Banning killer chemicals

There are different schools of thought as regards the causes of the killer kidney disease that snuffs out at least a dozen lives daily in the North Central Province and some other parts of the country. Experts stick to their hypotheses and theories like limpets, refusing to budge, and it is not likely that they will ever see eye to eye and adopt a consensual approach. However, their concern about the poor patients and dedication to their research regardless of their conclusions need to be appreciated. It requires a multi-pronged approach to tackle a multi-factorial disease. All roads lead to Rome!

Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in Parliament on Tuesday that 30 types of agrochemicals had been banned.

Harmful chemicals used as pesticides, weedicides etc have become a problem for not only this country but also the developed world. Interestingly, the European Union (EU) is also on course to ban some agrochemicals by 2020. Arguments for and against this ban on as many as 40 chemicals are thought provoking and of relevance to us. It is hoped that Sri Lankan policymakers, agricultural experts, scientists, doctors, environmentalists et al will pay heed to what is happening in that part of the world and draw lessons from the EU’s experience.

Several farmers’ organisations in the UK have lambasted the EU ban, claiming that it will badly hit their crops, cause scarcities and send food prices through the roof besides dealing a crippling blow to the farming community. BBC has quoted some opponents of the ban as claiming that such drastic action will place the European farmers at an ever increasing competitive disadvantage internationally. A similar argument has been put forth by those opposed to the glyphosate ban here; they claim that the tea plantations heavily dependent on weed-killers containing glyphosate will be in difficulty as the alternative available for them is manual labour.

British farmer organisations have expressed fear that the EU ban on pesticides will result in, among other things, massive yield losses—potato 12%, wheat 12% and onions 50%. Without pesticides, apples will mostly be imperfect-looking due to skin browning and blemishes, they have said, claiming that the ban will causes a drop of £1.7 bn in farming profit, an increase in imports and higher food prices.

But, the proponents of the ban have pooh-poohed this gloomy prognosis as being grossly exaggerated; they argue that the benefits of banning harmful chemicals far outweigh the losses. They have pointed out that the use of some agrochemicals harms not only humans but also pollinators like bees and other creatures besides ruining the quality of water and soil thus posing a real threat to food security. A taskforce set up by environmental groups and the IUCN in 2011 concluded that extremely harmful chemicals such as neonicotinoids and fipronil, widely used as pesticides, poisoned soil, air and water.

The EU ban will surely result in negative externalities and one may not be able to draw a line between the social costs and the private costs because they overlap to some extent. The same goes for the ban on agrochemicals in Sri Lanka. But, the fact remains that it is nothing but disastrous to permit the use of substances injurious to human health as agrochemicals whatever their economic benefits may be. In the case of the EU, it has been established that the banned chemicals cause cancer or harm human reproduction and hormones. The ill-effects of one-time miracle chemical, DDT, are still felt.

Food is life, but when contaminated with harmful chemicals it is death––slow and painful. Therefore, some drastic action has to be taken to protect humans and animals. No chemical is indispensable, DDT being a case in point.

How the European Parliament is handling the issue of harmful agrochemicals gives us a lot of food for thought.


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1995 Napier
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