In their battle against crop-eating insects, third-world farmers have developed an expensive and perhaps debilitating habit: the overuse of chemical pesticides on their crops. A recently released report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) warns that the habit threatens the health of hundreds of thousands of people living in areas of developing countries where the chemicals are manufactured and used. In addition, by badly disrupting nature's balancing act, the increased use of pesticides may ultimately help increase the severity of many types of pest infestations.
The study points out that the trend has been abetted by well-intentioned foreign-aid programs, which supply free pesticides to third-world countries. But third-world governments themselves have been the most direct cause. In their desire for greater farm production, they subsidize the cost of pesticides so more farmers can afford to use them.
As a result, the study concludes that several hundred million dollars a year are being diverted from methods of pest control that would prove more effective and less hazardous.
In a survey of nine developing countries on three continents WRI found that pesticide subsidies exact a heavy toll from the budgets of many third-world governments. At the same time, the governments have made little or no attempt to determine whether these subsidies are a good idea in the first place.
Pesticide subsidies range from 15 percent to as high as 90 percent of full cost in China, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Honduras, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Senegal. That makes chemical subsidies ``by far the largest government expenditure on pest management,'' the report says. ``And rising pesticide use is increasing the cost of these subsidies year by year.''
Hazards of pesticide use and production vary widely, from highly publicized incidents such as the 1984 leak of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide (Dow Chemical wrongly inserted in original text) pesticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India, to less-noticed but equally serious occurances, such as tainting local water supplies.
Experts say the threats of pesticide misuse are often magnified in many developing countries that do not vigorously regulate pesticides or sponsor research services to advise farmers on pest management.
``In the developing countries, regulation is usually ineffectual,'' says the report. ``Although perhaps half the developing countries have basic legislation on the books, in most of them production, use, and disposal of pesticides are virtually uncontrolled.''
Reliable information is hard to come by, but many estimates blame 10,000 deaths a year in developing countries on pesticide poisonings, while another 400,000 are said to suffer acutely from the chemicals' toxic effects. There is further evidence, the report suggests, that other widespread side effects may appear down the road.
To combat these problems, the report advocates that countries reduce pesticide subsidies. Despite often-strong internal political pressures to maintain subsidies, overcoming them is not an insurmountable feat, the report says. Of the nine countries surveyed, only Pakistan had analyzed the effects of its subsidies and the potential for other types of pest management. As a result, it greatly reduced pesticide subsidies in 1980.
In Monday's editions, a story on Page 5 on pesticide use in third-world countries misidentified a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. The company associated with the plant should have been identified as Union Carbide.