EU: False Fears Pose Real Threat To Africa

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

By Jasson Urbach
Jasson UrbachThe European Union banned scores of pesticides this month under the pretence of protecting human health and the environment. You might assume that the EU could demonstrate some threat to humans or the environment, that it had found viable alternatives to the banned pesticides and that it had assessed the consequences of this ban to farming, to food prices and to the poor whose only defence against disease is pesticides. But you would be wrong on all counts.

The new regulations not only damage food production in the EU but also threaten public health in distant countries–mainly poor countries in Africa.

"These regulations could hit agricultural production in the UK for no recognisable benefit to human health, and we are being asked to agree to something here when nobody knows what the impact will be," UK Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said last week.

Environmental pressures from the North have already constrained the use of public health insecticides against insect-borne diseases such as malaria. The new EU regulations compound the woes of the poor who suffer most.

Malaria kills a child every thirty seconds in Africa. Most of the million victims a year worldwide are children under five and pregnant women. Those who do not die are laid low for weeks, which intensifies

poverty: it is not only a human tragedy but an economic one too. In malarial countries it is estimated that the disease reduces growth by 1.3% a year, according to Harvard economists John Gallup and Jeffrey

Sachs: that’s some US$12 billion in lost potential income.

On top of that, African exports from countries using the newly-banned pesticides will face EU restrictions too. Uganda has already had explicit threats from EU representatives about its safe and tiny use of DDT against mosquitoes. Ghana’s cocoa producers, generating about a sixth of all exports and nearly as much as gold, now have to wait for this vaguely worded legislation to be turned into a list of actual products to know their fate.

The only proven and consistent method of preventing insect-borne disease, unless you have a vaccine, is to kill or repel the carrier ("vector"), such as the mosquito. Even for diseases which have an effective vaccine, insufficient vaccination rates can lead to outbreaks, which then demand pesticides. For malaria, prevention involves spraying tiny amounts of insecticide on the inside walls of houses or on bed nets. Effective malaria control saves lives and improves economies.

Ghana is in a region of high malaria transmission and is still working to extend its control programme beyond the current 50% coverage: there is no vaccine, so insecticides are the spearhead.

Insecticides are the most effective weapon we have against malarial

mosquitoes: that is how the USA, Spain and Greece eradicated them in the 20th century, together with better living standards.

In the 21st century, it is reasonable to expect rigorous, scientific regulations that take into account both the benefits and the actual risks posed by chemicals to humans and the environment. But the new EU regulations are a confused mix of bias and politics. For instance, a substance can be banned if it might possibly interfere with the body’s hormone system, called endocrine disruption, in exceptionally high doses. But there is no unanimous definition of endocrine disruption, so decisions come down to politics, not science.

Almost all chemicals currently used for malaria control were developed for agriculture and slightly modified for public health. As public health insecticides comprise little more than one per cent of the total market for pesticides, it is highly unlikely that production if banned for agriculture. Even if production did continue, it would be on a much smaller scale, causing the price to rise and punishing the poor.

As insects and diseases evolve to resist existing insecticides, public health programmes desperately need new, safe and effective chemicals.

But new investment, research and development are unlikely for a tiny market. A Boston Consulting Group report estimates that it costs around $400 million to bring a new pesticide to market. That cost has multiplied by more than five in the past 20 years, mainly due to the increasingly onerous regulations imposed around the world. Good regulations are necessary and beneficial but if they are ill-defined and open to bias they impose costs that could far outweigh alleged benefits.

Restricting insecticides and discouraging the development of new chemicals will cause avoidable deaths. The legislation is now due to go to the EU Council of Ministers for ratification at the end of the month. But what is usually a simple rubber-stamp could meet late resistance from the UK and other governments whose farmers and consumers have forced them to face the threat: "the UK does not support these proposals" Benn said, although he did not clarify what he could do.

EU decision-making is opaque and usually unaccountable but public pressure has brought this into the open, giving African governments, NGOs and charities a chance to speak up for the poor in all the capitals of EU member states.

Jasson Urbach is an economist in the Health Policy Unit of South Africa’s Free Market Foundation think-tank and a director of Africa Fighting Malaria.