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Are These the Types of Vegetables and Fruits that We Grow Up Eating?

By Zhou Miao-Fei
Translated by Yan En

I live in the rural area where I have frequent contacts with the farmers. The slogan of the veggie-selling granny in the market is “home grown, no pesticides!” I got someone to estimate the cost of reconstructing my mango orchard. The person earnestly shared his farming experience with me. Once he heard that we don’t spray pesticides and herbicides, he firmly and bluntly said, “You won’t get to eat one single mango!”

A friend of mine grows guava and he takes pride in not spraying herbicide. He loves to boast to his two neighbours who are also guava growers. He says that his guavas are more fragrant, sweet and delicious, and can always fetch a good price.

I asked him, “Do you use pesticide?” He said, “Of course. It’s a mixture of various pesticides and hormones. I get someone to do the spraying once every 6 weeks. After each spray, I stay off the orchard for one to two weeks.”

Pressing on, I asked again, “Can you not spray?” He firmly said, “No way! There are three guava orchards next to each other. If one is sprayed, the other two must follow suit immediately. Because the bugs fly!”

Are these the type of vegetables and fruits that we grow up eating?

Georgina Downs will be named as one of the “pioneers of environmental reform” along with Rachel Carson (the author of Silent Spring) and Erin Brockovich. That is because she has just won a landmark case in the High Court of England. She went to court with the British government for 7 years, suing the government for not sufficiently supervising the after effects of pesticide sprays, leading to impaired health of the people.

Ms Georgina Downs, currently aged 35, had been living in Chichester, West Sussex, a rural area in England since she was 11. There were farms nearby where pesticides were constantly sprayed. She was often sick and hospitalized, and had to apply for sick leave from school. However the doctors couldn’t find the cause. One day when she was 19, while sitting at home feeling exhausted and frail, she looked out the window and saw the farms being sprayed with pesticides. It dawned on her that the reason why she and her family members were constantly sick and unwell could be linked to the spray drift. She couldn’t get the answers when she asked the farmers. It turned out that legally, farmers were free to buy various types of pesticides, and they could use it anytime. There was no restriction and no rule that required the farmers to inform neighboring residents.

After some in-depth research on toxic chemicals, she found that pesticides can cause many types of acute and chronic sicknesses, and is also the culprit for her many years of disease. She turned to official environment unit for help, but she could not take any legal action against farms using chemical sprays. So she could only stay elsewhere at friends’ homes during the spraying period, each time for several weeks, which added up to a total of 5 months in a year.

She decided to fight back in 2001. Her thought was that if farmers were legally free to use toxic chemicals, this meant that the law had to be changed. Her courage and determination brought about a series of in-depth research and investigation: Was the government being too lenient on regulating spray drift which led to impaired health of the people? Was the established safety level of chemical sprays for human body safe enough? Had the government failed its duty?

The more understanding Downs gained, the more concerned she was with the seriousness of the issue. So for 7 years, she launched a campaign and with the help of a group of legal experts, she finally proved that the government had never truly evaluated the health issue of the people who were exposed to pesticides constantly. Along the way, she received lots of help and admiration, and she won many substantial awards, including Daily Mail’s Inspirational Eco Woman of the Year, Andrew Lees Memorial Award at the 2006 British Environment and Media Awards (BEMAs), and the Heroine Award at Cosmopolitan magazine’s inaugural Fun Fearless Female Awards in November 2006.

On 14 Nov 2008, the High Court of England ruled that the evidence on how the people had been victimized as presented by Downs was true beyond doubt. The damage control system used by the government had not protected the people. The court ordered to set a new regulation on the harmful level of pesticide sprays. This would also greatly affect the chemical industry. Downs made a declaration outside the High Court, expressing her anger towards the government for not having taken any action throughout the years. Below is an excerpt: “First of all, I want to announce that I have won the lawsuit in the High Court against the British government. This case is based on sufficient evidence that I have submitted to the British government for the past 7 years, and through thorough debate with the British government. I have fully proved that my charges are without errors.”

Australia is quite similar to England, in the aspects of protecting her people from pesticides and on the evaluation of the harmful effects of pesticides. There is no legal regulation that demands farmers to notify neighbouring residents when they spray the pesticides. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) has just introduced a policy – “Operating Principles in Relation to Spray Drift Risk” – to control the harmful effects of pesticides. But APVMA estimates that it will take several years before the policy can be implemented, as more than 2,800 types of pesticides require the test. They only test the harmful effects of one single type of pesticide, and not the combined harmful effects of being exposed to multiple pesticides (which are often sprayed simultaneously).

  • Pesticides are chemicals used to kill living organisms. They include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. In 2004, England sold 31,000 ton of pesticides at the value of 467 million pounds, out of which 86% are used in agriculture and gardening.
  • The types of pesticides and spraying frequency for each type of crops are different, and they also differ by regions and the preference of users. Roughly within one growing season of grains (e.g. rice, wheat, corn, etc.)  5 to 6 types of pesticides are sprayed; for potatoes 13 types, for apples 18 types.
  • Acute symptoms caused by pesticides include: throat infection, burning sensation of skin / nose / eyes, blisters, headaches, dizziness, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle soreness and pain.
  • Chronic symptoms caused by pesticides include: cancer (breast / adrenal gland / stomach / colon / brain / skin / blood), nervous system (Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), asthma, allergies, endocrine system.
  • APVMA Operating Principles in Relation to Spray Drift Risk (July 2008): www.apvma.gov.au

Translated from Taiwan Lapis Lazuli Light Magazine, May 2009 issue