The soy industry’s poison package

Photo: Austin Valley via flickr.com, creative commons licence

Arnaldo Carneiro Filho

A battle is being fought in Brazil over proposed changes to pesticide legislation, which could have serious consequences for the future sustainability of the soy industry.

If Brazil’s powerful ruralist group within the Brazilian Congress (heavily supported by agribusiness) succeed in pushing what has become known as the ‘poison package’ through, new pesticides will no longer have to be approved by the National Agency of Sanitary Surveillance (Anvisa) or the environmental agency, Ibama — with the Ministry of Agriculture taking over control.

The measures are important for the soy industry which is a heavy user of pesticides, particularly glyphosate, which has come under increasing scrutiny due to health concerns.

Brazil is the second biggest market for Monsanto’s genetically modified soy seeds, modified for use with the pesticide, glyphosate.

Name changes

Under the proposals in the bill, pesticides will be reclassified as “agricultural pesticides” and “phytosanitary products”. The Ministry of Agriculture will be able to release temporary licences for products, and products will only be prohibited if they are found to present an “unacceptable risk”.

That means there will be no prior evaluation of the negative impacts of products put forward for licensing, and no assessment of the potential threat to human health and the environment.

Health concerns

Health and environmental agencies have lined up to oppose the change in the law, putting forward scientific evidence to support their case that the change will pose a risk to human health and the environment.

Brazil is already the world’s biggest user of pesticides, with many products that are banned in other countries permitted for use — including paraquat, which has been recognised as “highly poisonous” in the United States. One third of the pesticides permitted in Brazil have been banned in the EU.

Opponents of the change in the law include environmental NGOs, Anvisa, the National Cancer Institute (Inca), Ibama and the Department of Surveillance in Environmental Health and Worker’s Health (Ministry of Health).

Anvisa currently bans the use of nine agrochemicals because of their links to cancer, reproductive disorders, or because they are known to be hormone disrupters. The agency has warned that approval of the bill may result in a more flexible approach to the Agrochemicals Law also in Congress.

Concerns over glyphosate

In December 2017 the Brazilian Public Prosecutor asked the Justice Department to suspend the use of glyphosate due to growing concerns about the impacts on human health. The pesticide has been described by the WHO as probably carcinogenic to humans.

In Europe, where glyphosate is widely used in agriculture and weed control, a number of countries are considering bans and the French President Emanuel Macron has said the pesticide should be banned within three years.

Last year, the European Union refused a 15-year licence for the use of glyphosate. Instead, it was given a five-year licence, with the possibility that glyphosate may have to be phased out in Europe from 2022.

The accepted level of glyphosate residue in the EU is 0.05 microgrammes per kilo (Mg/Kg), compared to 10 Mg/Kg in Brazil.

Environmental risks

There are also concerns about the impact on the environment, should the law be changed. Studies near soy plantations have already shown pesticide residues are contaminating the surrounding environment, with residues found in rainwater samples.

This environmental exposure has also been detected by biological indicator analysis among soy plantation workers and among residents in neighbouring areas.

Increased pesticide use would add to the environmental toll of soy production, and undermine efforts to move to a more sustainable production model.

Arnaldo Carneiro Filho is Head of the Supply Chains Programme at Global Canopy