A survey by researchers at Copenhagen University has found nine out of ten Cambodian farmers show symptoms of extreme pesticide poisoning. Experts say safety measures are often ignored or misunderstood.
Srey Kuot grows cilantro, spinach and cabbage just outside of Phnom Penh
Agriculture is Cambodia's most important economic sector. Around 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and is mainly involved in subsistence farming.
Where you have crops, you have pesticides, and in poor countries like Cambodia farmers routinely spray toxic cocktails on their crops to combat insects.
For their study, Danish researchers surveyed around 90 vegetable farmers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
They found that half of the pesticides those farmers used were considered extremely hazardous, highly hazardous or moderately hazardous by the World Health Organization. Some were even banned.
Often the farmers cannot read the safety instructions on the pesticides they use
Labels are in foreign languages
Many farmers seem unaware of how to use them safely. Cambodia doesn’t manufacture pesticides, so most are imported from Thailand, Vietnam and China. That means that none of the labels is in Khmer, the local language.
Ten years ago, the government brought in a law requiring that all pesticides be labelled in Khmer, but it is widely ignored, says agronomist and pesticide expert Keam Makarady from CEDAC, an agricultural NGO.
He says farmers can choose from more than 800 pesticides and that "95 percent of them are labeled in a foreign language, which makes it difficult for the farmers to know what kind of pesticide they are using and to follow the directions for safe use."
Moreover, the whole matter is complicated by the fact that farmers are often reluctant to use pesticides carrying labels in Khmer as they assume they are substandard.
Reliance on pesticides salesmen
Unable or unwilling to read the labels, farmers have to rely on the word of their neighbors or pesticide salesmen when working out how to use them.
Srey Kuot is a 22-year-old contract farmer who grows cilantro, spinach and cabbage on a small plot of land outside Phnom Penh.
Toxins enter the environment, meaning that much of the food sold on markets is contaminated
She freely admits that she has no idea what pesticides she uses. She says the person in the market who contracts her to grow the crops provides her with the pesticides and tells her how to use them.
However, she does take precautions. When she sprays, she wears shoes, trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a mask. So she rarely gets ill from pesticide poisoning.
88 percent reported acute poisoning symptoms
But Srey Kuot says her sister is not so careful. "I have seen her be poisoned. Every time, she sprays without wearing the proper clothes, she gets dizzy and vomits. If I sit downwind when she is spraying then I get dizzy and want to vomit immediately."
The Danish researchers found that most farmers do not use adequate protective gear when spraying and 88 percent reported symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning.
Although the researchers concede that the number of farmers in the study was limited, their results do chime with other surveys.
Furthermore, CEDAC's Keam Makarady points out that the harm pesticides do is not restricted to farmers and the people who eat what they grow. "The toxins enter the environment, poisoning the soil, the water and even animals such as fish – upon which millions of Cambodians depend," he says.
Organic farming is one solution, but is still in its infancy so Cambodia will probably be dealing with the hazards of pesticide misuse for many years yet.
Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Anne Thomas