Industry needs to look beyond pesticides

Ag industry needs to look beyond pesticides


Grain
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You've heard the case for the use of herbicides, here is a veterinary scientist's take on why we should look for alternatives.

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Matt Landos is concerned about agriculture's reliance on pesticides, saying farmers will are at risk from high levels of exposure to farm chemicals.

Matt Landos is concerned about agriculture's reliance on pesticides, saying farmers will are at risk from high levels of exposure to farm chemicals.

WE NEED to look more carefully at any potential links between human health and the use of farm chemicals.

Just recently there was a quote from Roy Butler, newly minted NSW State representative of Barwon, expressing concern about declining life expectancies in rural Australia.

"In the 20 years between 1996 and 2016, life expectancy in the far west of NSW went backwards by 1.5 years, whereas if you lived in the city your life expectancy went up 6.9 years," he said.

It is worth thinking about why this is so, looking at the region's status as a major agricultural hub, especially with the improved diagnostics and medicine we now have.

For those interested in what science can offer us, there are some clues pointing clearly to insufficiently controlled pesticide risks.

The poorer health outcomes of farmers in Australia parallel those in the US and elsewhere.

It is not only the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that has hit the headlines through the US court cases against Bayer / Monsanto regarding the use of Roundup.

There is also correlation between the use of pesticides and diabetes.

A recent study found in Thai farmers, that after adjusting for gender, age, body mass index BMI, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, family history of diabetes, and occupation, that exposure to pesticides was positively associated with increased risk of developing diabetes.

The science is also in regarding the link between Parkinson's Disease and pesticides.

These results can't simply be explained away.

Even when accounting for other lifestyle factors pesticide exposures stand out as a risk that ties in with increased disease rates.

Farmers are in the worst spot in all of this, in the front line of exposure to the dangerous products.

Many of these exposures are inadvertent- inhaling pesticide vapours as they volatise from paddocks, having pesticide coated dust enter the home, on your skin, on your clothes, spray drift and more.

There are some that argue that safer application will stop disease, and while there is some merit to this and wearing full PPE reduces exposure- it can't stop all the increased exposure risks from conventional farming.

I have witnessed many occasions when PPE is not followed with precision- for its too hot, there is a rush on, equipment is out-of-date, a clumsy moment strikes, masks are broken - oversights happen and there are unfortunate consequences.

Perhaps the National Farmers Federation could better represent the health of its members and push for substantial new investment into farming techniques which are not reliant on pesticide use.

Better directions are emerging with some farmers leading innovations into regenerative farming techniques that substantially reduce agrichemical inputs- the need for change has never been greater.

Too much agricultural research remains focused on developing more pesticide dependent farming methods.

This research has yielded more risk for farmers from more sprays in GM herbicide tolerant crops.

The recent NFF defence of glyphosate appears to pit farmers health against their farm's viability- surely there is a third choice.

I often hear farmers say, that herbicides are 'necessary evils', which highlights the perceived binary quandary, that herbicides are dangerous and have serious negative impacts on human health, soil health and the health of receiving waterways, and that many farmers do not have a viable alternative at hand which they can confidently turn to and sustain cash flow.

I believe the third choice is to commence a major national R&D fund focused on creating and extending the knowledge of farming systems that do not require heavy agrichemical inputs.

That is to make the 'necessary evils', unnecessary.

Just targeting glyphosate, as has happened in some quarters lately, is not the solution either.

It seems improbable that only the regulatory work surrounding glyphosate is a concern.

It appears the NFF know this, but I don't see any call from them to reassess other chemicals, or consider stronger controls to prevent undesirable impacts on their constituency.

The cost-benefit of all agrichemical use needs to be reviewed, as the costs to public health systems, losses in aquatic productivity and the Great Barrier Reef, are mounting to the point, where the improvements in yield may no longer economically sustain the argument for use.

The social impacts of earlier human mortality and life-long morbidity from conditions like diabetes all require due consideration. Presently, these costs are considered in isolation to the agricultural yield benefits.

Sadly not Liberal, Labor, Nationals or the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party called for such a sober review in this election campaign.

A dawning that the concept of continuous consumption of necessary evil is unwise must come.

Over time, I expect farmers will view this as failing to represent their best interests. For everyone knows, without your health, life is far less wonderful.

In truth, it is clear there are many unsafe exposures happening to farmers, that are having a deleterious effect on their health, and that of their children, and of their yet to be born children.

* Matt Landos is a veterinary scientist and the director of Future Fisheries Veterinary Services. He is also an honorary lecturer with Sydney University's vet science faculty. He is based in Ballina, NSW.

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