Pesticides: an alternative view from Africa Fighting Malaria

Richard Tren | 16 Oct 2008
The cool autumn air in Brussels means that the outdoor cafes are ideal places to sit, read and watch the world go by. This is a very pleasant, civilised and thoroughly European city. As with many European cities, there are little in the way of outward reminders of Belgium's brutal colonial history. The behaviour of Belgians in the Congo is probably something that many would prefer to forget and to move on; and perhaps they are right. However it is increasingly clear that the many European parliamentarians and Commissioners would, instead of just forgetting Europe's dalliances in Africa, perpetuate their legacy and inflict actual harm on African economies and people through their draconian rules and regulations.

The amendments to EU Directive 91/414 are the subject of enormous debate and gnashing of teeth. Farmers are, quite rightly, outraged that EU Commissioners and Parliamentarians seem set to restrict the chemicals that they need to produce safe, high quality and low cost food, just as consumers demand. The fact that the EU is prepared to de-list these chemicals in a process that is devoid of any sound, scientific merit means that costs will be incurred without any real benefits to consumers, farmers or the environment.

But malaria scientists and public health experts are also exercised about these regulations because of the implications for disease control and have submitted a letter of petition to the EU. Insecticides for public health make up a small fraction of the total pesticides market. But it is a vital market and these products save millions of lives every year. We need insecticides to battle the mosquitoes, sand flies and other bugs that transmit deadly diseases. Although the EU is only regulating plant protection products in the EU, the public health community worries that this will lead to fewer chemicals for disease control as products are taken off the market altogether. It simply will not be feasibly to produce insecticides for public health alone once the main agricultural uses are banned.

Furthermore, strict MRLs on produce mean that EU's regulations will be exported to any country wishing to export to the EU. The fact that the EU leads the world with these forms of regulations seems to be celebrated by activists. Pesticide Action Network's Elliot Cannell is of the opinion that the EU must pass these regulations precisely because the rest of the world will follow. Should this happen, it will be even more difficult, if not impossible, to use these much needed insecticides to control insect-borne diseases. In some countries malaria control using DDT for indoor spraying has ground to a halt simply out of fear that tiny residues of the insecticide on produce would lead to wholesale rejection of product from the EU. If other insecticides, such as pyrethroids, are banned, malaria control could grind to an alarming halt.

The EU's intention to regulate insecticides based solely on hazard-based assessments and to avoid any sound risk-assessment will make research and development of new products almost impossible. We need new insecticides for disease control. In some cases malaria control programs are using technologies and chemicals that are 60 or 70 years old. Resistance to insecticides is inevitable and as malaria control programs are scaled up, thanks to increased funding, the pressure on the resistant genes will only increase.

In response to my questions about the unintended consequences of the EU regulations to public health programs was dismissed by EU Commission's Wolfgang Reinert who blithely said that public health pesticides were governed by different EU regulations. This shows a staggering lack of understanding of the market for public health insecticides and a callousness about the fact that insect-borne diseases claim millions of lives every year, inflict great human suffering and impose enormous economic costs. Though of course the proponents of these regulations would probably not want these unpleasant facts to interfere with the notion that they are attempting to make the world a safer, healthier place. They are not. These regulations are not only unscientific, they are anti-science and as such will cost lives and hamper development.