Mideast farmers who use pesticides often find no buyers abroad

Such chemicals hit farmers' bottom line by limiting their ability to sell crops.

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By Linda Givetash

AL-KARAMEH, Jordan — Farmers in the Middle East and North Africa are facing roadblocks exporting their crop to Western countries because of the pesticides they use. This is despite the fact many of these chemicals are manufactured by companies based in Europe and North America.

Sameer Mahadin said he had to leave his tomatoes to rot in the ground at this farm on the south end of the Dead Sea in Jordan because it wasn't worth the labor to harvest them.

The increasingly dry climate has forced him to rely more on irrigation, fertilizers and chemicals to maintain strong yields, he said. But that also has limited his ability to sell them abroad.

Compounded with the war in neighboring Syria — a market he used to rely on with similar pesticide policies to Jordan's — and he accrued more than $210,000 in debt in just one season.

The use of pesticides globally isn't slowing, according to Jules Pretty, a professor of environment and society at the University of Essex in England. The ease of getting rid of pests and diseases and the potential to increase yields significantly outweigh the negative effects for individual farmers.

Every year, 7.7 billion pounds of active ingredients are used, Pretty said. That's despite the fact the chemicals can cause a range of environmental and health problems from deadly poisoning of farm workers to longer-term effects on the immune system from exposure to residues, according to the World Health Organization.

A farmer sprays pesticides at a cucumber field near Ahmedabad, India.AMIT DAVE / Reuters

The U.S., China and Argentina making up nearly a quarter of the world's population are the largest consumers by volume of pesticides, accounting for 70 percent of the $45 billion global market.

But while a study published last year found that countries in the Middle East and North Africa are in a "prime location" to export food to Europe, many are unable to meet safety standards.

Poorer countries don't manufacture pesticides locally. They are either made by Western companies that have the expertise or if a chemical's patent is expired, they are often produced by manufacturers in India or China.

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There is a global standard, the Codex Alimentarius, that serves as a baseline for ensuring food safety and creates fairness in international trade. But individual countries and regions still set their own standards, which can be more rigorous than the codex and result in discrepancies.

Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide widely used in farming, is one example of such uneven policies. The U.S. government is appealing a federal court order banning its use, but it is legal in Jordan and other countries.

The regulatory inequality in part stems from patent protections, said Rudolph Guyer, the former head of the plant science network CropLife Middle East. Chemical companies spend millions to develop new pesticide compounds and in turn want to protect patents to help recoup those costs.

Countries that fail to enforce patent laws leave too much opportunity for counterfeits to emerge. To avoid the potential losses, companies don’t bother to register their products in those countries, meaning it is never authorized to enter their markets. This limits the scope and quality of chemicals available to farmers, Guyer said.

Then there are differences in climate and crops — such as pineapples or cacao — that require the use of chemicals that aren’t needed in Western countries.

The use of chemicals banned or restricted in other countries doesn’t entirely restrict farmers from exporting their crops. Receiving countries set standards on the acceptable level of residue that can be found on food items.

But local pesticide distributors may lock farmers into contracts to use their products without making clear the consequences, Jules said.

He said farmers weren't being told in advance that "if you use compound X it could lead to residues of a certain amount getting into your products, which means you can’t sell to North America or Europe."

Jordan’s director of agricultural marketing, Ayman Al-Salti, said the government is working with farmers to teach them how to appropriately apply pesticides to prevent excess residue.

For small farms that produce crop for local markets, there are other consequences from using chemicals.

“They have side effects, they have environmental costs and health costs outside the farm,” Pretty said, likening the harm from pesticides to smoke from a factory.

Compounds that knock out an insect, weed or parasite could be affecting other organisms, and that can take time to become apparent.

The popularity of the insecticide neonicotinoids within the last decade has been linked to the sudden decline of pollinators, including bees, throughout Europe and the U.S., Pretty said. Products containing the compound have since been restricted or banned in those regions to try to revive those populations.

Other consequences include pests building up resistance to certain compounds and the degradation of soil.

For these reasons, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food released a report last year calling for a legally binding protocol imposing tougher regulations on pesticide use globally and moving away from harmful industrial agricultural practices.

"Reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution that undermines the rights to adequate food and health for present and future generations," the report stated.

Apart from tightening restrictions on pesticide use, farmers need help and encouragement to pick up more sustainable practices, experts say.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization runs education programs around the globe teaching farmers how to use natural pest-control techniques in the place of chemicals without taking a hit to their yields and profit.

Organic farmer Riyadh Yousef Marror at his farm in Jordan.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

Riyadh Yousef Marror doesn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers on his farm in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea to prove to his neighbors that farming naturally can be effective. He hopes they’ll begin to do the same.

“They’re trading with people’s lives and health because of all the stuff they’re adding to the crop,” he said.

Ziad Jaber contributed.