A farmer applying pesticide on his farm.

Is it not time for a national discussion on drastically reducing and then ending the use of chemical pesticides?

Ghana’s Pesticide Crisis was a report published by Christian Aid 12 years ago. The findings may be still relevant today. Why else would discussions about inorganic pesticide use be taking place on a popular radio morning show?  During one episode, a guest promoted the “responsible” use of pesticides. The host asked the guest what were the major challenges. 

First, the guest noted that the people who were trained to explain the proper use of pesticides to farmers did not stay in their jobs for a long time.  Selling pesticides was not a desired job. It was merely a means to an end. Those trained to promote appropriate pesticide use left that job as soon as they could.

As the show continued, I found myself asking these questions: Who really stands to gain from the increased use of pesticides? Why do we hear little, if anything at all, about reducing or ending the use of pesticides?

According to the 2017/18 Ghana Census of Agriculture: Generally, the use of pesticides is more common than that of fertilizer among all arable crop holders. About two-thirds (66.2%) of holders use pesticides with eight in ten holders who cultivate non-leafy vegetables (82.9%), horticulture (81.8%) and herbs/spices/condiments (80.5%) use pesticides. For mono-cropping, eight in every ten holders who cultivate non-leafy vegetables (86.6%) and horticultural crops (82.7%) use pesticides and for mixed-cropping, eight in every ten holders who grow herbs (81.1%) and non-leafy vegetables (80.0%).

Pesticides are widely used in Ghanaian agriculture. But what exactly are these pesticides? First, be aware: that pesticides were first developed by the US military as biological weapons. One of the first such weapons was the plant-killing chemical 2,4-D. It is worth reading Gale Peterson’s “The Discovery and Development of 2,4-D.”

Since the 1940s the use of pesticides has continued to grow alongside the spread of industrial agriculture. One of the things that makes the spraying of pesticides appealing is that it reduces the need for weeding. Historically, this was done manually. However, as the industrialisation of agriculture led to bigger and bigger farms, manual weed control struggled to keep pace with the superweeds engineered by the industrial agricultural model itself. The “convenience” of plant-killing chemicals gained great appeal. If chemical fertilizer usage represents the “modernization” of agriculture by the corporations who make them, then using chemical pesticides simplifies the journey to this modernization.

But other than killing the plants farmers don’t want, what else do these plant-killing chemicals do? Do we know what they are doing to farmers? What do these chemicals do to us – eaters -- when chemical residues remain in/on the food we eat?  Is there a link between the use of pesticides and what seems to be an epidemic of kidney disease in Ghana? Are these pesticides linked to many of the cancers currently present? 

Here is some of what we know:

A BBC story cites a 2020 study which found that 44% of the world’s estimated 860 million agricultural workers worldwide, experience pesticide poisoning annually.   The development of autism among children has been linked to exposure to pesticides when very young and even as a fetus. In general, children face a higher risk of pesticide poisoning than adults. This is linked to their behaviours. Children tend to put their hands in their mouths more than adults do, which increases their risk of accidentally ingesting pesticides. An article in the journal, Environmental Toxicology, notes that children risk absorbing higher doses of pesticides because their intake of food or fluids per pound of body weight is greater than that of adults.

Beyond the negative impact on human health, pesticides are also destructive to other forms of life. In agriculture, the major concern may be the impact of pesticides on pollinators and other beneficial insects. According to the US Department of Agriculture, animal pollinators support approximately 35 per cent of the world’s food crops. Yet, human activities are the major reason behind the death of pollinators. This has led the European Parliament to call for a reduction in the use of pesticides to save Europe’s bees.

Are there alternatives to using poisons for controlling unwanted plants?  Yes. It is called agroecological crop protection (ACP). It is informed by agroecology, ecology, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), organic farming and natural farming.  Importantly, ACP is geared towards eliminating the use of pesticides for crop protection. In this holistic approach, improved soil health and positive interactions between plant and animal communities and natural pest regulation are key aspects of crop protection.

There is a growing number of successful family farmers in Ghana producing food without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They need adequate support from the policy arena. Farmers and eaters need policies that promote the elimination of pesticide usage as well as strengthen support and financing for agroecological crop protection.  Can we imagine a 60% reduction in pesticide use by 2030? What about a complete phase-out of pesticides by 2035? Is this not a worthy goal for Ghana?


Chaka Uzondu (Ph.D.) is a participatory facilitator, researcher and policy analyst. His writings cover topics ranging from agroecology, climate change, economic justice, food sovereignty, health, housing, political ecology/economy, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.