The Coming Pesticide Tsunami: Made in China?

Feature article published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 14 March 2013.

Dr K L Heong: Beware of South-South dumping of hazardous pesticides!
Dr K L Heong: Beware of South-South dumping of hazardous pesticides!

The Coming Pesticide Tsunami: Made in China?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Countries in Asia and Africa are threatened by a ‘Pesticide Tsunami’ that can seriously affect people’s health and the environment, a leading Asian entomologist warns.

Many developing countries that lack laws and regulations for pesticide marketing are vulnerable to ‘South-South dumping’ of highly hazardous agrochemicals coming from elsewhere in the developing world itself.

In recent years, China has become the world’s largest producer of pesticides, with most of its output being exported to developing countries, says Dr Kong Luen “K.L.” Heong, Principal Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Banos, the Philippines.

Dr Heong has been researching insect ecology in Asian paddy fields for decades. He is a leading advocate of integrated pest management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture that seeks to reduce current high dependence on agrochemicals in farming.

“Unless developing countries develop mechanisms to protect themselves, the coming Pesticide Tsunami is going to hit them hard. We urgently need to build self-protection at country level,” he said at a regional workshop of science and environmental communicators held recently in Bangkok, Thailand.

Dr Heong called for developing country governments to play a stronger governance role “to ensure quality information and pesticide prescriptions for farmers”.

Analysing statistics from China’s Institute for the Control of Agrochemicals, Ministry of Agriculture (ICAMA), Dr Heong showed how pesticide production in China has more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2009 – from around 500,0000 metric tons to over 2 million metric tons.

In that time, however, China’s domestic use of pesticides showed only a modest increase. That means much of the surplus was exported.

“It goes to countries that have lesser controls. It will not go to Australia, or Europe, or the United States for sure. Where else would it go? The developing world,” Dr Heong said in an interview.

Statistics maintained by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which collates national data received from member governments, show that pesticide imports into developing countries have escalated during the past few years.

According to this database (available at: Sri Lanka imported pesticides worth a total of USD 60.15 million in 2011. The figure for the previous year, 2010, was USD 47 million, i.e. an increase of over 20%. (Import quantities are not shown.)

South-South Dumping?

For decades, health and environmental activists have accused western multinational companies of ‘dumping’ hazardous pesticides in the developing world when, in fact, many such substances are banned in their own countries.

During the past decade, however, countries like China and India have also begun exporting their pesticides to the rest of the developing world. Some of these are no longer allowed use within their countries. (See box below: China’s Rising Toxic Exports).

“We are not (sufficiently) well aware of South-South dumping,” Dr Heong said. “We in Southeast Asia know this now. (But) what about Africa? There is a mechanism that dominates pesticide sales there, and it is worrying.”

In 2001, an international treaty called the Stockholm Convention was adopted to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These chemical substances, once widely used in pesticides, run off from farmlands and slowly build up through food chains, threatening human health and the environment.

The Stockholm Convention, and the related Rotterdam Convention for Prior-Informed Consent, both came into force in 2004. The latter provides a first line of defence giving importing countries the tools and information they need to identify the potential hazards and to exclude chemicals they cannot manage safely.

Dr Heong emphasized the critical role of governance in strengthening defences against the pesticide tsunami: sound policies, adequate national laws and regulations, and their proper enforcement.

“We cannot control exports by another country. But we can all control imports into our own countries. It’s all about individual countries acting in their own defence,” he said.

He added: “This is deadly poison we are talking about! I feel strongly that the poison should not be sold like toothpaste in the open market. And that is the key: governments should either revive their laws or implement the laws (for effective regulation)”.

Filipino rice farmer spraying pesticides
Filipino rice farmer spraying pesticides

Governance crucial

He emphasized the need for structural transformation in policy and governance — which he likened to the ‘roof’ of the ‘house’ of agricultural production and consumption.

“We spend a lot of money training our farmers; we spend even more money researching ecological engineering, new (plant) varieties and so on. These are like the furniture, and very nice furniture. But because they are placed in a ‘house without a roof’, they just get washed away. So building a roof is vital,” he explained.

In his view, registering importers of agrochemicals and licensing wholesale traders is necessary – but not sufficient. Toxic agrochemicals are currently being peddled to farmers mostly by untrained salespersons and vendors – they have no certification, and operate without much (or any) supervision and accountability.

“Most subsistence rice farmers across Asia simply ask their nearest local vendor for crop protection advice – and the vendors, in turn, promote whatever they have in stock, or whichever brand that gives them the highest profit margins,” Dr Heong said.

He wants to see developing countries introduce regulatory and certification systems similar to how pharmaceutical drugs are imported and distributed. The medical and healthcare professionals have their own certification schemes to ensure compliance with laws and regulations.

“We are dealing with a profession, and we are dealing with poison! Why are we not having a certification programme (for those peddling it to end users)?” Dr Heong asked.

Malaysian-born K L Heong holds a PhD and DSc from Imperial College, London. Besides insect ecology, he has also studied the sociology of farmers’ decision making, and designed communication strategies for educating farmers on sustainable agriculture.

His research and campaigns have changed rice farmers’ attitudes and practices in plant protection in many countries. For example, his work in Vietnam contributed to farmers more than halving their insecticide use in several provinces in the Mekong Delta; similar reductions were also recorded when his work extended to Central Thailand and Northern Vietnam.

Dr Heong is a leading voice interviewed in ‘Hopper Race’, a new documentary film produced by TVE Japan looking at rice planthopper threats to rice production in Asia. The Bangkok workshop was held to plan the documentary’s distribution across South and Southeast Asia.

Read my full interview with Dr K L Heong, published on TVEAP website

Text Box: China’s Rising Toxic Exports

China’s domination in the world pesticides trade is borne out by global statistics compiled by the UN’s FAO, and confirmed by independent researchers.

Writing a paper in the Proceedings of the International Academy of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in 2011, researchers Wen Jung Zhang, Fu Bing Jiang and Jiang Feng Ou say China is now the largest producer and exporter, and the second largest consumer of pesticides in the world.

The researchers, attached to the School of Life Sciences at Sun Yet-sen University in Guangzhou, note: “Since 1983, China has increased the production of organophosphorus and carbamated pesticides. Meanwhile, pyrethroid and other pesticides were developed. Since 1994, pesticide export of China has exceeded its imports.

“So far, more than 2,000 pesticide companies, of which more than 400 companies are manufacturers of original pesticides; more than 300 varieties of original pesticides and 3,000 preparations are being manufactured…”

They add: “Pesticide pollution of air, water bodies and soils, and pesticide induced deaths in China has been serious” in recent years.

They say China has banned the use of high-residual HCH, DDT and other organochlorined pesticides since 1983. And since 2007, several highly poisonous organophosphorous pesticides (namely, parathionmethyl, parathion, methamidophos, and phosphamidon) are also banned.

What is not clear is if similar considerations are applied to pesticides that China exports to other developing countries.

Their full paper, “Global pesticide consumption and pollution: with China as a focus” is online at:

Ceylon Today, 14 March 2013 - The Coming Pesticide Tsunami - Made in China
Ceylon Today, 14 March 2013 – The Coming Pesticide Tsunami – Made in China