BEIJING - China's farmers overuse pesticides, skip
protective clothing and have at their fingertips an array of banned and
counterfeit products, raising another area of concern in the country's food
Spraying chemicals on crops improperly or using products that may be fake or
banned risks the health of China's hundreds of millions of farmers and could
lead to unsafe levels of residues in fruits and vegetables, experts say.
"The government has to stop banned or illegal pesticides being available in
the market," said Angus Lam, a Greenpeace Campaign Manager for Food and
Agriculture based in the southern city of Guangzhou.
China banned five high toxicity pesticides as of January 1, but Lam said old
stock was still in the market, in the hands of traders, retailers and farmers
The government pledged last week to step up inspections in its food industry,
saying checks on fertilisers and pesticides would be one of the priority areas.
Evidence suggests that China's farmers routinely misuse pesticides and fail
to protect themselves.
A project in the southwestern province of Sichuan undertaken by CropLife
Asia, a federation representing manufacturers, found that after training, more
farmers used personal protective equipment and more read product labels and
followed the instructions.
The training resulted in a decrease in pesticide use and significant cost
But the biggest behavioural change the study found was that
farmers properly disposed of pesticide containers -- previously they had tossed
empty waste containers into their fields.
Some experts say that recent government policies that lower the price of
pesticides are also misguided.
"Many governments feel that they're doing the farmers a favour by promoting
policies that create lower prices for these products, said George Fuller,
executive director of CropLife Asia. "The unintended consequence of that is that
the farmers don't have a reason to use them properly."
Not only are banned substances available, but Fuller estimates that some 20
percent of the pesticides sold in China are fakes.
"The counterfeiters are good. Sometimes it's very difficult for a farmer to
know that he's buying a counterfeit product."
"They're very good at packaging and labels and there are some cases where the
counterfeiting has a certain amount of protection from the local authorities,"
All agree that China needs to implement a comprehensive system to clean-up
"You cannot just start at one end," said Angelika Tritscher, a scientist with
the World Health Organisation's International Programme on Chemical Safety.
"You have to work on the manufacturing process, you have to work on educating
the farmers, you need legislation in place to regulate accessibility to
pesticides, and then of course you have to have monitoring programmes in place,"
China hosts two committees of Codex Alimentarius, the food standards body run
by the United Nations, on food additives and pesticides use, an indication that
it is taking food safety issues more seriously.
But part of the problem lies in the web of agencies who share responsibility
for food safety.
For pesticides, the Ministry of Agriculture monitors field use, the state
planner and the Commerce Ministry grant production licences, the Ministry of
Health is responsible for setting maximum residue levels, and the State
Environmental Protection Administration monitors environmental impacts.
Producers are often small-scale, and retailers are sometimes travelling
salesmen, making monitoring nearly impossible.
"By the time the farmers find out there's some problem, they can't trace
back," said Greenpeace's Lam. "The retailer has already moved away."