I always feel anxious when I hear reports that thieves have stolen crops from farmers. A warning goes out that we should not purchase or eat the lovely lettuces, tomatoes etc. because they are “not ready” to be consumed. Why not? Because it seems, the chemicals on them have not yet worn off.
Then again, I was concerned when a farmer in St. Elizabeth insisted to me recently that she could not grow her crops without using Roundup. This is the brand name of a herbicide, widely used in the U.S., which has glyphosate as its main ingredient. When combined with other chemical ingredients, this is a very toxic chemical. It’s non-selective, so it kills pretty much everything. Glyphosate is, in fact, contained in around 750 different products in the U.S. In Jamaica, such substances fall under the jurisdiction of the Pesticides Control Authority.
Concerns have been growing over the use of RoundUp in Jamaica. Now, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw reported a few weeks ago that a multi-agency technical working group has been formed to look into it. Minister Shaw has said cautiously that this is a “potentially serious matter.” The head of the Jamaica Agricultural Society Lenworth Fulton also seemed rather anxious.
RoundUp had not come under the spotlight in Jamaica until the recent court case in the U.S. when a landscaper was awarded a hefty US$289 million – now reduced to a mere $78.5 million, which the man’s lawyers are now appealing. We were all going merrily along with it up until that point. Large containers full of Roundup (and of glysophate itself) are at this point still sitting on the shelves of farm supply and hardware stores, island wide. Meanwhile, Minister Shaw’s working group is expected to come up with its recommendations in the next eight to ten months. So, early in 2020, we should have some conclusions – one hopes.
Now, thousands of lawsuits are pending in the U.S. regarding illnesses allegedly caused by Roundup and another herbicide, Ranger Pro, which also contains glysophate. A California couple has been awarded US$2 billion in another case brought against the manufacturers (actually, the third case to date that has resulted in a huge award). Attorneys claim that the herbicide causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
A little more information about Roundup: It is produced by the somewhat notorious Monsanto, which was acquired by the German chemical company Bayer last year. After a tumultuous shareholders’ meeting on April 26, and the hefty awards, the company’s market value has been collapsing. Bayer says Roundup is safe when used as directed, quoting a recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which doesn’t have a very good name, these days) and 40 years of scientific data. How come the public is not convinced by Bayer’s array of reassuring scientists?
Minister Shaw and others seem concerned that if Roundup is banned, or even restricted, then farmers would have to look for an alternative. It seems that, like the Americans, Jamaica has become totally dependent on the stuff. Meanwhile, appeals are being made to use these toxic substances carefully and to follow the instructions. I would have hoped this was already happening.
Which countries have now banned or restricted the use of glysophate? I counted 28 countries here. These 28 countries have at least tried to do something about it, sometimes with mixed results. The closest to us is Bermuda – which has slightly relaxed its ban in order to keep the roadsides neat and tidy. The most recent ban on glysophate imports is Vietnam. Many U.S. towns and cities have bans.
A couple of things to note about pesticides. We cannot separate our own health from the health of the environment that surrounds us – and where the chemicals end up. When we use them, they go into the air, any water that is nearby, into the soil. All pesticides have some level of toxicity for creatures that live in water. In fact, we should not apply them when it is raining or about to rain; they will drain into the soil and groundwater. It should never be poured into gullies, drains or watercourses.
Some herbicides hang around in the soil for quite a while longer than others. In the past, pesticides have had a major impact on wildlife – for example, DDT, which practically decimated the population of hawks (including Bald Eagles) in the United States, before it was banned. This was a major focus of Rachel Carson’s environmental classic Silent Spring, published in 1962 – but the ban didn’t take place until 1972. Oh yes, these things do take time. We have eight to ten months before we decide what to do about Roundup.
But then, there is an alternative which no one talks about much in Jamaica: How about going organic? At least for some small farmers? The Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement (JOAM) exists. But it is a non-profit organization. I wish it would advocate more for environmentally friendly alternatives in agriculture. JOAM could also point out to farmers that there is a large export market for organic food; and that locally, too, you can actually earn more money from crops that are certified organic. It seems, however, that the majority of farmers stick to the “traditional” methods of farming – having already drunk the Roundup Koolaid and found it very tasty.
Minister J.C. Hutchinson, a man of considerable experience in this sector, said two years ago: “With the increasing consumer demand for organic produce, there can be no doubt that this is a pathway to the future.” Somehow, the pathway does not yet seem clear in Jamaica. Organic farming cannot just be a tiny niche, occupied by middle-class Jamaicans who have the time and money to pursue it. It should be more than a hobby, and there should be people out there lobbying for what I think probably is actually the traditional way of farming (though to be sure, it will also have its challenges). We have many small farmers; why not be a small organic farmer?
My concern right now is simply this: Let us not be careless with the toxic chemicals that we surround ourselves with. Can’t we live with less, or will the mega-corporations like Monsanto/Bayer and others insist that we cannot live without them? We should do a check, and try to reduce the chemicals we use in our bathrooms and hairdressing salons, kitchens, on our plants, to kill flies, cockroaches, mosquitoes (I’ve found “zappers” work pretty well on the latter). Exposure to pesticides is one of several factors thought to be responsible for the collapse of bee colonies, by the way. Without bees, our pollinators, we are lost.
It seems to me that we will not thrive if we continue to live with toxic chemicals – whatever the multinationals say. We will not thrive, and neither will our struggling, weary and poisoned environment.