It's time to put children's health before pesticides
Our children are growing up exposed to a toxic cocktail of weedkillers, insecticides, and fungicides. It’s on their food and in their water, and it’s even doused over their parks and playgrounds. Many governments insist that our standards of protection from these pesticides are strong enough. But as a scientist and a lawyer who specialises in chemicals and their potential impact on people’s fundamental rights, I beg to differ.
Last month it was revealed that in recommending that glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used pesticide – was safe, the EU’s food safety watchdog copied and pasted pages of a report directly from Monsanto, the pesticide’s manufacturer. Revelations like these are simply shocking.
Two weeks ago, some European countries blocked the attempt to give glyphosate a new 10-year licence. This decision is about much more than one pesticide. It’s a welcome sign that EU member states might be more vigilant in performing their duty to protect against corporate abuses of our human rights from exposure to toxic chemicals, including pesticides.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most ratified international human rights treaty in the world (only the US is not a party), makes it clear that states have an explicit obligation to protect children from exposure to toxic chemicals, from contaminated food and polluted water, and to ensure that every child can realise their right to the highest attainable standard of health. These and many other rights of the child are abused by the current pesticide regime.
Paediatricians have referred to childhood exposure to pesticides as creating a “silent pandemic” of disease and disability. Exposure in pregnancy and childhood is linked to birth defects, diabetes, and cancer. Because a child’s developing body is more sensitive to exposure than adults and takes in more of everything – relative to their size, children eat, breathe, and drink much more than adults – they are particularly vulnerable to these toxic chemicals. Increasing evidence shows that even at “low” doses of childhood exposure, irreversible health impacts can result. But, most victims cannot prove the cause of their disability or disease, limiting our ability to hold those responsible to account.
These chemicals are everywhere and they are invisible. The only way to protect citizens, especially those disproportionately at risk from exposure, is for governments to regulate them effectively, in large part by adhering to the highest standards of scientific integrity.
In light of revelations such as the copy-and-paste scandal, a careful reexamination of the performance of states is required. The overwhelming reliance of regulators on industry-funded studies, the exclusion of independent science from assessments, and the confidentiality of studies relied upon by authorities must change.
But the prevalence of misinformation goes even further. For far too long, the debates on pesticides have disproportionately focused on whether we can feed the world without them. As the current UN special rapporteur on food has clearly stated, the answer is that we can. According to her, the need for highly intensive pesticide use to feed the world is a myth. Solutions are available to produce healthier, more nutritious foods, while supporting smallholder farmers, increasing biodiversity, and building climate resilience. Our over-reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution, an addiction, that undermines the rights to safe and adequate food and health for present and future generations.
Will regulators continue to yield to this myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world? Will they continue to rely on industry promoted science? Or will they protect human rights, especially the rights of the child, by invoking the precautionary principle, given the considerable uncertainty at stake?
This week, when the European commission sits down to debate the future of pesticides again, let’s hope they remember their obligation to put our rights, and our children, first.
• Baskut Tuncak is the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes