Science - April 20, 2006

Cotton pesticides also affect women

In the cotton growing areas of south India, women are exposed to pesticides and have as many symptoms of poisoning as men, even though spraying is done mainly by men. Francesca Mancini devoted her PhD research to the subject and will graduate on 21 April under Professor Ariena van Bruggen, chair of the Biological Farming Systems Group.

The symptoms of poisoning are mainly eye- and skin irritations, respiratory problems and gastro-intestinal disturbances. In a few cases the use of aggressive chemicals proves fatal. The long-term debilitating effects of pesticide poisoning are damage to the nervous system and memory defects.

Although it is mainly men who spray the pesticides, women are also exposed to them as a result of not taking appropriate precautions during preparation, use and storage of pesticides. Pesticides are often applied with hand sprayers, and those doing the work have bare hands and feet, and do not use masks. Farmers are sometimes still carrying pesticide residues when they return to their houses. Inadequate transport or storage in containers that are not properly sealed can also result in pesticides being spread among a wider group of people than just the users.

The health problems that Mancini recorded are more serious than the official Indian government statistics indicate. According to Mancini’s observations, cotton growers show light to heavy symptoms of poisoning in 84 percent of the activities examined. These are directly related to pesticide use, such as transport, preparation and spraying of pesticide solutions. This figure is much higher than had been assumed on the basis of hospital data. Poor farmers rarely visit hospitals because of the high costs, or the lack of nearby facilities.

Mancini also evaluated the Farmer Field Schools’ work on reducing pesticide use and going over to the use of alternative insect pest control. Here she discovered that it is mainly women who are interested in learning about biological control methods, such as using insects’ natural enemies. Mancini calculated that in the area where she carried out her research, the provinces of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the use of pesticides could be reduced by eighty percent with no decrease in cotton yields.

Mancini’s supervisor Professor Ariena van Bruggen: ‘It is very difficult to measure the effects of Farmer Field Schools, but Francesca has succeeded. There has been a lot of political debate about the effectiveness of the approach, but Francesca has convincingly shown that the approach these schools use has a significantly positive effect on farmers’ ecological knowledge, their organisational capacities, the use of pesticides, and on the environment. She has also backed up her arguments with statistical analyses.’

Many cotton growers in India are hostage to seed and pesticide traders, who only sell GM seeds and the expensive chemical pesticides that they require. Most of the pesticides used in cotton cultivation belong to the World Health Organization’s categories ‘very dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’. / HB

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