New Pesticide Study Could Lead to Improvements in Farmer Health

AFRE's Joseph Goeb reflects on the findings of a new study he co-authored in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists entitled "Pesticides: What you don't know can hurt you."

Pesticide application has become an important component of agricultural production in the developing world, but many farmers are unaware of the deleterious health and environmental effects that these chemical inputs can have.  Furthermore, many farmers unknowingly use highly toxic chemical inputs in place of less toxic alternatives that are no less effective at suppressing pest pressures. 

In a new paper published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, Michigan State University (MSU) faculty members in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE), Joseph Goeb, Andrew Dillon (now of Northwestern University), Frank Lupi, and David Tschirley found that many farmers, after receiving pesticide information interventions from their peers, were willing to opt for safer, less toxic inputs.

The idea for the study came from the paper’s lead author, AFRE Research Associate Joseph Goeb, who became aware of the dangers of pesticide misuse while serving in the Peace Corps in rural Zambia.  Goeb says during his time in Zambia, “I noticed a rapid increase in pesticide use and adoption in rural communities. I also knew that the farmers were receiving almost no formal extension services, so they were really learning by doing with some pretty dangerous products.”  When Goeb left the Peace Corps and began working toward his Ph.D. at MSU he realized, “It was clear that this was a global problem and I felt like we could add to the conversation by formally testing what the effects of an information campaign are.”

Working with Zambian tomato farmers, the authors write that, “84% of farmers [in the study area] reported experiencing an acute illness symptom shortly after applying a pesticide […]. Further, 39% of our sample lost at least one workday from these acute illnesses and nearly one-quarter visited a health clinic for treatment of their symptoms.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), choosing to use less toxic inputs could lead to improvements in environmental health and farmer health outcomes.

To assess the impact of educational interventions on farmers, the study utilized a choice experiment embedded in a randomized controlled trial and a survey to assess whether or not the educational intervention would lead to behavior change in the form of more farmers opting for less toxic products.  The team found that for many farmers it did.

Similarly, the study also looked at whether or not educational interventions could be used to encourage more farmers to use personal protective equipment (PPE) to mitigate the dangers of pesticide use.  The study found that the educational intervention did not lead to an increase in PPE use. Goeb says, “I was surprised by these results but in hindsight I shouldn’t have been because farmers were already much more knowledgeable about the benefits of PPE than they were of toxicity and perceived efficacy in pesticide products.”  Additionally, the authors note that unlike substituting one pesticide for another, purchasing PPE may impose an additional financial cost on farmers.

Now that the study has been published Goeb says, “I hope that it can reach stakeholders – NGOs, governments, etc. – and provide evidence that small, practical messaging campaigns focused on pesticide toxicity can have meaningful impacts on behavior and, in our case, improve environmental health. Hopefully it also shows that information interventions are most effective when there are real knowledge gaps, and, in that sense, I hope it leads to more effective extension efforts particularly around pesticide safety.”

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