Deadly pesticide can be replaced by safer alternatives, new study shows

A new study, led by Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) and supported by the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, has shown that a highly hazardous pesticide can be banned without affecting agricultural productivity.

Paraquat is highly toxic and fatal to humans when ingested. There is no effective treatment for paraquat poisoning. Banning paraquat is the most effective way to prevent exposure and deaths. More than sixty seven countries have already banned its use, however it is still widely used in many low and middle income countries.

PAN UK has undertaken a literature review and consultation process, identifying options for replacing paraquat in agricultural practice and sharing practical lessons from countries where bans have already been implemented.

The study shows that safer alternatives are available and that paraquat can be removed without adversely affecting agricultural production.

Identifying alternative methods

PAN UK identified a wide range of methods available to farmers that can be used as a direct alternative to paraquat. These include non-herbicide and herbicide methods.

Non-herbicide alternatives include living mulches, controlled grazing, mechanical weeding and thermal weeding.

The study also identified alternative synthetic herbicides, but cautioned against the adverse effects these may have on health and the environment.

It recognised integrated weed management approaches – where a variety of physical, cultural and ecological methods are incorporated – as the key to reducing herbicide use.

Success factors and challenges

The study involved consultations with regulators from countries that had already banned paraquat.

More than half of those consulted agreed that banning paraquat had no adverse effect on farmer incomes. The remaining 43% were not sure due to lack of information.

The regulators shared several common success factors for banning paraquat, including: the establishment of a multi-stakeholder advisory panel early in the process; engagement with different public and private sector organisations; and awareness raising and information sharing with farmers and other stakeholders.

A number of challenges were also identified. For example, one regulator recognised that illegal trade across national borders had allowed the continued use of paraquat after it was banned.

A further challenge was the limited access to alternatives, whether due to lack of knowledge or availability. For example, safer products can only be made available if they are registered.

Most effective way to prevent deaths

The study was led by Dr Alexander Stuart, International Project Manager at PAN UK, who said:

 “Banning paraquat saves lives and is perfectly doable. Over 67 countries have already banned paraquat and millions of growers around the world are successfully replacing it with a wide range of alternatives, chemical and non-chemical. Yet it continues to be widely used in some countries.

 “There are understandable concerns that a ban on paraquat could have negative economic impacts or affect food production but this is not supported by the evidence.”

Professor Michael Eddleston, Director of the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention said:

“We already know that paraquat is a highly dangerous pesticide, responsible for many tens of thousands of deaths each year due to intentional and unintentional poisoning. There is no antidote for paraquat poisoning. Banning paraquat is the most effective way to prevent exposure and deaths.”

“Pesticide bans may raise concerns from farmers, who worry that their crops will be adversely affected. This study clearly shows that there are many safer alternatives to paraquat that don’t affect agricultural productivity.”

The full study is published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research.

Useful links

The paraquat problem

Paraquat’s ‘safety measure’ based on flawed research, a review of over 30 studies shows

Japan’s pesticide regulations have been effective in reducing deaths, new analysis shows

Taiwan’s paraquat ban has led to a fall in pesticide suicides, early analysis shows