The number of pesticides registered for use in Brazil grew rapidly in the first year of the Bolsonaro administration.
In 2019, the federal government approved the registration of 474 new pesticides – the highest number documented since 2005, when the Ministry of Agriculture began releasing data.
The explosion in pesticide approvals began during the Michel Temer government in 2016 when the ruralist agribusiness lobby gained great influence within the government.
That year, the number jumped to 277 records, compared to 91 in 2005, for example. In 2017, a total of 405 pesticides were approved; in 2018, another 451, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply.
According to a survey by the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, of the 96 active ingredients that make up the pesticides released until September of this year, 28 are not registered or sold in the European Union (29%) and 36 are not available in Australia (37% ).
Among the active ingredients approved this year in Brazil is dinotefuran, an insecticide classified as extremely toxic. It is not registered in the European Union but sold in the United States.
Generic pesticides represent the majority of approvals by the Bolsonaro government so far. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the purpose of the release is to reduce the price of products, which in turn reduces the cost of production. In Mato Grosso, the largest grain producer in the country, pesticides account for 22% of spending on soy cultivation.
Of this total, 195 thousand tons were glyphosate, better known as the herbicide Roundup, produced by Bayer/Monsanto. The product was banned in Austria this year and will be banned in Germany in 2023.
Last February, Brazil reached a controversial conclusion. After completing a toxicological reassessment of the product, Brazilian regulators said that glyphosate, while presenting “a greater risk to rural workers and people living close to [agricultural] areas,” does not harm those who consume the treated products. with the herbicide in acceptable doses.
Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in Brazil, but is classified by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), of the World Health Organization, as belonging to category 2, or “probably carcinogenic in humans”.
In late March 2019, a US federal court awarded $80 million in damages to a gardener who blamed the intensive use of Roundup on the development of cancer, in a case the judge described as an important precedent.
Pesticides harm wildlife
While Brazil’s pesticide approval has far outpaced scientists’ ability to study impacts on people, habitats, and wildlife, there is disturbing evidence that it is worrisome.
Exposure to pesticides containing neonicotinoids and fipronil caused the death of more than 500 million bees in four states between December 2018 and February 2019, according to an investigation by Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil.
A technical report released in 2018 revealed that Brazilian tapirs ( Tapirus terrestris ) from the Cerrado of Mato Grosso do Sul have been suffering from contamination by various types of pesticides. A state is a place of rapid expansion of agribusiness crops, which produce huge amounts of soybeans, corn, and sugar cane.
The survey, carried out over two years between 2015 and 2017, in an area of 2,200 km² in the municipalities of Nova Alvorada do Sul and Nova Andradina was conducted by the National Initiative for the Conservation of the Lowland Tapir, of the Instituto of Ecological Research.
The scientists found that 40% of the 242 samples collected from 116 live and dead tapirs (mostly from road accidents within the study area) were contaminated with residues of 13 toxic products – including nine insecticides and herbicides, as well as four heavy metals used in formulas.
for correction of agricultural soil and other purposes.
Toxic residues were found in the cushions (padded part of the animal’s paw), proboscis (snout), stomach, liver, blood, bones, and nails.
According to the researchers, the detection of these agents indicates that the tapirs are being exposed to toxic substances through direct contact with contaminated plants, soil, and water.
“Under normal conditions, tapirs do not usually leave their natural habitat, usually an area of around 500 hectares.
Since the Cerrado no longer has areas of native vegetation due to deforestation, the mammal needs to move and cross plantations to look for food”, explains Patrícia Medici, coordinator of Incab/IPÊ.
Tapirs prefer to feed on leaves and fruits of native species, but in the absence of their normal diet, they sometimes eat soybeans and corn – although they don’t like it.
“So much so that, of the 33 tapirs evaluated by autopsies, only three had [proof of] ingestion of items from crops”, says the lead researcher of the study.
However, high concentrations of the carbamate insecticide Aldicarb, a Bayer product, were detected in 10 of the 26 samples of stomach contents from the analyzed animals.
This suggests that tapirs are becoming contaminated by consuming native vegetation, probably due to careless spraying that disperses pesticides not only in plantations but also in natural areas.
Interestingly, Aldicarb, which is very toxic for people and animals, has been banned in Brazil since 2012. “This product continues to enter the country through smuggling”, says Medici.
Immunological tests also revealed that 90% of the tapirs had significant macroscopic changes in the liver and/or kidneys, and 60% had changes in the stomach mucosa, such as ulcers and hyperemia.
“Such alterations may be due to several pathological and/or physiological processes, and a thorough investigation of potential factors involved and possible differential diagnoses would be highly recommended”, say the researchers.
“However, the liver and kidneys are the organs responsible for metabolizing most of the toxic substances detected in the study, and the hypothesis that acute and/or chronic exposure to pesticides and heavy metals may be related to such changes should be considered. ”
“The tapirs in the Cerrado region live with high levels of stress due to constant threats, which include deforestation, fires, lack of food, contamination, in addition to hunting and people being run over on the roads,” says Medici.
The problem of aerial spraying
The most used pesticide application technique in Mato Grosso does Sul is aerial spraying. This method is also the one most related to environmental contamination, as the wind causes toxins to move away from arable land and fall on native vegetation.
In November 2017, 48 planes were fined for criminal practices that included illegal spraying in Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, and Paraná.
A common infraction cited by the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) is the spraying of pesticides prohibited by law.
“The problem of pesticides is widespread, and toxic substances are now present in water, soil, and air. In the case of the region studied, the tapir serves as a ‘sentinel animal’, as a warning sign of what is happening to the environment”, explains the scientist from IPÊ.
If these animals are contaminated, likely, people living in areas where these pesticides are used and those who consume the sprayed products could also be in danger.
When asked about the presence of Aldicarb in tapir stomach samples, the Ministry of Agriculture said via email that it would not comment on the matter because “environmental monitoring of pesticides is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment.”
And he added: “we would like to have access to the results of the chromatography laboratory analysis and the methodology used by the laboratory where the research was carried out.
Only after a technical study of the specific living conditions of the animals can the origin of the residues detected be concluded.”
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Aldicarb, produced by Bayer S/A, had its registration canceled in 2012, when it was withdrawn from the Brazilian market.
“Until then, the product was sold only to registered producers and certified potato, coffee, sugarcane, and citrus farms in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo.”
The impulse to deregulate pesticides
The explosive growth of agribusiness in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in a controversial record for Brazil in 2008, when the country became the largest consumer of pesticides in the world, according to a study by the Kauffmann Group, commissioned by the Associação Nacional de Defesa Vegetal (Andef), which represents pesticide manufacturers in Brazil.
According to Obama and other data, the sale of active chemical ingredients in pesticides grew by 313% in the country between 2000 and 2014, jumping from 162,461 to 508,566 tons.
São Paulo, Mato Grosso, and Paraná became the biggest consumers during this period, although other states, including many in the Amazon, also saw usage increase.
Today, the Bolsonaro government and the ruralist caucus in Congress are pressing for the approval of bill 6299/2002, nicknamed “PL do Veneno” by critics. This project is currently being evaluated by the Chamber of Deputies.
The legislation would remove two authorities, Anvisa (National Health Surveillance Agency) and Ibama, from the process of analyzing and licensing pesticides.
And it would transfer the regulation to the Ministry of Agriculture, already responsible for authorizing the sale of these products.
Environmentalists are strongly opposed to the regulatory liability shift, seeing it as a significant conflict of interest.
“PL 6299 is ready to be voted in the Chamber at any time, but even without the ‘PL do Poison’, Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina is managing to dismantle Anvisa and Ibama and release new pesticides at an astonishing speed”, he says. Marina Lacôrte, Greenpeace agriculture, and food specialist.