In rural areas in Egypt, some farmers still misuse or overuse pesticides on agricultural land, in some cases even using old pesticide containers at home to store food and water.
In order to help farmers to handle pesticides safely, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) organised a workshop called “Training on Good Practices in the Safe Use of Pesticides for Families” as part of an initiative aiming at inclusive and sustainable local economic development in Upper Egypt, especially in the governorate of Sohag, called Hayat Sohag (Sohag’s Life) or the Pesticide Applicator Training Programme.
According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), Sohag has some 5.06 million inhabitants, of which 48.3 per cent are female and 78.8 per cent live in rural areas. Of the 11 administrative districts in Sohag, the UN project is working most in the districts of Tahta and Sohag itself and aims to reach 1,000 beneficiaries, including women and young people.
UNIDO is currently implementing a technical cooperation project on inclusive and sustainable local economic development in Sohag in collaboration with Egypt’s Ministry of Local development and the governorate of Sohag. The project aims at enhancing the livelihoods of vulnerable communities, notably by improving the productivity of local small-scale enterprises and farmers, according to a UN report.
With nearly 80 per cent of its population living in rural areas, agriculture is the key activity in Sohag, employing 50 per cent of the labour force and utilising 84 per cent of the total cultivated area. The use of pesticides to boost agricultural productivity is common practice, but unsafe spraying and handling practices can make local farmers, farm workers, their families, and even food consumers vulnerable to the toxicological effects of pesticides while polluting the environment.
Families in agricultural areas may be exposed to pesticides if they are farmers or farm workers (occupational exposure) or live with a farmer or in areas of crop production (non-occupational exposure). Non-occupational exposure occurs from the introduction of pesticides into the home by household members who use pesticides at work, transport to and storage of pesticides at home, volatilisation and the movement of pesticide residues from soil and plants, ingestion of drinking water or food containing pesticide residues, and the unsafe disposal of empty pesticide containers.
Pesticide exposure can be especially high in women, as they carry out a variety of domestic chores that may bring them into contact with pesticide-contaminated objects through washing containers, clothes, and so on. Moreover, by providing labour for planting, weeding, harvesting and processing as well as producing and selling vegetables, women can be exposed to pesticide residues from the soil.
To help keep communities safe, protect the environment, and reduce the risks to those using pesticides, in 2017 the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation approved Decree 974 concerning the registration, handling, and use of agricultural pesticides in Egypt and setting out the legislative framework for their use.
Article 4 of the law states that “all persons applying agricultural pesticides must have a pesticide applicator license issued by Agriculture Pesticide Committee [APC]. The license is granted to pesticide applicators having a diploma after passing APC specialised training programmes. The license is to be renewed every four years.”
To promote the safer handling of pesticides to protect human health and the environment in the rural communities of the Sohag and Tahta districts, the UN project supports interventions to enhance the appropriate use of pesticides by creating a pool of rural women knowledgeable in handling pesticides, pesticide residues, and devices in their homes and able to act as actors-in-change in their communities by disseminating good practices and raising rural community awareness of the risks for the environment and human health associated with the improper disposal or re-use of pesticide containers and devices.
TRAINING: According to a UNIDO handout for teachers-of-teachers of the pesticide applicator training programme, using pesticides in the wrong way can result in many dangers, including mammalian toxicity (human beings and animals), environmental pollution, phytotoxicity, a residual effect in the soil, disturbance of the natural biological balance, insect resistance or immunity, and the further expense of insecticidal use.
There are two types of pesticides, divided by the type of compound, organic or non-organic. Pesticides are also divided according to the pests they are used for, such as insecticides, acaricides, nematocides, fungicides, rodenticides and herbicides.
“The Hayat Sohag project is one of the projects being carried out in Egypt by the UNIDO and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Our governmental partners are the Ministry of Local Development and the governorate of Sohag. Another similar project, Hayat Minya, preceded it, the aim of both being inclusive local and sustainable development,” coordinator of the project Adel Sabri said, adding that it began in 2017 and will end in March this year.
“Because our aim was sustainable development, we came up with the idea of targeting women in particular, as they are good ways of conveying information efficiently,” Sabri added. There were no criteria for those who joined the workshop, which aimed at reaching as many women as possible in rural areas, ranging from women with only a basic education to qualified agricultural engineers.
“We aimed at producing trained people who are able to implement what they have learnt even after the project ends,” Sabri said, adding that employees from the Ministry of Agriculture specialising in agricultural training had also attended. “The Agricultural Pesticides Committee (APC) is a committee affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture that works in everything concerning pesticides, including registrations and applications. So, we also worked with the APC to give the newly trained pesticide applicators APC certificates that would provide them with a licence,” he added.
Teacher-of-teacher courses for APC trainers trained new people after the workshop ended. “This helped to spread the experience in other governorates,” Sabri said, including 300 women and 350 male pesticide applicators.
“We also distributed photographs to remind those attending the workshop of the procedures. We started a project, called pesticides applicators, so that a man could be certified after learning the know-how of using pesticides and what types of chemicals he should use.
The project started by training 150 applicants. Together with a previous one, the Green Trade Initiative which aims at increasing Egyptian exports, they how have more than 10,000 applicants, and the number is still growing. “The trained applicators can write this as their job on their IDs, as the certificates are approved by the Ministry of Agriculture. This was also the aim of the ministry — to have 50,000 professional pesticide applicators working in agriculture by the year 2030,” Sabri said.
They had to work on two levels, the applicants and their wives, since the latter are the ones in charge of households in rural areas. “When dealing with the APC, the idea of including women in the countryside came up, teaching them how to use pesticides as well and to prevent the dangers of misusing them.” Sabri said.
One common wrong action was washing clothes polluted with pesticides with other clothes, or even using pesticides at home. The project thus taught women how to deal with work clothes and other skills, helping them to protect their family’s health.
According to a 2019 UNIDO report, there have been about 1,800 beneficiaries from the project in terms of increasing financial resources and generating local economic activities. The project has succeeded in reaching about 5,157 beneficiaries in all sectors and has provided some 363 people with better job opportunities, like pesticide applicators (for men) and factory workers (for women). Now 100 trained pesticide applicators assist local landowners in agricultural production.
In cooperation with the APC, some 100 pesticide applicators, mostly young people, have been given certificates accredited by the ministry. They can now apply pesticides in the right amounts and to the right degree of toxicity at the safe period during which farmers should leave crops without harvesting them until the pesticide wears off. They are also fully trained in the necessary safety measures.
After using pesticides some farmers in the past have left empty pesticide containers in nearby dumps, which can also represent a hazard. “We started a campaign on how to get rid of pesticide containers, discovering to our shock that some people had been using them as empty storage containers. So, we had to teach them how to safely get rid of these containers and any extra pesticides. This could generate more job opportunities, since these containers are sent to factories that reuse the material in industries not related to food like making sanitary pipes or rubbish bags,” Sabri said, adding that they also intended to make videos to raise people’s awareness.
Although the project provides applicators with protective clothing, it also teaches them how to make their own protective clothing out of plastic. “In some campaigns, we give farmers give-aways. However, you have to give people options. If you simply ask them to wear protective closing, they will wonder where to get it from,” Sabri said, adding that some pesticide applicators did not want to wear protective suits in summer because of the hot weather. In this case, the most important thing was that they should wear gloves to avoid touching the pesticides, he said.
On the technical level, it is researchers at the agricultural research centres affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture who train the pesticide applicators and their families. “We chose the ministry since it is the partner that could continue working in the field even after the project ends, giving the project sustainability,” Sabri said.
CHALLENGES: Culturally speaking, it can be difficult to reach women in Upper Egypt. However, this was not the case for Sabri’s team.
“We reached homes via governmental partners or NGOs already active in the field, and there were also female rural workers who could reach the women we targeted for the workshops as well as other projects. The number of women in the project has reached more than 2,000,” Sabri said.
There was still a problem in that people’s trust in rural areas comes gradually, however. “There may not be confidence between farmers and project representatives at the beginning. This is why our projects are small-scale,” Sabri said.
Safaa Abdel-Latif is a housewife from the Rawafee Al-Qussair village in Sohag who attended the Hayat Sohag workshop. “It all started when an agricultural engineer was teaching us, 14 female members of my family and myself, field awareness classes, I learnt that it is important to wash fruit properly. I also learnt how to wash my hands properly. I learnt that meat should be refrigerated before cooking, I learnt how to wash the clothes that are used to apply pesticides away from other clothes and to use gloves. In the past, we would use pesticides in more quantities than the crops needed, and we would harvest fruit before the end of the safe period. Now I know how to use pesticides efficiently and what a safe period is,” Abdel-Latif said.
“Every pesticide is a poison for a certain pest. There is a safe period during which people should keep away from the crops. If a farmer harvests before this ends, then this will be harmful for him because there are still some traces of the pesticide on the crops,” commented Zakaria Fawzi, professor of agricultural and biological research at the Agricultural Research Centre in Cairo.
He added that such pesticides often combat bacterial pests or fungi or viruses. For this reason, “it is better to use” safe pesticides “extracted from natural products like garlic plant extract. If a farmer sprays a plant with these, they form an oily layer that prevents pests from getting into it. Farmers can also prevent pests from attacking their plants by using fertilisers. There is also biological control, in which a farmer spreads a substance containing a virus that kills or hinders a pest and does not harm the plant,” he said.
“Containers that have had pesticides in them should never be used again. They have a directly harmful effect on the environment and could cause diseases in human beings like cancer, kidney, or liver failure if the substance accumulates in the body,” Fawzi said. The containers should be safely disposed of in safe dump sites. “Although we cannot prevent the use of pesticides, we can pass the knowledge of using them wisely to others,” he added.
“We plan to hold a refresher training course for those who want to renew their APC licences. We will also continue working in the field in any future project our partners start,” Sabri concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly