Pesticides and global health: ‘ambivalent objects’ in anthropological perspective

Pesticides: can’t live with them, can’t live without them

In Sri Lanka, producers of the illicit liquor kasippu sometimes suspend a bottle of pesticide above the vat during the fermentation process. It is believed the kasippu will absorb the potency of the pesticide and add to its strength, increasing drinkers’ intoxication and pleasure. But there is also a danger the pesticide will fall in, and if so the batch will be poisoned and mass injuries and even deaths ensue.[1]

Why do kasippu drinkers take this risk? Kasippu, a cheap spirit favoured by those on low incomes, is mostly drunk by agricultural smallholders and daily-waged farm labourers, for whom pesticides (a label including insecticides, weedicides, fungicides, etc.) form an integral part of everyday life. Sri Lankan farmers make heavy use of agrochemicals, applying products in large doses throughout the growing season. Faced with ever-increasing market competition, they are required to use greater amounts just to stay in the game—placing them on an ‘agrochemical treadmill’ propelling greater investment in pesticides for no greater return.[2] Large upfront investments in agrochemicals at the start of the season do represent a considerable risk if harvests should fail, which, due to the unpredictability of Sri Lanka’s monsoons in recent years, they often do.[3] Although Sri Lanka hasn’t witnessed the same scale of debt-driven ‘farmer suicides’ as India,[4] the country has reported some of the world’s highest suicide rates.

Even if pesticide debts contribute only marginally to Sri Lanka’s suicide epidemic, pesticides themselves have still been the most popular method of self-harm in country, as indeed they are across many developing nations.[5] It is this fact more than anything that pushed Sri Lanka’s suicide rate up so high, as the spread of pesticides in the island since the 1970s transformed an already-existing cultural practice of self-harm into a highly lethal practice.[6] When in the mid-1990s the most toxic compounds were banned, suicide rates fell by half.

Besides intentional pesticide poisoning, farmers also run the risk of occupational pesticide poisoning and associated acute and chronic health effects. Hospitalisations caused by accidental inhalation are common, and long-term routine exposure can lead to a range of chronic illnesses. Since the 1990s a growing epidemic of fatal ‘kidney disease of unknown aetiology’ (CKDu) in Sri Lanka’s rural North Central Province has been linked to pesticide spraying, and/or contamination of water sources.[7] Estimates have placed the fatality rate of CKDu at between three and eight deaths per day. On the back of this, the Sri Lankan government has issued further pesticide bans, although not without controversy. For example, a recent study suggested that glyphosate, a weedicide more commonly known as RoundUp, when mixed with hard water and other metals, was to blame for the problem.[8] The Sri Lankan President immediately issued a ban on glyphosate,[9] only to retract it a few months later after the European Glyphosate Task Force, a coalition of pesticide companies, questioned the evidence base.[10]

Thus, on the one hand, pesticides have contributed towards economic and social development by promoting farming, reducing food prices, and opening previously hostile environments to cultivation. On the other hand, pesticides have led to economic dependencies and a wide range of health complaints and environmental problems. Although accepting pesticides as ‘dangerous things,’ farmers in Sri Lanka, stuck on an agrochemical treadmill, are unwilling or unable to give them up. Even the President was apparently unable to enforce a ban on glysophate, reversing a personal directive to the bemusement of critics. The ambivalent status of pesticides as objects that people can’t seem to live with, but also can’t seem to live without, is thus well-established in the Sri Lankan psyche. When viewed in this way, kasippu fermentation techniques come to make sense as a locally-grounded practice through which farmers can take control of pesticides’ ‘known and unknown’ effects.


Pesticide roulette and Schrödinger’s cat

One view onto this is to think in terms of risk, which as a sociological and anthropological subject has attracted significant levels of inquiry.[11] Kasippu fermentation techniques can be understood as a kind of ‘pesticide roulette’ through which the benefits and dangers of agrochemicals in farmers’ lives and livelihoods are managed through a calculative process. Swallowing liquor fortified by the sheer presence of a substance that holds the drinkers’ economic and health wellbeing in its hands, but which might also contain lethal traces of that substance, is tantamount to inviting fate to play dice. To drink kasippu only to enjoy the rewards of drunkenness and avoid self-poisoning is to speculate. To imbibe and survive is a good sign. How the risks of pesticides are imagined and ranged against their potential benefits, and how different groups work these calculations within and between translocal contexts, is a fascinating question.

Another view is in terms of ambivalence—the sense of anxiety caused by a failure to classify something—that as a topic has received much less theoretical elaboration. In Modernity and Ambivalence, Zygmunt Bauman[12] argues that ambivalence is a necessary condition of modernity. The project of modernity, according to Bauman, can be defined as an attempt to impose structure on the world through a system of classifications that ultimately serve in the interests of power—to classify, to decide ‘what is and what is not,’ is to rule. Thus ‘modern times,’ Bauman argues, constitute ‘an era of particularly bitter and relentless war against ambivalence.’ As a practice concerned with classification, pesticide roulette places things on a knife-edge, where the proper definition of pesticides—as objects that benefit or harm—is unknown until the kasippu is drunk. It is in terms of ambivalence that pesticides might be more fully understood, as calculations of risk can only be made once agreement has been reached about how an object of ambivalence ought to be classified. Like Schrödinger’s cat, we only know what’s in the bottle if we open it up.


Ambivalent objects

Pesticides are not alone in their ambivalence, and pesticide roulette is just one example of how people around the world who are faced with ‘ambivalent objects’—those commodities and industries thought essential for human survival whilst also posing considerable potential harm—negotiate the dissonances they create. Popular culture is full of ruminations on the socially, ethically, and politically disorientating pace of scientific, medical, and technological advance that promise revolutions in human health and wellbeing whilst generating considerable, even apocalyptic, risks to people and planet.[13] Reflecting the sheer importance of global food demands, many of these belong to the agricultural sphere. The potentials of organic farming notwithstanding, genetically modified crops present themselves as the only alternative to pesticides—even as critics argue that ‘frankenfoods’ could end up creating terrifying hybrids of plants, animals, and insects and do as much harm as chemicals.[14] Pesticides and GMOs are themselves only a subset of a wider class of ambivalent objects. These include nanotechnologies[15] (which might revolutionise medical care, or turn the world into grey goo); psychopharmaceuticals[16] (which might elevate the mental health of developing nations, or co-opt millions into capitalism’s psycho-fictions); and the whole range of alternative energy sources[17] (which might save us from environmental catastrophe, or simply pollute in a whole range of indirect ways).

Ambivalent commodities and technologies embody the conditions of modernity that produce them. Most people agree that but for a few early products, pesticides as we know them have only been around for 70 years or so. When in 1962 Rachel Carson published the seminal Silent Spring,[18] a book charting the human and environmental devastation wrought by pesticides, she began by describing how the Holocaust produced much of the science behind them, when it was realised that chemicals used to kill people could also kill insects. No less significant is the fact that pesticides were born during the turbulent years of World War II, and revolutionised farming at the beginning of the post-war period, becoming the cornerstone of an agroindustry that fed the rapidly growing population of the modern world. Pesticides are not only the first of the ambivalent objects filling the world around us, but a condition of modernity. Pesticides are necessarily ambivalent; they provide objects against which we can range our values and opinions of modernity, even as they create the very conditions that allow us to ask those questions.


Departure points for a study of pesticides

As pesticides criss-cross the planet from points of manufacture to points of use, they pass through multiple contexts that shape responses to ambivalence and create new forms of ambivalence in their wake. Exploratory ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Sri Lanka points towards four inter-related sets of issues that have bearing on how this unfolds. The first set concerns how pesticides’ health effects are conceptualised by homeopathic and allopathic medical systems, including how they position human bodies vis-à-vis agrochemical landscapes. The second set escalates pesticides’ effects to the level of populations, aggregating them with changing concerns of ‘security,’ including food security, health security, and national security. The third set illuminates the ideological assumptions underpinning these problems and the practical interventions they suggest, including tropes of pesticide ‘safe use’ and ‘safe storage.’ The fourth set escalates further still to the level of global health governance, revealing how debates concerning pesticides are buffeted by debates around ambivalent objects and associated non-communicable diseases more widely.

The first set of issues thus concerns pesticides’ health and environmental benefits and risks in the most fundamental sense. In the decades’ worth of arguments stressing their ‘pros’ and ‘cons,’ this is a space where the vast majority of debates concerning pesticides have taken place. Directing these debates are grand traditions of medical and scientific inquiry, from the allopathic biomedical through to the homeopathic Ayurveda, as well as newer cross-disciplines of environmental science and green politics. Far from existing as a field of detached scientific endeavour, pesticides excite passions. Debates on either side have drawn as much from emotional rhetoric as rationale argument, leading to suspicion, misunderstanding, and antagonism between different lobbies. In Sri Lanka, things aren’t much different. CKDu generates lively arguments between camps, often spilling over into academic and political spats. How commentators evaluate and employ the evidence often says as much about departmental affiliation, old boy networks, and views on the current regime.

Yet health traditions themselves are not always so far apart as might be assumed, and homeopathic and allopathic practitioners get together on a range of subjects. Both are concerned that pesticides affect human behaviour at an emotional level, fuelling the suicide rate by heightening levels of impulsivity in the population. How they imagine such connections links bodies and environment in intriguing ways. Margret Trawick’s[19] description of the Ayurvedic understanding of the body as ‘a landscape, an open field with all the processes flowing visibly, at or near the surface,’ is implied in the chains established between crops, bodies, and minds investigated by biomedical health researchers. Sri Lankan Ayurvedic doctors suggest that the island’s suicide rate went up when pesticides entered the food chain, making minds and bodies ‘hot’ and leading to emotional outbursts including suicide. Building a similar causal narrative, allopathic health researchers are investigating correlations between body absorption of pesticides and impulsive suicidal acts.[20]

The second arena escalates these concerns to the level of populations. Since ‘9/11’ fears over bioterrorism and the release of diseases like smallpox, animal-human transmission of influenza strains and resulting pandemics, and the effects of climate change and extreme weather events, have combined to create a nexus of ‘national security’ threats converging on health and environment dangers.[21] The role of pesticides in these debates is, as ever, paradoxical. The Green Revolution was so-called because intensive farming methods including agrochemical use promised ‘food security.’ The use of pesticides to control mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, and, an increasing concern in urban South Asia, dengue, represents a source of ‘health security.’ But the crisis represented by CKDu and the pesticides said to cause it are explained in terms of a threat to ‘national security.’ When another research report indicated high levels of arsenic in rice was responsible for CKDu, the government allegedly blocked publication. According to the director of the national kidney unit, the thought of the ‘everyday plate of rice and curry’ suddenly becoming a major health risk was simply too much – people would revolt. Thus pesticides have transformed from nation-builder to nation-protector to nation-destroyer.

Figures 1 and 2

In its satirical cartoon depictions of modern-day crises facing the nation, the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror captures elements of these debates.[22] In Figure 1, we see Sri Lanka’s troublesome relationship with India cast in terms of bird flu, from where it may spread. On the same theme, in Figure 2, in an image reminiscent of those of civil war that until recently filled Sri Lankan newspapers and TV broadcasts, we see a white-coated doctor gearing up to blitz a flock of infected birds. In Figure 3, threats posed by mosquito-borne diseases align with threats from industrial action in the health sector. Finally, in Figure 4, a sorrowful image of the island itself, recovering from a kidney transplant operation on World Kidney Day.

Figure 3

Figure 4


From their effects upon people, planet, populations, and peace, the third set of issues encompasses the solutions that governments, health NGOs, and academics advocate. One of the most common problems cited by people on all sides of the debate concerns the behaviour of individual farmers in their agrochemical practices. On one side, we find the anti-pesticide NGO Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN AP) stressing how farmers in the region are unable to afford the necessary protective clothing and equipment, which is anyway too hot and cumbersome to use in a tropical climate. On the other side, we find Syngenta AG, a major pesticide producer, promoting a range of guides in local languages that seek to convey the importance of ‘following the guidelines’ of safe use. A third dimension here is provided by poisoning treatment and prevention organisations like the South Asia Clinical Toxicology Research Collaboration (SACTRC), which argues most suicides by pesticides are committed by impulsive self-harm and so is trialling a lock-up box intervention that seeks to limit access to pesticides in the home.

Within these approaches, we find particular theories of human behaviour and risk evaluation that underpin pesticide interventions, as they aspire to create ‘responsible’ farming practices. This includes how concepts of culture are worked to explain South Asians’ apparent lack of risk sensibility and presence of impulsivity, as well as reflecting interventionists’ ‘Euro-American’ understandings of ‘investment and return’ in farming technologies, particular gender and age divisions of (farm) labour, and globalised notions of risk and reward. At stake here seems to be the creation of an ‘agrochemical citizenship’ to be promoted as a lasting solution to pesticide injuries and deaths in the region. The problem thus confronted is one that has troubled Sri Lanka for some time. In the late 19th century, British colonialists attributed then high rates of homicide to the impulsive character of the Ceylonese, whom they argued were prone to ‘sudden anger.’ As with pesticides today, the British banned open knives with the hope that folding knives would replace them, giving time for the victim to escape while the attacker fumbled with the blade. In addition to this, the colonialists set out to teach boxing to village youth, with the intention of inculcating a sense of ‘fair play’ and ‘self-control’—a foreshadowing of the 21st century pesticide safe storage discussion that was to come.[23]

Finally, we arrive at the fourth set of issues: linkages between theoretical research and the world of policy and practice in the global health governance (GHG) of ‘ambivalent objects.’ At global level, arguments in favour of and against agrochemicals draw from a range of positions concerning the responsibilities of different actors to limit their risks and promote their rewards. These arguments change across the local contexts through which pesticides pass, and in relation to the health and environmental benefits or problems they may cause. Pesticide regulations limiting toxicity and wider human and environmental impacts are of a different order from regulations which respond to flagrant misuse or intentional poisoning and suicide. Whilst for many people the former may be an ethical and moral responsibility of the pesticide industry, the latter could be construed as the responsibility of individuals solely, or perhaps of the state. Thus, on one level, global health debates concerning pesticides are similar to those concerning tobacco, sugar, salt, and trans fats—companies and consumers each have a duty to behave in a more responsible way. On another level, many pesticides are not expected to make it to the dinner table at all, having disintegrated, been washed off, or otherwise removed at an earlier stage. Put another way, tobacco companies and food manufacturers exist more in the public’s mind than pesticide companies ever have, or likely ever will.

These four sets of issues – bodies and landscapes, nations and threats, chemicals and citizenships, and the complexities of governance – sketch a framework for the study of pesticides and their ambivalences. These are just some of the issues I will be exploring over the next three years, as I trace pesticide products from points of manufacture to points of use, within and between Europe and South Asia. The immediate problem is how pesticides are to be understood in social, ethical, and political terms at local and global levels. The wider significance is how processes attendant to globalisation create ambivalent objects, both as a function and as a condition of modern worlds, which are increasingly filling the world around us.


Tom Widger has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Sri Lanka for the past 10 years. His first book, Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of an Epidemic, will be published later this year. He was recently awarded a Wellcome Trust Society & Ethics Research Fellowship, for the project ‘Pesticides and global health: an ethnographic study of agrochemical lives.’ Find out more at http://www.tom-widger.com/pesticides-and-global-health.html. @tomwidger

[1] For a case history of this practice see: Dias, S.R. (2009) ‘A novel mode of paraquat poisoning’ Ceylon Medical Journal 54(2): 69-70.

[2] The concept of ‘agrochemical treadmill’ is elaborated in: Dowdall, M.D. & R.J. Klotz (2014) Pesticides and Global Health: Understanding Agrochemical Dependence and Investing in Sustainable Solutions Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

[3] At the time of writing Sri Lanka’s north and east was suffering from an extended drought: http://www.irinnews.org/report/99884/drought-begins-to-bite-in-sri-lanka.

[4] For a critique of the ‘farmer suicide’ thesis, see: Münster, D. (2012) ‘Farmers’ Suicides and the State in India: Conceptual and ethnographic notes from Wayanad, Kerala’ Contributions to Indian Sociology 46(1&2): 181-208.

[5] Eddleston, M. & M.R. Phillips (2004) ‘Self-poisoning with pesticides’ British Medical Journal 328: 42-44

[6] Widger, T. (2014) ‘Reading Sri Lanka’s Suicide Rate’ Modern Asian Studies 48(3): 791-825.

[7] International Water Management Institute (2014) Review of Literature on Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology (CKDu) in Sri Lanka Available from: http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/2014/05/review-literature-chronic-kidney-disease-unknown-etiology-ckdu-sri-lanka/.

[8] Jayasumana, C., S. Gunatilake, & P. Senanayake (2014) ‘Glyphosate, hard water and nephrotoxic metals: are they the culprits behind the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology in sri lanka?’ International journal of environmental research and public health 11(2): 2125-2147.

[11] For a review see: Caplan, P. (ed) (2000) Risk Revisited Pluto Press.

[12] Bauman, Z. (1990) Modernity and Ambivalence John Wiley & Sons.

[16] Kirmayer, L.J., & H. Minas (2000) ‘The future of cultural psychiatry: an international perspective’ Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 45(5): 438-446.

[18] Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

[19] Trawick, M. (1992) ‘Death and nurturance in Indian systems of healing’ In: C. Leslie (ed) Paths to Asian Medical Knowledge London: University of California Press, pp. 129-159

[20] Author’s ethnographic observations.

[21] Collier, S.J., A. Lakoff, & P. Rabinow (2004) ‘Biosecurity: towards an anthropology of the contemporary’ Anthropology Today 20(5): 3-7.

[22] For a much fuller description of these issues and more, visit Nalaka Gunawardena’s website and his articles and op-ed pieces: http://nalakagunawardene.com/

[23] Widger, T. (2012) ‘Suffering, frustration, and anger: Class, gender and history in Sri Lankan suicide stories’ Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 36(2): 225-244.

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