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health and environment Pesticide companies ‘seriously deficient’ on human rights, says UN toxics expert

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In 2017, the Swiss government adopted an action plan to reduce by 50% the risks of long-term soil and water pollution but said that it would be difficult to maintain levels of food production if all pesticides were eliminated.

(Keystone / Tamas Soki)

Two initiatives to restrict the use and sale of pesticides in Switzerland are up for discussion in parliament this week. The UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics believes pesticide companies and the Swiss government should do more to phase out hazardous chemicals.

A storm has been brewing over the global pesticide industry for the last year. Several multi-million-dollar settlements against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, has sent agribusiness companies into a tizzy and has made the herbicide glyphosate a household name.

Public awareness in Switzerland is also on the rise following reports of excessive levels of pesticides found in waterways and potential links between pesticides and everything from collapsing bee colonies to poor sperm quality.

Popular initiatives on pesticides

For a Switzerland free of synthetic pesticides” initiative seeks to ban pesticide use in Switzerland, and the import of food containing pesticides.

Clean Drinking Water and Healthy Food" initiative aims to cut direct subsidies to farmers who use pesticides or antibiotics.

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The Swiss government has had an ambiguous and inconsistent position on regulating pesticide use. On the one hand, it has been criticised for slower-than- desired progressexternal link in implementing a pesticide reduction action plan adopted in 2017. However, just last week the country went further than its European neighbors when it banned 12 pesticidesexternal link containing chlorpyrifos and clorpyrifos-methyl.

In an interview with swissinfo.ch, Baskut Tuncak who was appointed to the UN Human Rights Council with a mandateexternal link to look at how pesticides impact human rights, offers his thoughts on what governments and industry should do.

SWI swissinfo.ch: What keeps you up at night?

Baskut Tuncak: What really concerns me is the widespread exposure of children during sensitive periods of development and how chemicals are found to be more and more hazardous at lower and lower exposure levels over time.  Health trends ranging from declining sperm count to rising breast cancer rates are increasingly being associated with exposure to these chemicals in childhood. Particularly concerning is the way multiple chemical exposures can combine and interact with each other to impact health.

Yet the few risk assessments that have been completed focus on the risk of exposure to individual substances, and don’t consider the human rights of the child. We are discovering all kinds of nuanced effects of these chemicals on health, which increasingly is changing the way we think about diseases and disabilities that develop later in life. I find this widespread prevalence of childhood exposure very concerning not only based on the science, but also the values, principles and rights of children that are recognised by nearly 200 countries.

Baskut Tuncak was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes in 2014. His mandate was renewed in September 2017 for a period of three years.

(Baskut Tuncak)

SWI: Some companies argue that pesticides are only unsafe when they are used improperly. Where should the law draw the line between pesticides that can and can’t be used safely?

Tuncak: The European Union has determined that for some chemicals, exposure levels cannot be accurately assessed for certain users such as for farmers and that we need an approach that acknowledges the uncertainty about how much exposure and its implications. The concept of "safe use" is a narrative by industry that is simply not practical for many different types of substances, especially in developing countries with limited capacity for monitoring and enforcement regarding their use. 

This has driven a more precautionary approach in Europe. Some research I did in 2013 that looked at differences in how the US and Europe regulate pesticides found that there were about 80 pesticides that are banned in Europe but authorised for use in the US. However, as we’ve seen in the past several weeks, certain states in the US like California are banning pesticides like chlorpyrifos that Europe hasn’t.

SWI: What does a responsible approach to selling pesticides look like?

Tuncak: There is a serious deficiency in terms of the human rights due diligence carried out by pesticide manufacturers and other chemical companies in terms of what happens after the point of sale.

For example, in the tobacco industry in Africa, we see evidence that highly hazardous pesticides are being used on plantations where we know children are present and working. If children are using such pesticides, it constitutes one of the worst forms of child labour.

I have only found one chemical company, based in Germany, that has a robust approach to identifying the human rights impacts of their chemical products. Most chemical companies have a very shallow approach to human rights due diligence.

It is not only chemical companies that we should be concerned with when it comes to toxins and human rights. It is important for all companies, like those in the food and beverage industry, to conduct due diligence when purchasing products that are produced using pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and regarding their waste.

+ What is the Swiss government's view on glyphosate?

SWI: How is the Swiss-based agribusiness company Syngenta doing in this regard?

Tuncak: I haven’t been fully satisfied with Syngenta’s arguments on why they can’t phase out certain highly hazardous pesticides. It is not just Syngenta though. Many companies have made commitments for years to transition away from the most dangerous pesticides but to the contrary their use appears to be on the rise. There needs to be greater effort and investment in safer alternatives, whether they are chemical or organic. Experts at Food and Agriculture Organisation have said it can be done, and in my view this is long overdue.

SWI: What would you like to see the Swiss government do?

Tuncak: The Swiss government should show greater ambition internationally.

Currently, the UN is discussing the future of a broad framework agreementexternal link on chemicals management that was adopted more than ten years ago. The prevailing view is that this non-binding framework isn’t working. In particular, there is no accountability of any government to the pledges they’ve made under this framework. It hasn’t made a significant dent in phasing out highly hazardous pesticides in the past 13 years.  

Swiss leadership is sorely needed to help put in place a system that holds countries and businesses accountable for their duties and responsibilities for chemical safety, and to phase out chemicals of global concern.  

Domestically, Switzerland has the technical and financial capacity to develop advanced systems of agricultural production that use alternatives to hazardous chemicals, which would be an inspiration to other countries around the world to follow suit.  

What are Highly Hazardous Pesticides?

The World Health Organisation defines highly hazardous pesticidesexternal link as pesticides that are acknowledged to present particularly high levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or environment according to international classification. There is no definitive list of HHPs.

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