Some days ago, news was agog across Nigeria’s social media space about sniper-treated beans. The frightening news was that some traders were caught mixing harvested beans intended for the market with “Sniper”, a popular insecticide that is notoriously poisonous to humans. That seeming harmless news about sniper-treated beans created such an uproar because of the dire implications of residues of pesticides in food for public health.
But wait a minute, what are pesticides? Is sniper a pesticide? What brings about sniper-treated beans? Are pesticides really harmful or of any significant threats to man? How do you protect your your family and loved ones against food poisoning from pesticides in food? These and other important questions are what this article seeks to help you clarify.
What are pesticides?
According to the WHO, “Pesticides are chemical compounds that are used to kill pests, including insects, rodents, fungi and unwanted plants (weeds). Pesticides are used in public health to kill vectors of disease, such as mosquitoes, and in agriculture, to kill pests that damage crops.”
So in the real sense of it, pesticides are supposedly good things as they help get rid of pests (other unwanted plants or animals) that often pose great threat to man, his crops and other valuables. Thus, pesticides are strategic to global food production; they ensure maximum agricultural yields, minimize loses and in turn, ensure food security and optimal income for farmers.
According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, between 40-50% of food produced by farmers in developing countries are lost to pests, crop diseases and post-harvest losses. These losses are significantly substantial, particularly when you remember Africa is the least developed and “poorest” continent and one of the most food-stressed continents. A NEPAD draft strategy report put the number of people that die from hunger yearly in Africa at 5 million – another recent report put the figure far higher, reporting that 5 million children die of hunger in Africa annually. So, pesticides are somewhat a much needed solution to the problem of food insecurity.
The harmful side of residual pesticides in food such as sniper-treated beans
But there is a side to pesticides that makes them far more deadly than many can imagine.
According to the WHO, “By their nature, pesticides are potentially toxic to other organisms, including humans, and need to be used safely and disposed of properly.”
When wrongly applied in the wrong place or in excess amount in the right place, or when residual pesticides in food are above the permissible limits, they can cause serious public health problems.
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According to a UN report in 2017, over 200,000 people die annually from pesticide poisoning – a number of these deaths are from the consumption of residual pesticides in food and food products such as sniper-treated beans. Many chemicals found in pesticides have also been reported to be carcinogenic (cause cancer).
In spite of the fact over seventy five percent of the world’s pesticides are used in rich and developed countries, most cases of pesticide poisoning are recorded in developing countries that surprisingly use only twenty percent of the total volume of world’s pesticides. Some of the reasons for this are not far-fetched; in developing countries, regulations and enforcement of standards on safe use of pesticides is weak, plus an abysmal lack of public awareness on the dangers posed by pesticides amongst other factors.
Consumption of sniper-treated beans or residual pesticides in food can cause or lead to “Respiratory tract irritations, sore throat and/or cough, allergic sensitization, eye and skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, loss of consciousness, extreme weakness, seizures and/or death”. Furthermore, sniper-treated beans or residual pesticides in food and consumption of pesticides through other sources have also been linked to “Cancer; diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS; birth defects and reproductive disorders; asthma, COPD, and more”.
Due to the global threats that pesticides pose and the serious adverse effects they cause, including their ability to persist in potent forms in natural mediums such as soil and water years after their application, the use of a number of pesticides such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and lindane has been prohibited by 2001 Stockholm Convention (2001), an international convention which seeks to eliminate or limit the production and use of persistent organic pollutants.
Abuse, misuse or over-application of chemical pesticides exerts a heavy burden on the environment – they could also contaminate water bodies such as streams, lakes– this is a serious issue in areas where there are no efficient municipal water treatment or in areas where residents depend directly on water from such water bodies. Indiscriminate application of pesticides could also wipe out unintended plants and animals, including those already facing the threat of extinction or intense anthropological pressures.
Are sniper-treated beans or the use of pesticides new in Nigeria?
No, sniper-treated beans and the use of pesticides is not new in Nigeria. In fact, the use of pesticides is common in Nigeria. Many farmers would readily admit to using sniper to prevent invasion of grains such as beans. The pesticide market in Nigeria is an emerging one with big potentials. Many farmers use pesticides such as glyphosate and atrazine, two most-used pesticides in the world, to control weeding, prevent spoilage and to prolong the lifespan of farm produce. But abuse, misuse and over-use are rife, resulting in potentially harmful and disastrous outcomes are common incidences.
Water bodies have been known to be contaminated by pesticides, while fauna and flora on farmlands where pesticides are indiscriminately applied, die.
One of the deadliest effects of pesticides is through the consumption of foods that have been contaminated by pesticides on the farm or during storage – this is one of the most subtle and deadly routes.
After harvest, many farmers apply pesticides on their farm produce to prevent spoilage and preserve the produce. But if such farmers after application of pesticides immediately sell off such produce in the market, rather than allowing enough time for the effects of the pesticides to wear off, serious consequences, including death, could results for unsuspecting consumers who buy and eat such contaminated food produce.
To prevent adverse effects such as have been highlighted above, various research are ongoing on non-harmful substitutes to chemical pesticides called biopesticides. While a number of solutions based on biopesticides are now in the market, there is still a long way to go before biopesticides are affordable and widespread enough to completely replace chemical pesticides in the global market. Mojisola Oyebode Karigidi is one of the leading young researchers in the field of biopesticides in Nigeria.
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Sanctions over the abuse of use of chemical pesticides by farmers in Nigeria
In fact, issues bordering on abuse of pesticides and residual pesticides in food such as sniper-treated beans are one of the things that continue to hold the Nigerian farmer back from full penetration of the international market.
The international community is aware of the flagrant abuse of pesticides by Nigerian farmers, and how over time, certain foods, such as grains which are exported from Nigeria contain residual pesticides that are far above permissible limits.
In June 2015, the EU imposed a three-year ban on exports of beans from Nigeria. The ban was imposed after it was found that the samples of beans exported from Nigeria consistently contained residues of a pesticide, dichlorvos, far above the maximum limit – a situation that posed risk to humans who consume such contaminated foods. The ban was lifted in November 2016 after it was deemed that Nigerian exporters had made some immense improvement in addressing the situation. It is in everyone’s interest that we do not go back to the dark days. That is why the news of illicit application of pesticides noted in the first paragraph of this article should be of concern to you because no one can tell where such contaminated beans would end up.
How to protect your family from food poisoning by pesticides – some simple ways
- Advice for farmers:
- If you can, grow organic foods only
- If you must use pesticides on your farm, use only recommended brand and dose of pesticides
- Follow strictly the instructions of use as prescribed
- Allow enough time between application of pesticides and use of the food products
- Where possible, food produce should be rightly labeled with relevant information on cultivation to consumers
- Explore using appropriate non-toxic, biological pest control methods such as the use of biopesticides
- Advice for consumers (members of the public):
- Pay attention to the food produce you buy and where you buy them
- If you can, buy only organic foods
- Grow your own vegetables and food, e.g. if you can, have a small garden for your fruits and vegetables
- Avoid eating raw, uncooked or poorly cooked food
- Wash food produce thoroughly with salt water and vinegar before eating or cooking
- Ensure your food is properly cooked before eating
- Report suspicious cases of suspected abuse of use of pesticides or pesticides in food such as sniper-treated beans to appropriate authorities
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