Australian pesticides map takes shape

Anthony Amis

Pesticides are a hot issue at the moment. There is a global groundswell of opposition to counter the decimation of bee populations from a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. At the same time controversy over the world's most 'popular' pesticide, glyphosate, is also escalating, with people concerned about glyphosate residues in food, particularly GE foods, and a range of associated health problems. These concerns were magnified in March 2015 when glyphosate was labelled as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

Whilst these two issues are rightly gaining support from a wide array of individuals and organisations, a multitude of equally sinister and unresolved pesticide issues remain outside of public scrutiny.  For instance organochlorine pesticides are still being detected decades after being used and health problems are still emerging in people years after exposure.

Many ongoing environmental and health problems can be attributed to pesticides, yet how does one properly comprehend the enormity of an industry which has embedded its tentacles into almost every facet of modern life?

Without understanding what has occurred in the past and the tactics that the pesticide industry and their government allies have used, how can campaigners hope to properly understand the present? Are the current controversies about neonicotinoids and glyphosate just history repeating itself?

Communities and individuals fighting pesticides often have a short time reference to work from, limited historical information, limited resources, and perhaps most importantly find it difficult to comprehend that tactics now employed by government and industry often echo similar battles in the past.

In almost every instance of a controversy regarding a particular pesticide, government's have allowed the pesticide to remain in use, sometimes for decades. DDT and 2,4,5-T are good examples of government indifference and the snail's pace at which pesticide reform occurs. 

There is no centralised database in Australia that allows one to assess impacts of pesticides across the landscape. Often incidents occur in isolation and are not linked to similar issues which may be occurring elsewhere. Much information concerning pesticides is also hidden by commercial confidentiality and privacy clauses embedded in pesticide legislation, which severely limit what information government departments can release to the public and media. A 'cone of silence' surrounds the entire issue.

Over the past few months individuals linked to Friends of the Earth have begun cataloguing decades of pesticide incidents across Australia in the hope of shedding new light on what has happened and is happening on a national basis. The early phases on this work can be viewed on the Australian Pesticide Map (www.pesticides.australianmap.net) and hopefully it will provide a useful stepping stone in bridging the gulf of understanding that relates to pesticides and provide a useful bridge in better understanding the past and how the past relates to the present.

It is hoped that in time people will be able to send through information so that further case studies can be explored online. The website also provides information regarding pesticide detections in water supplies, which may be of use to people concerned about land-use activities and pollution in their water supplies.

Already, over 1,100 postings have been uploaded to the site from around the country. People can search the website via chemical name, location and era and can also use the zoom function of the site to hone into their local area to determine if pesticide issues have emerged in that community. By then clicking on the icon, further information is revealed.

The project is the result of an anonymous donation sent to Friends of the Earth in late 2014. We would like to acknowledge the valuable contribution this donation has made.

Anthony Amis is a pesticides campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Melbourne.

See the Australian Pesticide Map online at: www.pesticides.australianmap.net

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction