Circle of Poison
A look at the powerful pesticide industry, its effect on the developing world and how small farmers are fighting back.
Filmmakers: Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post
In recent decades, harmful pesticides spread around the world’s less developed nations have caused immeasurable damage to populations and ecosystems.
What I have found in my 25 years of working with biodiversity, working to build ecological agriculture systems, is that chemical-free, poison-free agriculture systems, which intensify ecological processes, which intensify biodiversity, produce more food per acre and more nutrition per acre: that's the way we must go.
In 2013, data from the US Environmental Protection Agency showed that pesticides, which are banned, restricted or unregistered in the United States, were manufactured in 23 states for export to other countries.
Used for growing coffee, fruit, tea and other products, these pesticides are likely to make their way back to the US as residue on imported food.
Only about 2 percent of imported produce is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. It is a circle of poison.
“The environment doesn’t know any boundaries. You know, dust and pollution from China settles in the US … nuclear radiation from Chernobyl went over Iceland. What goes up into the environment goes around the world,” says David Weir, a journalist and co-author of Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World .
The documentary Circle of Poison examines how pesticides proliferated after World War II, the legal loopholes which allow the manufacture of insecticides – deemed unsafe for the American people – for export to developing countries, and the devastation caused by these toxic substances.
“Anything that was banned or heavily regulated or restricted or unregistered in the US was being allowed by the US government and in fact encouraged to be sent overseas, almost as compensation for the companies for losing the US market,” says Weir, describing how the US started exporting dangerous pesticides.
The documentary takes us to Kasaragod, a town in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where decades of spraying the pesticide endosulfan on cashew farms have caused deformities in hundreds of children. Many countries have banned this dangerous insecticide. In 2010, the US took action to ban the 60-year-old substance. It is still legal to manufacture it in the US, but only for export.
We meet children with pesticide-related illnesses and speak to activists with the environmental activism group Thanal, which raises awareness about these health problems and fights for access to safe food.
” Pesticides are pushed on the grounds that it’s a very modern way to do farming. I remember years ago reading a book that India is underdeveloped because it doesn’t use pesticides,” says the pioneering Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva.
“We’ve made poisons the measure of progress.”
In Yaqui River Valley in Mexico, we see how pesticides have caused illnesses in the children born to women working in the fields. In the Argentinian city of Ituzaingo, where the use of agrochemicals on soy crops has increased exponentially over the years, cancer rates are reportedly 41 times the national average. But local activists are fighting back. The group Mothers of Ituzaingo succeeded in getting a local ban on aerial pesticide being sprayed within 2,500 metres of homes.
The US hasn’t been immune to pesticide exposure. In the state of Louisiana, residents living along a corridor of industrial facilities where pesticides for export are manufactured have suffered from chronic exposure to chemicals, which has led to a high incidence of cancer.
The Circle of Poison delves into the political history of pesticides in the US and the machinations of big industry.
Today, at least 75 percent of the global pesticide trade is controlled by six large agrochemical companies – Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, Du Pont and BASF. These corporations form powerful lobby groups which drive and shape legislation that regulates farming and food production. This influence has protected the industry, particularly in the US.
In September 2016, US seed giant Monsanto agreed to a takeover by German crop chemical maker and pharmaceutical conglomerate Bayer in a $66bn deal – the biggest corporate deal of this year. If approved by regulators, this will spawn the largest seeds and pesticides company in the world.
But people are fighting back by creating alternatives to the agrochemical industrial complex.
Small farmers around the world are turning to sustainable methods of agriculture after witnessing the devastation caused by pesticide use. These range from organic farm co-ops in Mexico and Argentina to a growing farmers’ market movement in India, but one of the most striking battles against pesticides is being fought by the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. It has set itself the challenge of becoming the first country in the world with a wholly organic agricultural system.
In the US, a business structure for the organic farming industry is emerging with profitable results.
“What I thought might happen, hoped might happen and, it turned out, did happen, was the organic farm bill. People started paying a lot more attention. And that hobby type thing that the detractors called it has now turned into a $30bn-a-year business in the United States, about the only agriculture business that’s growing. But also, more importantly, people started asking questions,” says Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy.
Circle of Poison spans the US, India, Argentina, Mexico and Bhutan, with a wide range of interviews with activists in these countries, the people affected by crop-spraying, and experts and key figures who have led the fight against pesticides, including former US President Jimmy Carter, Patrick Leahy, Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva. The documentary is an important look at how dangerous pesticides have been imposed on developing countries and how people are now fighting back.