Originally published in the Ecologist by Georgina Downs.

The UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome has launched a new report examining the impact of chemical intensive, industrial food system on human health. GEORGINA DOWNS responds.

A major new report on the damage to human health from existing industrial and chemical-intensive conventional food and farming systems was launched today by the UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome.

The report, entitled Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power relations to build healthier food systems, is authored by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) – an independent panel of food system experts – and was commissioned by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

Exposure to pesticides

It outlines the unacceptable harm caused by our current food systems, exposes just some of the astronomical health costs externalized by the current food system and finds an urgent and “overwhelming case for action”.1

The report states: “The health impacts generated by food systems are severe, widespread, and closely linked to industrial food and farming practices,” adding, “an urgent case for reforming food and farming systems can be made on the grounds of protecting human health.”

The report points out that the complexity of health impacts in food systems is real and challenging, but “cannot be an excuse for inaction,” and that a truly healthy food system will take as its starting point a preventative, precautionary approach, triggering a shift from a system that results in harm to a system that is based on prevention and health promotion.

The report recognises that exposure to pesticides, including Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)2 3 4 – chemicals that interfere with hormonal systems and which are ubiquitous in food systems – has been clearly linked to a number of chronic long-term health effects including neurotoxic impacts, developmental impacts, as well as increased rates of cancers.

The report points out that exposure to such harmful chemicals in existing food systems poses one of the greatest challenges for public health, as the risks of long-term exposure to pesticides clearly extend beyond the farm.

Health scandals

The IPES-FOOD report also highlights exposure to other airborne substances used in conventional farming eg. nitrate and phosphorus pollution arising from chemical fertilizer use and feedlot runoff which the report states has been identified as a major health risk in agricultural areas and beyond.

The fact that the report found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers – are linked to industrial food and farming practices, including chemical-intensive agriculture, comes as no surprise to those of us in the direct firing line from living near to regularly sprayed crops.

Rural residents have long reported – for many decades – the health damage occurring in their communities as a result of the existing chemical reliant conventional farming system.

Whilst operators will be in filtered cabs and/or have personal protective equipment when using pesticides, rural residents and communities around the world have no protection at all.

The fact the chemical poisoning of innocent rural communities was ever permitted in the first place – let alone to continue for over three quarters of a century with no action – is without a doubt one of the biggest public health scandals of any time.

Untested, unregulated

The agricultural sector is by far and away the largest user of pesticides, and in the UK alone approximately 80 percent of pesticides used each year is related to agricultural use.

The latest UK Government statistics show that in 2014 the total area treated with pesticides on agricultural and horticultural crops was 80,107,993 hectares, with the total weight applied being 17,757,242 kg.This does not include chemical fertilisers and all the other agro chemicals used in conventional farming.

The reality of this widespread pesticide use on crops has never been properly assessed in any policy either here in the UK or indeed in any country around the world.

Professor Ian Boyd, a key scientific advisor to the UK Government, has in recent weeks issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach used around the world for pesticides sprayed on crops saying that it ignored the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes”, and thus the assumption by regulators globally that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change.

The existing chemical conventional farming system has been an untested, unregulated, and unlawful experiment with human health and the environment for which untold damage has already taken place, as it has resulted in thousands of rural residents suffering devastating, even fatal, consequences on their health and lives.

Power relations

The IPES-Food report finds that action to date has tended to focus only on mitigating specific environmental outcomes of agriculture (e.g., restricting the use of specific pesticides with proven harmful impacts on pollinators) without considering a more fundamental redesign, and without addressing the central role of industrial food and farming systems in driving environmental degradation and disrupting ecosystems.6

The report also finds that “as the industrial model is further entrenched, a narrow group of actors is able to exercise ever greater control over data provision and scientific research priorities, as well as continuing to shape the narratives and solutions.”

The report recognises that this generates “highly unequal power relations” which help to obscure the real social, health and environmental fallout of industrial food systems, leaving “the root causes of poor health unaddressed” and reinforcing “existing social-health inequalities premised on further industrialization.”

The report found that the existing unequal power relations means that those affected populations without power or voice are often exposed to the greatest health risks in food systems, meaning that these impacts often go unseen, undocumented and unaddressed, and that those most affected by the health impacts in food systems have become increasingly marginalized and that “this in turn makes people less attuned to the real costs of their food.”

Wildlife, pollinators

There is no better example of the unequal power relations than what is currently happening in the UK. It has been reported that the new DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, is in listening mode prior to the development of the UK agricultural bill and policy post BREXIT.

However, he has not met and listened to the most important voices to be heard – that being rural residents and communities who are the ones directly affected from the agricultural activities in the areas where we live and breathe.

This is despite the fact that in the last few months he has continued to meet with and listen to farmers, landowners, NGOs, business and industry interests including the National Farmers Union, amongst others.

The IPES-FOOD report on the damage to human health from existing industrial and chemical-intensive conventional food and farming systems follows on from a scathing report on agricultural pesticides in March by the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

This concluded that the agro-chemical industry has continued to falsely maintain that damage will be caused to agriculture and food production if pesticides are not used.

The UN report concluded that moving away from pesticide-reliant industrial agriculture to non-chemical farming methods should now be a political priority in all countries globally.

The new post Brexit UK agricultural bill provides a real opportunity for the UK to adopt such a non-chemical farming policy in order to no longer rely on toxic chemicals in the production of our food.

This would then protect not only the health of residents and other members of the public, but also the environment, wildlife, pollinators, other species, and biodiversity.

The origins of traditional farming methods did not include dependence on chemical inputs for mass production. Such poisons should never have had any place in the air we breathe, food we eat, and environment we live in.

This Author

Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for more than 33 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign which specifically represents rural residents affected by pesticides sprayed in the locality of residents’ homes, as well as schools, playgrounds, amongst other areas.

To sign Georgina’s petition to the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to ban all crop spraying of poisonous pesticides near residents’ homes, schools, and playgrounds, visit this website.