarcane.
The research, carried out over a two year period between 2015 and 2017 in a 2,200 square kilometer (849 square mile) area in the municipalities of Nova Alvorada do Sul and Nova Andradina was conducted by the National Initiative for the Brazilian Tapir Conservation (INCAB) of the Institute of Ecological Research (Ipê).
Scientists found that 40 percent of the 242 samples collected from 116 live and dead tapirs (killed by road accidents within the study area) were contaminated with residues of 13 toxic products — including nine insecticides and herbicides, plus four heavy metals used in formulations for agricultural soil correction and for other purposes.
Toxic residues were found on the animals’ paw pads, within the proboscis (snout), stomach, liver, blood, bone and nails. According to researchers, the detection of these agents indicates that the tapirs are being exposed to toxic substances via direct contact with contaminated plants, soil and water.
“In normal conditions, the tapir does not usually leave its natural habitat, usually an area covering about 500 hectares (1.9 square miles). Since the Cerrado no longer has large areas of [native] vegetation due to deforestation, the mammal needs to travel… and cross plantations to look for food,” Patrícia Medici, coordinator of INCAB/Ipê told Mongabay.
Tapirs prefer to eat native plant leaves and fruits, but in the absence of their normal diet, they will sometimes eat soy and corn — though they greatly prefer not to. “So much so that of the 33 tapirs evaluated by autopsy, only three [showed proof of] ingestion of items from agricultural crops,” said the study’s lead researcher.
However, high concentrations of the insecticide carbamate aldicarb a Union Carbide product, were detected in 10 of the 26 stomach content samples (with a concentration between 5.32 to 15.17 mg/g). This suggests that the tapirs are getting contaminated via the consumption of native vegetation, likely due to carelessly aerially applied pesticides that fall not on croplands but in natural areas.
Interestingly, aldicarb, which is very toxic to animals and people, has been prohibited in Brazil since 2012. “That product… continues to enter the country via smuggling,” said Medici.
Immunological tests also found that 90 percent of the tapirs presented significant macroscopic alterations in the liver and/or kidneys, and 60 percent showed alterations in the stomach mucosa, such as ulcers and hyperemia (an excess of blood in the vessels supplying an organ or other part of the body).
“Those changes may be due to a variety of pathological and/or physiological processes, and an in-depth investigation of potential factors involved and possible differential diagnoses would be highly recommended,” said the researchers. “However, the liver and kidneys are the organs responsible for the metabolism of most of the toxic substances detected in the study, and the hypothesis that acute and/or chronic exposure to pesticides and heavy metals may be related to such alterations should be considered.”
“The tapirs in the Cerrado region live with high levels of stress due to constant threats, including deforestation, fires, lack of food, contamination, as well as being hunted and run over on the road,” said Medici.
The problem with aerial spraying
The most widely used pesticide application technique in Mato Grosso do Sul is aerial spraying. That method is also most related to environmental contamination, with wind easily causing toxins to drift away from agribusiness lands and out over native vegetation.
In November 2017, 48 airplanes were cited for criminal practices involving irregular spraying in Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso and Paraná — all major agricultural states. One common infraction cited by the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC): the spraying of pesticides prohibited by law.
“The pesticides problem is widespread, with toxic substances now present in the water, soil and air. In the case of the study region, the tapir acts as a ‘sentinel animal,’ as a warning sign of what is occurring in the environment,” said the Ipê scientist. Clearly, if these animals are contaminated, it is probable that people who live where these pesticides are used, and those who consume sprayed crops, may also be in danger.
The tapir technical study readied last spring is still awaiting a response for publication from a scientific journal.
When questioned about the presence of aldicarb in tapir stomach samples, the Ministry of Agriculture (MAPA) told Mongabay via email that it could not comment because “environmental monitoring of pesticides is the responsibility of [the Ministry] of Environment.” They added that, “We would like to have access to the chromatogram results of the laboratory analysis and of the methodology used by the laboratory where the research was carried out. Only after a technical study of the specific life conditions of the animals can the origin of the residues detected be concluded.”
According to MAPA, Aldicarb, manufactured by Bayer S/A, saw its Brazilian registration canceled in 2012, when it was withdrawn from the Brazilian market. “Until then, the product was sold only to registered producers and certified farms for potato, coffee, sugar cane, and citrus [application] in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais and São Paulo.”
Brazil’s push to deregulate pesticides
Explosive agribusiness growth in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in Brazil achieving a dubious record by 2008, when it became the largest pesticide consumer in the world, according to a Kleffmann Group study commissioned by the National Association of Plant Defense (Andef), representing Brazil’s pesticide manufacturers.
According to IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, and other data, chemical pesticide active ingredient sales grew countrywide by 313 percent between 2000 and 2014, rising from 162,461 tons to 508,566 tons. São Paulo, Mato Grosso and Paraná became the major trading states over that period, though other states, including many in Amazonia, saw use escalate too.
Today, the Bolsonaro administration and the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress are pushing for the passage of amendment 6299/2002, dubbed “The Poison Bill” by critics. That bill is currently under active consideration in the federal House of Deputies. The legislation would remove two authorities, ANVISA (Brazil’s health protection agency) and IBAMA, from the process of analyzing and licensing pesticides. And it would transfer that regulation to the Agriculture Ministry, already responsible for the authorization of the sale of these products.
Environmentalists strongly oppose the shift in regulatory responsibility, seeing it is a significant conflict of interest. “PL 6299 is ready to be voted on in the House at any moment, but even without the ‘Poison Bill’ the Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina is managing to release new pesticides at an astounding speed and to dismantle ANVISA and IBAMA,” Marina Lacôrte told Mongabay. She is a specialist on agriculture and food at Greenpeace.
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Leia a matéria em português aqui.