04/26/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

Killing Fields: Agrochemicals and Kidney Disease

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In 1962, Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring that "For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception until death." Today, the cycle of poison created by chemical agriculture envelops all life on earth -- water, soil and air, plants and animals -- and threatens the very survival of humans and the health of ecosystems. An example of how agriculture-related chemicals are affecting humans is the prevalence of the chronic kidney disease (CKD), which is spreading in agricultural communities across the world.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, as many as 400,000 people may be suffering from kidney disease and some 22,000 people may have died from CKD over the last two decades in the North Central Province in Sri Lanka. Also according to WHO, more than 16,000 men have died of kidney failure in Central America between 2005 and 2009. In some villages in Uddanam in the remote agricultural belt of Andhra Pradesh, India, as much as 37 percent of the population is affected.

The CKD epidemics in Sri Lanka, Nicaragua and India have important features in common: The victims are farm workers, all suffer from a rare form of kidney damage known as tubule-interstitial disease (this is consistent with severe dehydration and toxic poisoning), and few suffer from diabetes and hypertension, which are common risk factors for kidney disease. In each case, the disease is classified as a mysterious disease of 'unknown etiology', as there is no scientific consensus on its cause.

The increased droughts and water shortages driven by global warming (and climate change more broadly) do not bode well for the eradication of CKD. According to findings of a WHO Report, ingesting heavy metals found in water due to unregulated use of fertilizer and pesticides is the main cause of CKD in Sri Lanka. WHO has recommended 'urgent action to improve safe use and quality control of agrochemicals and quality control of fertilizer'.

Chemical pesticides have their origin in modern warfare: Nazi Germany experimented with them as weapons. Malathion and Parathion were first used as deadly nerve gases during World War II. It was only later that they came to be applied against pests in agriculture. Pesticide pollution is one of the most serious global environmental and health issues today. Consumer agitation has led to banning and restricting of some of the most dangerous pesticides and improving safety standards in the global North. Many dangerous pesticides banned in the North are still being 'dumped' in some countries in the South, where regulation and safety standards are far more lax. Consequently, the countries in the North do not escape the poison: it comes back via pesticide-laden food imported from the South and through the ecosystem.

Ten companies in the global North consisting of the 'Big Six' -- Syngenta, Bayer, Monsanto, Dow, BASF and DuPont -- now control 90 percent of the $44 billion global pesticide market. Corporate control is not restricted to pesticides; it extends to other agricultural inputs, notably seeds and biotechnology. Fifty percent of the global seed market is dominated by 10 corporations, many of which are also top pesticide corporations. According to Monsanto's executive vice president and chief technology officer, "What you are seeing is... a consolidation of the entire food chain."

CKD activists in Nicaragua see the sugar industry, where most of the victims work, as a root cause of the disease. In 2006, the International Finance Group, the private sector arm of the World Bank, provided more than $100 million to two privately owned sugar plantations in Nicaragua to promote sugar cultivation and biofuel production. The workers at one of the plantations funded by the Bank, Ingenio San Antonio, have been protesting for close to a decade. They allege that pesticide use and labor practices of the plantation have caused the disease. Given WHO recommendations, on April 8, 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture in Sri Lanka banned the importation of three pesticides -- Chlorpyrifos, Propanil and Carbaryl -- and called for the reduction of the use of triple super phosphate fertilizer. This represents a major victory for CKD activists.

The search for solutions to CKD, however, must go beyond the implementation of pesticide bans to long-term approaches to health and livelihood. The victims of CKD, disenfranchised farmers have experiential understanding that the disease is not attributable to one isolated factor but the entire trajectory of unsustainable development that has turned their lands into killing fields. A global shift from the fragmented, highly techno-bureaucratic approach of agribusiness to organic agriculture that maintains agro-ecological balance between the soil, water, people, animals and insects, is urgently needed.