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Tobacco harmful to those who farm it

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Wilma Stassen

Health-e News Service

Tobacco farming is harmful to the environment and farmworkers, with multinational companies contributing to the problem by exploiting local farmers, new research has revealed.

A recent review of research on the environmental health impact of tobacco farming found that it degrades the environment, harms workers, and leads to the loss of land resources and biodiversity.

The article in the journal Tobacco Control highlights tobacco farming problems, such as excessive use of chemicals and extensive deforestation, and found that multinational tobacco companies’ actions contribute to these problems.

In SA, nearly 13 234 hectares of arable land is taken up by tobacco plantations, and the country produces nearly 16 000 metric tons of tobacco a year.

Most of the world’s tobacco farming takes place in the developing world, with Malawi being the largest producer in Africa, assigning 183 052ha of land to tobacco.

The second biggest producer in Africa is Zimbabwe which grows tobacco on 79 917ha.

The biggest producer in the world is China which uses 1 266 113ha for growing tobacco.

For the study, Natacha Lecours from the Non-Communicable Disease Prevention programme in Canada, and colleagues reviewed 45 scientific articles on the topic.

They found that tobacco farming causes green tobacco sickness (GTS) in farmworkers who absorb nicotine through the skin when handling wet tobacco. GTS causes muscle weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal cramps, breathing difficulty, diarrhoea, chills, fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate, and increased perspiration and salivation.

“As a monocrop, tobacco plants are vulnerable to a variety of pests and diseases, which require the application of large quantities of chemicals,” the authors wrote.

Pesticide poisoning is common among workers and those living near tobacco-growing fields.

Exposure to these chemicals causes respiratory, neurological, and psychological problems.

Studies found pesticide sprayers in this industry are at increased risk of neurological and psychological conditions because of poor protection practices.

Apart from deforestation and soil degradation, tobacco farming is associated with the destruction of ground water resources, sedimentation of rivers, reservoirs and irrigation systems, climate change, and species extinction due to habitat fragmentation and overexploitation, said the authors.

“Tobacco absorbs more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other major food and cash crops, and therefore, tobacco growing decreases soil fertility more rapidly than other crops.”

In Bangladesh and Kenya, researchers found that expanding tobacco production displaces farming of traditional food crops, a practice that can lead to food insecurity.

The research also revealed that tobacco companies engage in contract farming – a system through which tobacco firms deal directly with local farmers.

Contract farming creates a cycle of indebtedness for farmers, who find themselves owing companies significant sums for payments advanced as agricultural inputs year after year.

“For many tobacco growers in India and Bangladesh, the income gained from this system is barely enough to sustain themselves, or is insufficient to meet the most basic needs,” the authors wrote.

In many countries tobacco companies also control the production and sale of agrochemicals, which the authors claim further creates a cycle of indebtedness for farmers and encourages the use of harmful chemicals. “Tobacco company practices disadvantage farmers by locking them into a supply and compensation system.”

In the commentary to the article, the editor points out that tobacco companies lure governments and other leaders into believing that tobacco is an economically viable crop and a major source of revenue, while hiding the truth about the accompanying environmental and health losses. “For example, while Tanzania earns about $50 million (nearly $407m) annually from tobacco revenue, more than $40m is spent to treat tobacco-related cancers alone.”

Dr Yussuf Saloojee of the National Council Against Smoking said the research challenges the widely held misperception that tobacco is beneficial to the economy.

“The truth is that in many African countries tobacco farming is not sustainable. The low prices paid by the multinational tobacco companies means that farmers often have to rely on child labour to contain costs,” he said.

Saloojee pointed out that in Malawi, an estimated 30 percent of the labour force on tobacco farms were children as young as five.

“The major tobacco multinationals receive nearly $10m a year in economic benefit through the use of unpaid child labour in Malawi.”

Malawi also has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, and in 1999 more than 26 percent of its total annual deforestation was related to tobacco production.

Saloojee said there was also serious tobacco-related deforestation in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Togo and Nigeria. Local tobacco advocates argue that the picture painted in the Tobacco Control article is not true for SA.


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