Can we really blame farmers for pesticide ‘misuse’?

To mark Human Rights Day 2022, Dr Leah Utyasheva takes a closer look at the concept of pesticide ‘misuse’ through a human rights perspective.

It has been long known that pesticide use can cause serious harm to health and the environment.

Each year, there are an estimated 385 million cases of unintentional pesticide poisonings with 11,000 fatalities. There are also an additional 150,000 deaths due to self-harm with pesticides.

This is a particular problem for people living and working in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), who bear the brunt of the negative impact of pesticides.

Farmer spraying pesticide in India. Photo by Arjun MJ on Unsplash
Farmers often don’t wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when applying pesticides. Photo by Arjun MJ on Unsplash.

What is ‘misuse’?

Many negative effects of pesticide use are blamed on the “misuse” of pesticides by farmers in LMIC.

The term “misuse” of pesticides commonly refers to use, application, and storage practices that are inconsistent with the label instructions. It is rarely defined but is often accompanied by such terms as “abuse”, ‘indiscriminate’, ‘unsafe’, “improper” or “incorrect” use.

This includes pesticide use for the wrong target pest, at the wrong time, in the wrong dosage, as well as the sale or use of unregistered, adulterated or misbranded products, combining or mixing pesticides with other chemicals, and inadequate home storage.

Failure to implement risk mitigation measures such as violating specific safety instructions, wear, and inadequate use of other safety equipment (including personal protective equipment or PPE) is also included in this category. Overuse and overapplication of pesticides are also among the frequently given examples of misuse.

Importantly, all negative consequences of pesticide use may be labelled “misuse” and blamed on indiscriminate, improper, irrational, and incorrect use of pesticides.

Blaming the victim

Most pesticide risk reduction measures, suggested by the industry, governments, and international guidelines, place the onus of pesticide risk reduction on individual pesticide users.

However, in LMIC pesticide users are often smallholder farmers and agricultural workers, and Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) standards are rarely enforced. They are the ones held responsible for the unintended effects of pesticide use.

As a result of this blaming narrative, small holder farmers and agricultural workers are seen as deserving no protection. They are blamed for not following pesticide label instructions and agricultural best practices, or for engaging in acts of self-harm.

Rather than reducing the negative effects of pesticide use, this narrative places the blame on the most vulnerable groups who need protection.

Factors beyond a farmer’s control

The assumption that pesticide harms happen due to irrational, improper behaviour and lack of knowledge by farmers puts responsibility on the users for factors that are largely beyond their control.

It ignores deeper social and economic factors that make following instructions for safe use impossible.

For example, there may be lack of available or correct PPE. Furthermore, farmers may not be able to read or understand the labels, due to low literacy rates.

Even with full knowledge of the risks and label requirements, real behavior does not always reflect the expectations, as there are often structural barriers or other reasons that override farmers’ concerns about safety. For example, in very hot climates, it is not always practical or possible to wear full PPE.

Labeling on pesticide bottles
Farmers and agricultural workers may not be able to read or understand labels on pesticide bottles.

Absolving corporations of responsibility

The term “misuse of pesticides” has been employed to strengthen the idea that the industry and governments are not responsible for the consequences of pesticide products.  This further exacerbates the already unequal power relations between small holder farmers and agricultural corporations, absolving corporations of responsibility for the negative impact of their products.

However, the negative effects of pesticide use should be understood as a consequence of pesticide toxicity and availability, not the fault of the users in LMIC.

When use of a product according to instructions is impossible in real life situations, and harm to health become foreseeable, the companies are under an obligation to implement positive measures to prevent exposure and poisoning and should not market or sell such pesticides.

Whose responsibility is it to protect?

The obligation of poisoning prevention in LMIC should not be placed on individuals who use them, but on manufacturers and importers of pesticides, as well as governments who have the responsibility to protect residents’ health and lives.

Under the international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect, respect and fulfill human rights, including by adopting positive measures to protect rights.

Correspondingly, businesses such as pesticide industry must refrain from violating human rights. They must exercise due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address impact on human rights.

Particularly important in agricultural LMIC, is the states’ and businesses’ duty to protect the human rights of workers to prevent occupational exposures to toxic substances, and the acknowledgement that hazard elimination is paramount in preventing occupational exposure.

Taking a human-rights based approach

In June 2022, the International Labour Conference recognized ‘a safe and healthy working environment‘ as a fundamental principle and right at work, placing further emphasis on prevention of pesticide exposure and poisoning for workers.

Human rights – such as the rights to life, health, information, science, remedy, safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, safe water and food, and safe and healthy working environment need to come together to provide effective protection of farmers, farm workers, and the general population in LMICs against pesticide exposure and poisoning.

In order to decrease pesticide use and minimize harm to health and the environment, we must reject the blaming the farmer narrative, together with concepts of “misuse” of pesticides.

A shift towards a human-rights and worker-rights-based approach is needed to give priority to the voices and interests of farmers and agricultural workers.

Dr Leah Utyasheva
Policy Director, Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP)

Leah Utyasheva has a background in law and human rights and has worked as a researcher and policy and law reform specialist. Her work at CPSP focuses on human rights-based approaches to pesticide management, human rights aspects of HHP use in low- and middle-income countries, reduction of pesticide suicide through regulation, policy initiatives to improve suicide reporting, and decriminalization of suicide attempt.

Related articles and publications

Experts and activists discuss human rights and pesticide poisoning

Why pesticide exposure is a violation of children’s rights

Human Rights Perspective on Pesticide Exposure and Poisoning in Children: A Case Study of India

Prevention of pesticide suicides and the right to life: The intersection of human rights and public health priorities