By Julia Suryakusuma
Donald Trump famously said, “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” when he announced the withdrawal by the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA). Pittsburgh is a city in the Rust Belt, which suffered from economic decline due to deindustrialization. It was purportedly the Rust Belt that paved Trump’s path to the presidency.
But what was the Pittsburgh mayor’s reaction? “We’re actually with Paris on this.” In fact, the majority of Rust Belt states are also. It just goes to show, climate change and global warming goes beyond politics (although pssst! For your information, Pittsburgh did vote for Clinton!).
Well, that’s the way it should be. If there’s one thing that people have in common, it is that we all live on this one fragile, precious planet.
Another thing we have in common is that we all eat. In the past 50 years, the number of people in the world has doubled, and so obviously, so has food production. Modern agriculture has relied even more on pesticides to get rid of pests and vermin which damage crops, but like anything, too much of a “good thing” can be bad.
Pesticides are for crops like chemotherapy is for cancer: in the same way that chemo kills the good cells in addition to the bad ones, pesticides tend to kill organisms that weren’t intended to be killed. Pesticides also affect the whole ecological system, leeching into the soil and water, and poisoning birds, fish and other small animals.
And the effect of pesticides on humans? An entry in Toxipedia says it has “neurological health effects such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced speed of response to stimuli, reduced visual ability, altered or uncontrollable mood and general behavior, and reduced motor skills.” Thanks, but no thanks!
Recently I came across a book called Krisis Pangan dan ‘Sesat Pikir’: Mengapa Masih Berlanjut? (Food Crisis and ‘Misguided Thinking”: Why does it still continue?”) published last year, which addresses a very important issue: food production in Indonesia.
Edited by Yunita T. Winarto, professor of anthropology at the University of Indonesia (U.I.), the anthology has eight chapters by six experts on topics ranging from climate, insects, marginalized farmers and, yes, pesticides.
There were two chapters on pesticides, one of them written by James J. Fox, professor emeritus from the Australian National University (ANU) and Professor Yunita from UI.
Jim, as he is usually called, is an old friend of mine from the 1980s. When I knew him then he was working among others to get rid of pesticides. He was lucky. He got help from none other than President Soeharto himself. Pak Harto issued a presidential decree (Inpres No. 3/1986) on Nov. 5, 1985 banning the use of 57 varieties of pesticides in response to a serious outbreak of brown planthopper infestation. At the time Indonesia had just achieved rice self-sufficiency – a source of great national pride.
According to Jim in his chapter, the Inpres had the immediate effect of reducing the brown critters and more. The reduction of pesticides for rice cultivation resulted in annual rice increases for 17 years from 1987 to 2002. Impressive!
As the lowest user of pesticides in any developing country, Indonesia was a shining example of effective biological control of pests for other countries. In any typical sawah (paddy field) there are 100 natural predators of threatening pests, especially of brown planthoppers who breed like rabbits.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. In 2002, there was a dramatic change in the pesticide industry. Hundreds of local companies were established relying heavily on supplies from China. Pesticides were promoted as obat (medicine) for growing crops, distributed by local agents to village kiosks throughout Java.
Stunningly, in one decade, from being one of the world’s lowest users of pesticides, Indonesia became one of the highest. Brown grasshopper infestation became endemic on Java. According to Jim and Yunita, “Twice in five years (2011 and 2014) national rice production declined because of significant crop losses on Java.”
What? Aren’t pesticides supposed to get rid of the brown planthoppers? Here’s the irony: The overuse of pesticides actually induces the population increase of planthoppers by killing their natural predators. Oh no! Then there’s also resistance: With each generation of pesticide, the planthoppers become more resistant to the pesticides.
There were also rice varieties that were resistant to brown planthoppers, but by 2011, Indonesia had none. Shifting infestations became endemic.
Jim and Yunita did a UI-ANU pesticide survey in the village of Indramayu in West Java to obtain comprehensive data on farmers’ utilization of a range of pesticides. The study is replete with scientific names of various types of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, which the farmers can’t distinguish. Given the lack of control in the form of government licensing systems, for example, the farmers are like kids in a candy shop, choosing between striking labels and the existence of “new products,” which could actually be old products with new labels. Does this sound like a familiar marketing ploy?
Other problems that the UI-ANU study identifies are spraying intensity and pesticide cocktails. The farmers believe that the more, the better, and just to be on the “safe side,” why not mix all the different products into a cocktail? Sounds yummy right? In a disastrous way.
What’s the politics behind it all? Political reformation in 1998, which led to regional autonomy. Inpres No. 3/1986 still exists and could be invoked, but it isn’t. The existence of a variety of incentive schemes from the pesticide companies certainly helped, in the same way that the 22 senators who urged Trump to withdraw from the PCA over the past five years collectively received US$10 million in campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal industries.
Rice is a “political commodity” and governments’ ability to guarantee rice production and supply earns them the people’s trust. In fact, raising the target of rice production is a main program of the Jokowi administration in 2014-2019. But the reality is that the sawah ecosystem on Java has now become very vulnerable. This trend cannot be reversed until the “misguided thinking” of the farmers and various interested parties is also reversed.
Given the recognized global dangers of pesticides, two United Nations experts have called for a comprehensive global treaty to regulate and phase out toxic pesticides. The movement for organic sustainable farming is in fact growing.
Could this be an opportunity for Indonesia to reclaim the Queen Bee status it once had for 17 years to lead this movement?
*First published by Jakarta Post
Julia Suryakusuma is a public-intellectual, social-critic, columnist, researcher, author of “Julia’s Jihad” (2013) and several other books. She is based in Jakarta.