Third world grows addicted to pesticides

The last DDT-producing factory in the United States was dismantled four years ago. But instead of being junked, it was sold to Indonesia and is now producing the pesticide in that country.

The global pesticide market has changed considerably in the 25 years since Rachel Carson wrote ``Silent Spring.'' In the early 1960s, the debate over pesticides was mostly confined to the industrialized nations. Today, a larger circle of countries than ever before produce and use pesticides, including many banned or restricted in the West.

Brazil, India, and Mexico are now counted among the largest pesticide markets in the world. The largest producers are the US, Japan, and West Europe. Many developing countries acquired appetites for pesticides during the ``green revolution'' of the 1960s, which transformed agriculture in many regions of the world. Hybrid plants were introduced that were more susceptible to pests, while chemicals dramatically boosted yields.

``It's the production that creates addiction to these chemicals, not the exports from West Germany,'' says Richard Wiles, a pesticide specialist at the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

And pesticides remain vital to health programs. The third largest user of DDT in the world - after the governments of India and Brazil - is the United Nations. The UN relies on DDT to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes and for other health-related uses.

One of the problems in developing regions, however, is that many people do not have the education or training to use pesticides properly. Pesticide containers have been found in rural villages which have been used to carry drinking water and bathe toddlers.

Meanwhile, the newer pesticides are frequently more powerful than the ones they replace, making careful handling that much more vital. In the late 1970s, when Pakistan switched from DDT to malathion, some 250 people died in a rash of poisonings caused by improper use and storage of the new chemicals.

The World Health Organization estimates there are about 1 million pesticide poisonings and 11,000 pesticide-induced deaths each year. But Oxfam, the private aid agency, puts the number as high as 2 million poisonings and more than 14,000 deaths.

``There's a certain hypocrisy in pretending that these chemicals will be used properly - when we know that that often isn't the case,'' says Barbara Bramble, head of the international program at the National Wildlife Federation. The problem requires regulatory action within the consuming country, says Ms. Bramble, as well as leadership and direction from Western producers. ``Even when the US is involved, it's often because our firms are making the chemicals abroad.''

Developed countries also exert influence through their support for international aid programs.

In Sudan, pesticides have been used for decades by an international assistance project to build up that nation's cotton industry. Through overuse of chemicals, however, pests have developed a strong resistance and the cotton industry is now in danger of collapse.

``We have to get a handle on these aid programs, because it's essentially an unregulated climate out there,'' says Maureen Hinkle, director of agricultural policy at the National Audubon Society. Pressure needs to be put on multilateral development banks, she says, to ensure that they consider the long-term effects of such programs. Some observers also complain that Western nations continue to export chemicals that are banned or restricted in their own markets. This practice is much less common than it was in the past, but it still occurs - particularly in the period immediately after a product is banned in a Western country.

Manufacturers defend such exports, arguing that consuming nations are the best judges of whether the benefits associated with a product outweigh the risks.

Jack Early, president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, says developing countries cannot afford to imitate the pesticide regulations adopted in the West. Nor do Western nations have the right to tell other countries what they can or cannot use, he says.

``[Developing nations] are still more concerned with feeding people and taking care of medical problems,'' says Dr. Early. But, he adds, it's important for exporters to share the best scientific information that is available about each product.

The UN has established a voluntary code for the international distribution of pesticides which requires the chemicals to be identified on labels. US law carries this a step further, making manufacturers put warnings on products if the materials are banned or restricted in the US.

The issue is increasingly coming home to American dinner tables. The US now imports about a quarter of its fresh fruit and 6 percent of its vegetables, mostly from Mexico. Federal guidelines, developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, set the maximum level of pesticide residue that is allowed to be on foods. But, according to a 1986 report by the Government Accounting Office, less than 1 percent of imports are subjected to any inspection for pesticide residues.

Second in a series. Next: alternatives to farming with chemicals.

Fruit fly border war

The United States is fighting fruit flies in Central America with a pesticide that would not be allowed out of the bottle at home.

The project, known as Moscamed, was begun in the late 1970s as a joint effort by Mexico and the US. It succeeded in eradicating the Mediterranean fruit fly from that country and creating a ``barrier'' along Mexico's southern border. It was later expanded to encompass all of Guatemala.

Environmentalists strongly criticize the program, which uses ethylene dibromide, or EDB, to fumigate fruit and vegetables passing from fly-infested to fly-free zones. EDB was banned in the US in 1984, because studies indicate it causes cancer in humans. The program also uses malathion for aerial spraying.

``If there's any risk of infestation, it's not from them coming up [from Central America], it's from importation of contaminated produce,'' says David Wirth, a senior project attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Imported produce is not allowed to be treated with EDB.

The US Department of Agriculture defends the program as vital to keep the insects out of the continental US. Indeed, the department is pressing Congress for money to expand the program throughout Central America.

Key congressional leaders, including Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, have formally protested the use of EDB in the Moscamed program. Meanwhile, environmentalists in the US and Central America have urged the Agriculture Department to cut back its program in Guatemala and drop the proposal for a regionwide effort.

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