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Sustainability trade-offs and governance challenges of the “pesticide revolution” in Africa

Photographer CIMMYT/Peter Lowe

Farming in Africa is often believed to be “organic by default”, with few agrochemicals being used. Yet, recent articles (e.g., Haggblade et al., 2021, Mansfield et al., 2023) and FAO-data suggests that pesticide use is rapidly rising due to a “flood” of low-cost, generic pesticides, mostly from China and India. Some scholars call this a pesticide revolution.While pesticides promise to increase yields and reduce labour requirements, their devastating effects on human and environmental health have been a widely observed calamity of the Green Revolution.

Many pesticide problems can be minimized with better governance, e.g., by banning highly toxic ingredients, promoting integrated pest management (where pesticides are only used as a last resort), and ensuring the use of personal protective equipment. However, pesticide governance has been neglected in many African countries.

In a research project in Zambia we studied farmers’ perceptions of pesticides as well as governance challenges along the pesticide life cycle, with the aim of proposing feasible solutions for better governance. Participatory mapping techniques were methodically used to investigate the impacts of pesticides (based on focus group discussions with 159 farmers) and governance challenges (based on interviews with 87 stakeholders).

Farmers highly value pesticides and tolerate trade-offs as the necessary price to pay

The study shows that most farmers appreciate pesticides. Weighing positive against negative effects, 61.5% rated their net effects as positive or very positive – 37.5 % were undecided and 1% said that negative impacts dominate. Pesticides were seen to enable more effective control of pests before and after harvest, leading to higher yields and fewer losses, thereby reducing food insecurity. Herbicides were said to reduce the physical toil of farming and set time free for leisure, education, and off-farm business activities.

Farmers also reported negative effects; however, they appeared willing to accept them as a necessary price to pay (they may also have little choice), such as health problems (e.g., nausea, dizziness, severe accidents), which the limited use of protective equipment can aggravate Occasionally, pesticides are also misused as poison for hunting and fishing (pesticides are used to prepare baits or directly poured into rivers). Moreover, farmers noticed a loss of biodiversity, including edible insects and weeds, reducing dietary diversity.

While some pesticide dealers in larger towns are officially registered (left) or operate as mobile vendors (right). Picture Credit: Louis Schwarze

 “Selling pesticides like biscuits” and limited regulations and enforcement

Farmers are increasingly attracted to pesticides due to hawkish dealers who “sell pesticides like biscuits” or overly effusively advertise highly dangerous pesticides like Dichlorovos or Monocrotophos. Another problem is the sales of counterfeit or outdated pesticides and fruits and vegetables that were sprayed just recently – a problem linked to information asymmetries between traders and clients.

These problems are attributable to the proliferation of generic pesticide imports and traders, many of which are unregistered. Generic traders are “below the radar” and held less accountable by regulators and NGOs than traditional players like Syngenta and Bayer.

“The public authorities reduced informal pesticide trade in urban areas. But if you went to rural areas, you see it’s rampant. They just do the decanting themselves into bottles, which are not labelled. Then they write a fake label and stick it there.” – Pesticide Trader

Also there are pesticide dealers in suburbs and rural areas that are informal. Picture Credit: Louis Schwarze

Given the above-mentioned market failures, functional pesticide regulation would be crucial. However, the existing Zambian pesticide laws and policies are deficient, and reform attempts are stalled. Gaps in the policy framework include topics like highly hazardous pesticides, container disposal, resistance management, counterfeits, environmental and health impact monitoring, safety training, and integrated pest management. 

In addition to legal deficiencies, enforcement capacities are overstretched, given Zambia’s vast areas and limited funding and poor staffing of public agencies. Border controls are sporadic and many smaller border crossings are not monitored. Inspections of traders are rare and exclude chemical analysis due to a lack of laboratories. Health and environmental impacts are not systematically monitored.

“The inspecting officers are well trained; it is only their attitude and poor supervision. So, they are only strict at registration, but they don’t pay attention and rarely inspect what is happening on the ground. The moment a license is given, the inspections basically stop” – Pesticide Importer

Pesticides are sold in small quantities at prices from 2 USD. Repackaging into smaller, unlabelled bags is a common practice among dealers. Highly hazardous pesticides like Aluminium phosphide are sold for 0.05 USD in unsealed plastic bags. Picture Credit: Louis Schwarze

Policy action and innovation urgently required

To improve pesticide governance, creating political awareness and a willingness to act on the true social and environmental costs of pesticide use will be pivotal. International organisations and research can play a major role here, e.g. by coordinating stakeholders, elaborating alternative policies, and providing supplementary funding. Also, civil society organisations could create accountability.

There is a lot that governments across Africa can do. Governments could fully ban highly hazardous pesticides and consider introducing formal certificates for pesticide dealers, spraying service providers, and farmers. Hybrid governance models involving private, public, and civil actors could be used to increase efficiency. For instance, activities such as container recollection and qualification courses for pesticide dealers and spraying agents could become obligatory for importers. Moreover, regional harmonisation of pesticide legislation (e.g., via the Southern African Pesticides Regulators Forum) could free-up valuable capacities through joint registration and border control. Lastly, digital tools could play a role in environmental impact monitoring and the training of farmers on safety measures and alternative pest management strategies.

While pesticide-free agriculture may be an option in the long run – pending on attractive agronomic and technical alternatives – more effective regulation of pesticides seems pivotal in the short and medium term to avoid a gloomy scenario of indiscriminate pesticide-intensive small-scale farming.

Pesticides are sold in small quantities at prices from 2 USD. Repackaging into smaller, unlabelled bags is a common practice among dealers. Highly hazardous pesticides like Aluminium phosphide are sold for 0.05 € in unsealed plastic bags. Picture Credit: Louis Schwarze