Courtney Marie Dowdall and Ryan J. Klotz: Pesticides and global health: Understanding agrochemical dependence and investing in sustainable solutions
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As our food system has become more globalized, international pressure for abundant, uniform food has increased while the instability of agriculture has remained. These global shifts bring with them the increased availability of agrochemical inputs—most notably fertilizers and pesticides. Such inputs offer the potential to improve yields, but also potential health threats to agricultural workers and consumers. Pesticides and Global Health examines the impacts of these agrochemicals using historical context, epidemiological research, and examples from their own ethnographic research in areas of rural Guatemala.
At the start of the book, Dowdall & Klotz refer to the liberalization of trade as “a double edged sword”. (14); it has opened market opportunities for global businesses, but increasing market saturation has raised quality standards for agricultural goods. This burden falls on farmers, and the international asymmetry of power encourages agrochemical dependence. The strongest aspect of their introduction is a discussion of the relaxed regulatory frameworks, lack of training, and infrequent use of protective equipment that often occurs with pesticide use in developing countries. These factors allow the import of pesticides that are closely regulated or banned in other countries, and an increased possibility of toxic exposure.
The authors also go beyond the frame of the immediate environmental health risks from agrochemicals. Structural adjustment policies and market liberalization in the 1990s led to “immiseration” (46)—reduced public sector spending that negatively impacted healthcare, education, and agricultural services. Guatemala has also experienced higher rates of poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition, which exacerbate inadequate medical service. These factors, along with a large number of “invisible” women and children workers, make the danger of pesticide exposure more difficult to address. Although government programs in Guatemala, such as the “Safe Pesticide Use” training program, showed moderate success, policies focusing solely on education were found to be largely inadequate through assessment studies.
Dowdall and Klotz frame these socioeconomic problems surrounding pesticide exposure as a series of “treadmills” drawing on their experiences with two Guatemalan producer groups: the organic coffee cooperative—Bella Vista, and the vegetable farmers association—Organic Producers of San Carlos (POSC). The authors argue that these treadmills are self-perpetuating and exert pressure on individuals’ actions. They go on to suggest potential market solutions to break the cycle of agrochemical dependence using both international assistance and community organizing. The authors mainly demonstrate that each geographic area will have unique needs-more than identify universal solutions, their research identifies tools of community involvement that can be employed in other regions.
Dowdall and Klotz use the Bella Vista cooperative to introduce the “treadmill of immediate needs” and “labor-time treadmill.” Many coffee farmers in Bella Vista had struggled with the conversion to organic coffee farming. The group voted to divide, forming grower options to accommodate either conventional (the use of agrochemicals) or organic (no agrochemicals). In order to successfully transition to organic, farming families needed to break both treadmills. This required adequate support to (1) delay immediate needs such as healthcare, family obligations, and financial demands, as well as (2) the presence of family labor to perform the extra work involved in organic farming. The authors present types of assistance provided for the members of Bella Vista to establish and continue their organic coffee farming. These structures included: training in organic techniques, donation of pest control and composting supplies, supplemental organic compost, and financing flexibility.
Even with this assistance cooperative member’s success in the organic transition was determined mainly by the presence of family labor and availability of off-farm employment, both of which enhance the flexibility of income. Although the offered supports make organic coffee more viable for some, Bella Vista’s struggle reflects the continued difficulty in overcoming larger social pressures. The Cooperative’s division over organic farming suggests that the supports it provides are not adequate to address the socioeconomic positions of all its members.
Through vegetable farmers in San Carlos the authors introduce two more social drivers—the “knowledge-dependence treadmill” and the “quality-preference treadmill”. The recent history of agriculture in this area is based on conventional farming methods. This leaves many farmers without the knowledge necessary to implement organic farming practices or safe pesticide use. This reduced pesticide awareness has also contributed to a local preference for the larger, more uniform vegetables that result from agrochemical inputs. To address the need for information among farmers and consumers, the community received help from a regional NGO. The POSC helped organize local farmers, and provide education and community supports. The greatest difference between this example and Bella Vista was greater involvement of community members. POSC looked to local farmers for program suggestions, and involved both men and women. The value of such outreach is one of the strongest messages from the book, as it reinforces a key tool of community health-community-based participatory research.
One of the authors’ final arguments is that education can only address part of the problem. The underlying social factors influencing the use of and exposure to pesticides become increasingly apparent as Dowdall and Klotz present potential solutions to agrochemical dependence. Additionally, this perspective acknowledges that this is not a “one-size fits all” problem. Although the authors present a number of solutions for the communities in which they worked, the book emphasizes the importance of community involvement to determine which supports will work for each particular community.
Dowdall & Klotz mention that a number of farmers in San Carlos had returned to subsistence farming. Beyond this they do not introduce any conversation on food sovereignty. If a desire for food independence exists among these farmers, structural assistance could also allow them to withdraw from the global trade system entirely, and would represent another route to break socioeconomic treadmills. This route could be a worthy course of study for future work. Pesticides and Global Health presents a well written example of two community based public health programs. The book would be well suited for readers with an interest in international health and sustainable agriculture, as well as health, humanities, or anthropology students at the graduate level.