The Enemy Within [Archives:1997/50/Reportage]

December 15 1997

Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor
Introduction Various types of pesticides are used by farmers around the world. Using them is necessary in view of the widespread plant diseases and epidemics. Using pesticides could make the difference between a big harvest and a failed crop. The disease that hit the grape crop in Yemen last year is a case in point. The government had to intervene in order to save the country’s annual crop of grapes thereby saving a precious source of national revenue. Although some Yemeni farmers still use traditional methods in farming, the use of pesticides is quite widespread. However, not all farmers use pesticides in a correct manner, leading to various health hazards. This problem is especially acute in Yemen where farmers, out of ignorance or sheer greed, pay scant regard to the manufacturer’s instructions on the can of pesticide they use.
Smuggling Since the pesticide industry in Yemen is still at its beginning, farmers rely on imported stuff, which is not all suitable for their purposes. The Ministry of Agriculture has made a list of permitted and prohibited pesticides, but is not fully adhered to by the user. This is especially so with the local market being flooded by cheap smuggled pesticides. Unscrupulous manufacturers or smugglers often sell expired and harmful pesticides to oblivious farmers. The instructions label on the can is sometimes removed or defaced to hide the fact that the product is well past its sell-by date. A different, more expensive brand label is often stuck on the old one to deceive the farmer. Smuggled pesticides are usually brought in from Saudi Arabia.
Testing the Imports When a type of pesticide is imported, specimens are taken at the port of entry and sent for testing at the General Directorate for Plant Protection. The product is only allowed in the country when it is found to be compatible with the standards set by the WHO and FAO. It sometimes happens that a shipment of pesticide is sent back to the country of origin after being found to be harmful or incompatible with the Ministry of Agriculture specifications. When the active ingredient in a pesticide is below the standard, the whole shipment is returned to the manufacturer. Some pesticides are badly packed, making the substance leak from its package and endanger the humans who come into contact with it. This is also one of the main reasons that lead to the rejection of a particular shipment of pesticides. Pesticides made by reputable manufacturers and imported into Yemen have the instructions written on them in Arabic to make it easier for the farmer to understand. There are also instructions of how to deal with cases of allergy or poisoning by these substances. Private Yemeni distributors import pesticides from Britain (ICI), Germany (BASF and Bayer), France, Belgium, Spain, India, Pakistan. Also, the Yemeni government, represented by the Ministry of Agriculture, receives an annual 12-ton consignment of pesticides by way of aid from Japan. This is used in national pest control campaigns, especially in the case of the black aphid and vine diseases. The annual amount of pesticide imported through officially obtained import permits is estimated to be around 500 to 700 tons. The total area of cultivated land is around 1,200 million hectares i.e., around half a kilo of pesticide is used per one hectare. Large quantities of pesticides that have accumulated over the last forty years were discovered and destroyed in cooperation with the Dutch government and the FAO in various places in the country.
Legislation A draft law was endorsed by the Council of Ministers to place certain restrictions on importing, storing, packing, distributing, and using, pesticides. Every pesticide importer has to have special file at the Ministry of Agriculture to regulate his business. The importer will have to submit a special application to the Pesticides Directorate at the ministry, upon whose decision an import permit is granted. The importer also has to agree to test samples being taken from the pesticide consignment on its arrival in a Yemeni port. Ministry of Agriculture inspectors are now, by law, allowed to enter any chemical warehouse they suspect of stockpiling harmful pesticides. An application has been made by the Ministry of Agriculture to the Arab Organization for Agricultural Studies to establish a special laboratory in Yemen to help analyze the amounts of pesticide that remain in various crops after harvesting or those found in imported crops. The amount of remaining pesticide has to be within an internationally accepted tolerance limit.
Manufacture in Yemen Plans for establishing a plant for manufacturing pesticides are underway in cooperation with the GTZ at a cost of DM 500,000. The plant, considered to be the ninth of its kind in the world, will be run be a wholly Yemeni staff.
Safety Period Granted that the pesticide is used in the correct amount or dose, the safety period after which the remnant chemicals completely disintegrate or become harmless is mostly not observed by the farmers. Eager to get an early harvest and make a quick buck, especially with qat where the demand is greatest for young and succulent leaves, farmers collect the plants well before the end of the safety period specified by the pesticide manufacturer. This period ranges from a few days to three weeks, depending on the type of pesticide used. Some ignorant farmers spray their qat crop with pesticides even when it is in the lorry being taken to town. In addition to pesticides, another hazardous problem with qat is that farmers water their qat plants with iron compound solutions in order to give the leaves a lustrous ferrous color, enticing their customers. This iron compound represents a big health hazard. Despite the fact that hot weather speeds up the disintegration of the harmful chemicals, safety periods must still be observed. Pesticides with short safety periods are often quite expensive, so farmers tend use the cheaper pesticides with the longer safety periods. Of course, pesticides are not only used on qat, but also on fruits and vegetables. Cereals are the least exposed to pesticides.
Extent of the Problem Despite the current world trend towards restricting the use of pesticides, Yemeni farmers in general still overuse and even abuse in the mistaken belief that they give a high crop yield. During 1991 to 1994 field surveys were conducted to allocate and destroy large quantities of pesticides. Work done at the pesticides analysis laboratory in 1992 resulted in documenting 170 plant diseases, 302 kinds of pests, and 150 weeds. Another field survey was conducted in Yemen during 1991 to 1994 to determine the amounts of pesticides that remain on qat leaves. It transpired that all farmers use pesticides on qat plants, which they reap before the end of the safety period as specified by the pesticides manufacturers. It was also found that 50% of the collected vegetable specimens contained more than the allowed amount of pesticide, which is around 1mg/kg. The amounts found on qat leaves ranged from 4.2mg/kg through to 2.7mg/kg, to 1mg/kg. Moreover, blood tests done to 126 regular qat chewers indicated that more than 60% of them had various disease symptoms. Of those, 30% showed signs of pesticide intake, 23% were in serious conditions, and 7% suffered from serious health problems.