In absolute numbers, no other nation consumes more pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and bactericides than Brazil. Latin America’s biggest economy spends USD 10 billion on these products each year, which isn’t, in itself, so surprising. Brazil is one of the world’s largest food producers – especially when it comes to crops such as soybeans, corn, and sugarcane.
Its warm and humid climate, coupled with massive biodiversity, makes Brazil’s plantations more susceptible to pests – as, unlike other countries, Brazil can’t rely on low temperatures as a form of biological control. Plus, swathes of land dominated by monoculture favor the proliferation of pests.
However, looking at the absolute numbers can be misleading. If we consider the amount of agrochemicals used per hectare of plantation, Brazil drops to seventh position, behind Japan and France – the latter of which uses pesticides as an excuse to impose restrictions on Brazilian agricultural products entering Europe.
Brazil’s legal framework for the use of pesticides is highly dysfunctional. Roughly 1,000 such products are awaiting approval from sanitary authorities – a wait that could last up to 10 years. In the U.S. or Europe, this waiting time usually doesn’t surpass the three-year mark. Brazil’s environmental agency has only 40 professionals working – and not exclusively – on the issue. At the country’s sanitary watchdog, the amount of people looking into pesticides is half of what would be necessary – only 35 people.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., 600 agents act on the issue – which allows them to process approval requests faster.
This morosity takes its toll: an estimated 48 percent of substances that apply for approval never reach the market. Sometimes, the active agent becomes obsolete or the company’s operations in Brazil change radically. To curb the negative effects of waiting times, most companies try a fix that actually worsens the problem: they apply for multiple authorizations at once, even before all their research is completed. It is a way of saving their space in line, as it is possible to alter the submitted product before analyses begin.
The Brazilian House steps in
One of the most controversial ways to slash that waiting time is a bill that will make regulations on pesticides much more flexible. The bill was approved on June 25 by a House Committee, and must still be analyzed by the House floor, before going to the Senate. Nicknamed the “Poisonous Bill,” the project wants to concentrate the responsibility for analyzing and accepting new products within the Ministry of Agriculture.
The bill has come under criticism for further empowering the ministry, which is dominated by agricultural producers who might be the least impartial actors in this entire dispute. As a matter of fact, the bill was presented to Congress back in 2008 by then-Senator Blairo Maggi – now Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture. Mr. Maggi was once known as the “Soy King,” and first gained international prominence in 2006, when Greenpeace awarded him the Golden Chainsaw Award for being “the person who most contributed to the Amazon’s destruction.”
Today, the approval of pesticides is the responsibility of three independent institutions: the agriculture ministry, the environmental agency, and the sanitary watchdog. Each has its own standards and rhythm, which prevents the process from having any predictability whatsoever. But handing everything over to the Ministry of Agriculture could diminish the weight of analysis about the impacts of pesticides on people’s health.
Another major point of controversy is the 12-month limit for granting permits. Some congressmen even defend that, if the public administration doesn’t analyze the product within that time, producers will be temporarily allowed to use them until a decision says otherwise.
“The bill means more poison on the plates of Brazilian families. It will certainly increase the amount of serious diseases in the country, like cancer. It is absurd,” exclaims Congressman Alessandro Molon, one of the bill’s many opponents. The bill’s sponsor, Congressman Luiz Nishimori, however, defends his stance: “Only 5 percent of authorization demands are for new molecules, the rest is for generic (and already approved) substances.”
Pesticides in Brazil
According to data from 2014, around 60 percent of the Brazilian pesticide market is dominated by five major companies – all of them multinationals: Syngenta (18 percent), Bayer CropScience (17 percent), Basf (9 percent), DowDuPont (8 percent), FMC (7 percent).
According to the Brazilian Association of Collective Health, 70 percent of all in natura foods include pesticides. Official data, however, indicates that the toxicity of the substances used by Brazilian producers has decreased considerably over the past 50 years. Still the country allows many substances that have been forbidden in other countries.
And even if the global use of pesticides per hectare is lower than the average of developed countries, there are studies that show the volume used in some states are higher than what is used in similar farms in Belgium, for instance – whether by ignorance or by the false belief that the more you use them, the more productive a crop will be. Even if it is detrimental to consumers.