Drone view of a quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) community in Minas Gerais State, southeast Brazil. Some of the houses are around 20 meters from the adjacent sugarcane plantation.

© 2018 Marizilda Cruppé for Human Rights Watch
Brazil’s National Health Monitoring Agency (Anvisa) released a report on December 11 with concerning findings about the food Brazilians buy every day in their local market.

Anvisa technicians gathered more than 4,600 food samples from supermarkets in nearly every Brazilian state between August 2017 and June 2018 (only Paraná State opted out of the study.) They tested 14 foods popular with Brazilians: pineapples, lettuce, rice, garlic, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, chayote, guavas, oranges, mangoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and grapes.

They found dangerous traces of pesticides, including some that are banned from sale in Brazil, in nearly one-quarter of the samples. 

Residues of the banned pesticide carbofuran, for instance, was found on many of the food samples. Health experts say carbofuran causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other acute poisoning symptoms. ANVISA prohibited carbofuran in 2017.

Another pesticide found in samples of lettuce is atrazine, which the European Union banned in 2003 because it interferes with reproduction and human development, and may cause cancer. It’s legal in Brazil, though.

Anvisa’s website spins the results, announcing that “plant foods are safe for the population to consume.” But the numbers and the science say otherwise.

Disturbingly, the study also shows that pesticide residue levels in these foods are rising rather than falling. This corresponds with a government-reported increase in pesticide use in recent years, as well as an increase in cases of acute poisonings from pesticide drift.

ANVISA’s study covers a period before President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office, but he has ushered in an era of deference to the powerful agribusiness lobby at the expense of the environment.

During his first year as president, he scaled back enforcement of environmental laws, weakened federal environmental agencies, and harshly criticized organizations and individuals working for environmental causes. As evidence of problems with pesticides mounts, the government is rushing to approve new pesticides or new brands of existing products.

New rules ANVISA passed within the last year designate the “risk of death” as the only criterion for classifying a pesticide as toxic. Members of Congress and supporters of Bolsonaro’s administration are pressing for policies that would weaken pesticide regulation even further. Congress this year considered a bill that would have crippled oversight, including by reducing the role of the environment and health ministries in approving pesticides. The bill didn’t pass, but you can bet that someone will reintroduce it.

Anvisa's report was published on Human Rights Day. One of the rights celebrated that day is the right to food, which includes the right to food safety. Another is the right to health, which depends on a decent, well-regulated food supply. Ensuring both these rights requires ensuring safe levels of toxins, bacteria, and other substances that can make food injurious to health.

 Brazil’s vast industrial farms depend on pesticides and herbicides. The pressure to deregulate is intense. But officials and lawmakers need to show courage and require safe farming standards to protect the rights to food and health of all Brazilians.