Out of Africa: Lessons for the rest of us

New tools, farmer trainings and better regulations could transform pesticide use around the world — all thanks to Oregon State University researchers cultivating new ground.

The International Plant Protection Center at OSU completed the first widespread study of its kind measuring human health and environmental risks of pesticides in western Africa. The study, published Monday in the London-based Royal Society Journal, reveals how farming communities can dramatically cut their use of chemicals in agriculture.

Researchers painted a picture of extreme exposure. From children playing in recently sprayed fields to fathers applying chemicals in short-sleeves, the level of exposure was “unbelievable,” Paul Jepson said.

“I’ve been doing this work for a long time – and I’m really shocked at what we found,” said Jepson, lead author of the study and director of the IPPC.

With looming global food shortages and climate change, OSU researchers are creating ways to navigate around the problems and hoping it can help as far away as Oregon farmers coping with similar issues.

Jepson and the IPPC group began their research in 2005. The goal was to uncover what pesticides accumulate in western African waters and how researchers and their partners can educate farmers to use fewer pesticides.

Researcher Kathy Blaustein, an expert in international public health, came on board with IPPC specifically for this project. Her focus was to assess farmers who re-enter the field after pesticide has been applied.

“From a standpoint of exposure, people are exposed very early on and throughout their lifetime because of their culture — but also because they live where they work within these small village areas, nearby to the water systems that are used for washing clothing, dishes and water for cooking and everything that you can imagine,” Blaustein said.

The OSU researchers worked with Environmental Development Action in the Third World and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ENDA played a pivotal role in designing and delivering a survey to 19 different villages in West Africa across Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Guinea.

The study validated what researchers thought could be happening with farmers, and now conclusive numbers and scientific data to back it up, Blaustein said.

Researchers identified organophosphates — neurotoxins — that they are particularly concerned about. In the U.S., such pesticides are heavily regulated, but not so in western Africa.

Now that the study is finished, Jepson is asking high-ranking officials, regional agencies and U.N. leadership how things got so bad.

Moving ahead, Jepson said, policy change needs collaboration from all the stakeholders. And they need to move forward together, which Jepson saw in his years of research with the people on the ground in West Africa.

“It’s a huge privilege for us here at IPPC to actually get to work with such amazing people,” Jepson said. “They are extraordinary people, incredibly capable and completely devoted to helping their countries and all of their coordinators and the people they work with are just amazing individuals. They’re amongst the intellectually brightest people in their countries and we are very optimistic about progress.”

Back home in Oregon, researchers are applying the logic derived from the African project by sharing their findings on risk communications and education throughout the state.

Jepson and IPPC colleagues are building a network of educators in West Africa who educate farmers and families about pesticide risk. Measuring that risk in agriculture and water is considered one of the most important projects of the FAO, Jepson said.

“What we learned in West Africa has hugely influenced what we are able to deliver to farmers here,” Jepson said. “It’s our responsibility to this work, if we have the time and motivation and OSU allows us really to deploy our skills in other places. “


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