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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Balancing progress and preservation: Rethinking pesticides for sustainable agriculture

On July 31, 2023, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu in his address to the nation promised as part of his food security agenda to provide 225,000 metric tons of fertiliser, seedlings and other inputs to committed farmers. To further ensure that stable food is available and affordable, President Tinubu ordered the release of 200,000 metric tons of grains to households across the 36 states.

Use of pesticide

This all sounds great. However, it will be better if implemented in a healthy, sustainable and environmentally conscious manner. There is a popular saying that “health is wealth”, and a “wealthy nation, is a healthy nation”. A person’s health and general well-being can largely be traced to the food they eat. Little wonder many say – we are what we eat. Poor nutrition crosses economic lines and leads to health problems caused by eating too little, eating too much, having an unbalanced diet that lacks essential nutrients for a healthy life, or worst of all eating foods poisoned with pollutants.

According to a recent report by NAFDAC, over 70% of Nigerian food grown by our farmers is rejected when exported for lots of safety reasons part of which is the presence of high pesticide residues especially those that are highly hazardous. One can hardly find an average farmer in Nigeria that does not depend on highly hazardous agrochemicals for fertilizer or pesticides. With the rising case of cancer, kidney failure, liver damage and digestive tract infections cases in Nigeria, it may be considered preferable to endure hunger than to consume food that could lead to a hospital visit as only 20% of primary health centres across the nation are functional and are plagued by inadequate resources, along with the persistent strikes among medical staff.

The need to ensure safe food production and processes cannot be overemphasised. Due to our weak healthcare system, it’s crucial to focus on keeping our farms, stores, and markets safe, preventing the introduction of poison onto our plates. Think about it, the same food rejected by other countries is what we eat. Call it fear-mongering, and stress the need for facts, but how do we get facts in a country where a great fraction of the population cannot afford health care services or medical check-ups? Media reports even from Nigeria over time have reported several episodes of casualties resulting from food poisoning from the killer beans episodes in 1996, to the 270 dead in Benue state from Endosulphan levels in Community Rivers in 2020.

As of today, one cannot comfortably purchase fruits like bananas on the streets without worrying over forced ripening with calcium carbide or ammonia; purchasing beans comes with fear of Snipper, buying maize or oranges comes with worries of GMO infiltration and lack of labelling. Even the chickens are becoming a source of concern. In the absence of accessible, affordable, and well-equipped healthcare, let’s aim to, at the very least, ensure the safety of our food. A disturbing report from the national association of small-scale farmers of Nigeria shows the fact that seven out of the 13 commonly used pesticide brands in Nigeria used by farmers are cancer-causing.

These products have active ingredients like Atrazine, Butachlor, Chlopyriforus, Glysophate, and Mancozeb. The report cites sources of the impact of these chemicals from the Open Chemistry Database at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), PubChem National Centre for Biotechnology Information, USA National Library of Medicine and the UN Stockholm Convention. These and more of these chemicals can also lead to chronic kidney diseases, liver failure, reproductive health issues and even neurological damage.

I’m left to contemplate the challenges that lie ahead for vegetarians, considering the prevalence of chemicals and GMOs in vegetables and grains. Chemical Pesticides in food and GMOs for human consumption are global problems needing very urgent local action from all corners. GMOs in Nigeria are not labelled. 64 countries currently require manufacturers to label foods with GMOs, but 26 countries have banned them altogether.

Over 58% of the pesticides used in Nigeria are already banned in the EU and the Nigerian government at national or state levels seem not to be grasping the impact of these on the health of the citizens, the economic revenue potential of the country or the dent on its image; as little or no effort is being taken to promote the vast alternatives to toxic chemical pesticides, GMOs or practically improving on measures to ensure safety in a sustainable manner.

The entire world is in dire need of safer nutritious food and healthier farm systems that are not dangerous to human health, toxic to beneficial insects and pollinators, or polluting the entire soil, water and the entire biodiversity. The far-reaching impact of pesticides extends well beyond human populations as well, encompassing a wide spectrum of living organisms within ecosystems. It is imperative to recognise that the detrimental effects of chemical pesticides transcend species boundaries, leaving no organism untouched by their potentially deleterious consequences.

Among the casualties of pesticide application are organisms pivotal to the vitality of soil ecosystems. Earthworms, often regarded as nature’s tillers, and pollinators such as bees and birds, which play an indispensable role in the pollination of plants, fall prey to the indiscriminate nature of chemical pesticides. The intricate balance of the ecosystem becomes perilously disrupted as these essential contributors face a decline in the face of pesticide exposure.

The persistent accumulation of chemical residues within the soil can extend its infertility for years, or even decades. This enduring effect not only compromises agricultural productivity but also perturbs the intricate network of life forms interwoven within the soil matrix. Consequently, the cumulative consequences of pesticide deployment permeate far beyond their intended targets, reverberating through the intricate tapestry of the natural world.

The pernicious journey of pesticides does not halt at soil interfaces. These compounds possess the potential to infiltrate water bodies through processes of both infiltration and surface runoff. The gravity of this progression cannot be understated, as the water resources that constitute a fundamental aspect of human sustenance become tainted with pesticide residues. The water we rely upon for drinking, cooking, and bathing is imperilled by contamination, which in turn imperils aquatic ecosystems. Fish populations, integral to aquatic environments, also bear the brunt of this contamination, exposing them to threats that ripple through the aquatic food chain.

As a budding economist, I cannot help but think about the short, medium, and long-term socioeconomic implications associated with establishing a farm system heavily reliant on external inputs, sourced from outside the farming communities and nations. This scenario becomes further concerning when considering the extensive misuse of such inputs, including chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which are not only non-organic but also inherently toxic.

The president’s intention to enhance competitiveness and financial stability through the allocated funds warrants closer scrutiny to fully grasp its multifaceted effects. I hold the view that supplying chemical pesticides to farmers will yield adverse consequences. A significant 58% of these products lack approval within the stringent European Union market due to their toxic nature, which raises not only environmental and ethical concerns but also poses a risk to Nigeria’s essential food exports.

With over 70% of food exports facing rejection due to issues ranging from toxic pesticide application and inadequate packaging to compromised food quality as stated by NAFDAC, Nigeria’s reputation as a dependable food supplier on the global stage is at stake. Compounding this challenge, most agricultural mechanisation programmes favour large heavy machinery and government-supported conventional monoculture, promoting the heightened use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation – all while farm security remains inadequately addressed. This compels farmers to seek rapid yields within limited safe farm areas, further worsening the situation. A comprehensive approach is needed to address these complexities and chart a course toward sustainable agricultural practices that ensure both economic prosperity and food security.

As the Tinubu government correctly declares a state of emergency on Nigeria’s food insecurity, there is a need to ensure that the proper ways and means are followed to produce an end that entails safe, healthy sufficient food systems that makes farmers and farm communities, resilient to environmental changes, more financially stable and independent from external market forces that control agro-inputs. The government’s food improvement strategies should ensure that increased food quantity doesn’t lead to health problems for Nigerians. This will help prevent higher medical costs due to more cases of organ failure from food poisoning and inadequate nutrition. For consideration, since over 70% of the farmers in Nigeria are small-scale farmers, most of whom are women in rural areas, there is a need to ensure that security in the farms and rural communities is restored.

Community and state vigilante and community policing needs to be encouraged and enforced. Farm machinery and inputs also need to be in tune with nature, the environment and bio-diversities. Farm inputs that are toxic and banned in other countries should not be sold or given to Nigerian farmers to use to grow or process food for the citizens. The CBN’s Anchor Borrowers’ Programme and farmers input dealers like the agrochemical companies must be held responsible when they sell toxic chemicals to farmers, who cannot read or write or even have access to protective equipment or best training on how to apply these toxic pesticides.

The government of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu unlike the previous government should take advantage of the global food market demand for healthier organic food, by encouraging farm systems that encourage the regeneration of soil, preservation of water and bringing back the biodiversity and pollinators. Farm inputs like organic fertilisers and organic pesticides should be given to farmers in very large proportions so that the toxic chemicals in food can be reduced. Farmers also need improved storage and processing systems. These can be small modular storage and processing mechanical systems offered to farmers and their cooperatives to avoid and cut-off food wastage, as well as improve the value of the yields.

Nigeria can feed the world but let us start with West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. We need to prioritise increased trade relationships within the continent especially in agricultural export, by producing safe, organic food. Nigeria is blessed with a rich natural environment. It is crucial that we reject the use of substances that harm our soil, water, and air, just for quick fix results and profit. There has been a solution before now- that solution is agroecology. Embracing agroecology and sustainability, Nigeria holds the power to revolutionise her agriculture, influence the global food market, and protect her natural heritage for generations to come.

By Ogeri Eleri, Student at Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, and Intern at Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Abuja

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