To paraquat or not to paraquat

Dear Editor,
In a recent letter to the media, former government minister Dr. Leslie Ramsammy spoke out against banning of paraquat, which is used extensively in Guyana through gramoxone. Stated Dr, Ramsammy, “Banning of one pesticide can just result in other pesticides becoming suicidal weapons, since there are many other pesticides used in agriculture that are far more toxic than paraquat.”
Dr Ramsammy’s statement is inaccurate. According to the Pesticide Action Network, “Paraquat is the MOST HIGHLY ACUTELY TOXIC HERBICIDE to be marketed over the last 60 years”. As well, there are 22 different species of weeds in 13 countries that have become resistant to paraquat, which suggests that its effectiveness is gradually being eroded.
Additionally, there are numerous highly effective alternatives to paraquat, and these are being used by many nations, none of which has any significant pesticide/herbicide suicide rate.
In fact there are many online lists of alternatives to paraquat that have been recommended by various entities, including the WWF, and these are currently in use in many nations, including Argentina and India, major agro-producers.
Also, a number of countries that manufacture paraquat have banned its usage, and some of these nations have larger agriculture sectors than Guyana’s, which clearly indicates that they recognize its inherent dangers to their own populations.
That they continue to manufacture this poison is because there is still a market for it. Naturally, if that market is eliminated, then manufacturing will be discontinued.
Major agricultural producers China and Brazil have also banned paraquat (which will be completely phased out by 2020), as has the European Union. In fact, 32 nations currently, including Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, have banned paraquat.
As well, many international organisations, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council, UTZ (a leading coffee certification programme worldwide), the International Organisation for Biological and Integrated Control of Noxious Animals and Plants International (IOBC), and food giants like Dole, United Plantations (one of the largest oil palm plantation companies in Malaysia), Chiquita and the Danish company AarhusKarlshamn, a leading producer of speciality vegetable oils and fats, have banned paraquat.
Paraquat is one of the most common pesticides causing death from suicide. It has a 60-70% mortality rate (Seok et al 2009), much higher than any other agents. It is a significant suicide agent in many nations, including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, Fiji, Japan, Hong Kong, Samoa, Trinidad & Tobago, Costa Rica, Mexico and China. However, a study of 250 attempted suicides with paraquat, in Korea in 2007, revealed that only 38% of people had intentionally selected paraquat as the agent; indicating that if paraquat was not available, the survival rate from attempted suicide would be significantly higher (Seok et al 2009).
Furthermore, paraquat is linked to Parkinson’s disease, which can, and often does, catalyze suicide ideation leading to suicide fatalities. Actor Robin Williams is one notable victim of Parkinson’s disease- related suicide.
Many nations that resist measures to restrict use of paraquat and/or to ban it do not have significant pesticide suicide rates. Guyana does. As well, in many nations that still use paraquat and have significant pesticide suicide rates, there is growing advocacy for its ban, as in Trinidad & Tobago, for example.
So we are puzzled that Dr. Ramsammy would still recommend the use of paraquat-based agro-chemicals, given that this is the leading means of suicide in Guyana. Surely, saving a life takes precedence over any other consideration?
TCV is aware of the restrictions in place with respect to paraquat use in Guyana, but the reality is that these restrictions have been ineffective for many obvious reasons, including lack of strict, comprehensive monitoring on the one hand, and the desire for sales trumping safety on the other. And any awareness programme and safe storage campaign that currently exists have minimal, if any impact. Besides, paraquat continues to be used under hazardous conditions that result in high dermal exposure. These conditions include high temperature and humidity, lack of protective clothing, leaking knapsack sprayers, lack of awareness of hazard, lack of control over the workplace, lack of facilities for washing; or medical treatment, and repeated exposure.
Thus TCV continues to urge that the undertaking given by the Pesticide Control Board in early 2015, to roll out an adaption of the Shri Lanka Hazard Reduction Model, be implemented immediately. We also urge that the cabinet distribution programme for farmers be ongoing and continuous, and be accompanied by continuous sensitization and monitoring to ensure its effective usage.
Change is one of the very few constants in life. Thus farmers would have no problem in adapting to use of alternatives to paraquat. Besides, as the Pesticide Action Network points out, “There are numerous designs, management, mechanical and cultivation practices, as well as some plant extracts that can be used instead of paraquat, depending on the weed species and the situation”. These include organic, greenhouse and hydroponic farming, which are much more eco-friendly and which are already on the increase in Guyana.
For rice farmers, there is the “system of rice intensification” (SRI) method pioneered by French priest Henri de Laulanié in Madagascar in 1983, which is now growing fast as regional governments in China and India join anti-poverty groups like Oxfam to back the method. This method involves stimulating the root system of plants, rather than trying to increase yields in the conventional way by using improved seeds and synthetic fertilizers.
Last year, Dennis Miguel, a Filipino farmer, reaped the equivalent of 10.8 tons of rice per hectare, or four times as much rice as that farmer usually grew on that land. Reports from China, India, Southeast Asia and Africa indicate that average yield increases of 20 to 50 percent are regularly achieved by farmers who adopt SRI. In fact, SRI is now being applied to other crops via a process referred to as the System of Crop Intensification.
TCV strongly urges the Ministry of Agriculture and the various entities associated with rice farming to seek the expertise to introduce SRI in Guyana. The SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice), a program at Cornell University, is a good starting point. The benefits extend beyond lack of need to use paraquat, and include greater yields at less cost through safer cultivation methods, and more money in the pockets of farmers.
Meanwhile, TCV continues to include a module on Pesticide Safety: Purchase, Storage, Use and Disposal in our workshops, and we do plan to also do the same in the lay counsellor programme when it is launched next year. As well, we once again express the hope that Government would find it possible to join hands with us when this programme is launched.
Finally, we remind readers that you can help us make this programme possible by donating to our gofundme account at

Caribbean Voice