Following an explosive global report, the Women on Farms project has called on two German agrochemical giants to stop producing hazardous pesticides endangering the health of Western Cape farmworkers.
Women on Farms director Colette Solomons says their own research correlates with the findings of a 2020 study by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, the INKOTA-netzwerk and PAN Germany.
Among others, the study makes specific reference of Tempo SC, a Bayer insecticide of which Beta-)Cyfluthrin is the active ingredient. The researchers says the product, often used on wine farms, is harmful to health when inhaled and can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes.
While mixing and spraying Tempo SC, workers should wear protective equipment, including overalls, gloves and a face shield.
In their report, the German researchers Peter Clausing, Lena Luig Jan Urhahn and others say they have interviewed Western and Eastern Cape farmworkers and union representatives in December 2020.
“The way the pesticides are handled on many wineries, however, is abysmal. Female seasonal workers are sent to the vineyards while pesticides are still being sprayed.
Farmworkers describe their protective clothing as being mere decoration,” the researchers claim in their report, “Double standards and hazardous pesticides from Bayer and BASF”.
“Although available at most farms, these clothes are only handed out to farmworkers a day before inspection and have to be returned immediately afterwards. The mixing of pesticides at many farms takes place without any protective equipment, and the pesticides often spill and are not disposed of properly.
“The authors of this study were told that some farmers force the workers to remove the labels from the packaging. This then makes it difficult for the inspectors to establish misuse of pesticides when they come. The farmworkers also complain of coughs, itchy skin, and rashes.”
‘Seasonal workers highly vulnerable’
Now Solomons reveals their own research found at least 67 hazardous pesticides were actively used and sold by Bayer and BASF in South Africa. “And about 18 or 20 of those 67 are widely used on wine and grape farms in the Western Cape,” she says.
This, according to Women on Farms, endangers the health of farmworkers. Solomons confirms that they work with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung to educate workers about toxic pesticides, many of which are already banned in the European Union.
In Mzansi, this is needed because “many women, seasonal workers in particular, are exposed to pesticides by virtue of having to work in vineyards that have been sprayed,” Solomons adds.
“Most of their houses are also adjacent to the vineyards, so sometimes when the farmers spray the pesticides the fumes still get into the homes of the farmworkers and on to their washing that is hanging from the washing lines. Children that are playing outside are also affected.”
Women on Farms furthermore claim they have been in touch with workers who were impacted by these pesticides.
“Many farmworkers would tell you [about it], but the big problem we have is that they would say, ‘We have asthma, breathing problems, skin problems. We feel nauseas.’ But when they go to the clinic it’s very difficult for the sisters to say, ‘Ok, it is a result of [your farm-related work with] pesticides. It is very difficult for farmworkers to prove.”
Solomons also believe many farmers are “stubborn”, insisting that their workers use harmful pesticides.
“Farmers would actually know of the dangers. It comes with many instructions. Unfortunately, many times the farmers don’t even communicate with the farmworkers.
“When we have asked some farmworkers if they know what the chemicals are, and if they know how to mix it, they will say the farmer will just tell them how [to do it]. But they are not given any information about the health impacts or potential dangers or the risks. They are also not given adequate protective clothes when they are doing the spraying.”
Pesticides and surrounding communities
In 2007, a Riebeek Kasteel farmer, John Vlok, was dragged to the Cape High Court following an altercation about the pesticides sprayed on his vineyards. Jurgen Schirmacher claimed the drift from pesticide spray reached his home, affecting his health.
In November 2020, University of Cape Town researchers also found that pesticides were giving children in farming areas headaches. After questioning more than 1 000 children, aged 9 to 16, scientists from the Centre for Environment and Occupational Health Research suggested that there could be links between pesticide exposure and cognitive performance.
Rico Basson, managing director of Vinpro, tells Food For Mzansi that the wine industry body endorses the codes and standards laid down by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (Wieta).
Therefore, any agro-chemical company producing products that don’t fit the standards by Wieta should be reported to the department of labour.
“If a producer is a Wieta member, a formal complaint may also be handed over to Wieta, after which an official process will then take its course,” he says.
Meeting SA safety standards
Earlier, the chief executive of Bayer Southern Africa and cluster head for Crop Science Africa, Dr Klaus Eckstein, also hit back at the controversial German study.
Eckstein told Food For Mzansi that the company was committed to “developing and stewarding products that both fulfil high safety standards and meet the unique needs of farmers”.
“When it comes to crop protection, our commitment is to only sell products that clear our own robust internal safety assessments and also meet the safety standards of the respective local regulators, including South Africa.”
According to Eckstein “it is not automatically a double standard if we export crop protection products that are manufactured, but not registered in Europe to other countries.
Bayer and the bees
Earlier this month, Bayer AG also lost its fight to topple a European ban on controversial insecticides that regulators blame for killing honeybees.
The EU Court of Justice dismissed the appeal, finding there were no legal errors in the European Commission’s decision to impose restrictions on the substances’ use, based on concerns that the chemicals posed “high acute risks for bees” and “the survival and development of colonies in several crops.”