You are here

Africa Economic Brief - Volume 8 Issue 4 - The unintended consequences of agricultural input intensification: Human health implications of pesticide use in Sub-Saharan Africa


Modern agricultural inputs such as inorganic fertilizer and pesticides potentially help farmers boost productivity significantly, a goal critical to structural transformation and poverty reduction, particularly in regions like sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). There is a strong, causal relationship between the use of modern agricultural inputs and crop yields and, subsequently, economic growth (McArthur and McCord 2014). This new empirical evidence builds upon a well-theorized literature and brings into focus the drivers of agricultural productivity growth as a prerequisite for structural change in SSA and elsewhere. But the use of modern agricultural inputs may put human health and the surrounding environment at risk, thereby decreasing net growth in productivity and well-being in the short and longer run. These unintended conse quences may be most true of pesticides – like insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides – many of which are known to be toxic to humans, particularly when over-applied or used without appropriate protective equip ment. This brief describes the tradeoffs between productivity benefits and human health costs of pesticide input use as observed in SSA. Prior work on this question is limited to small sample studies that focus on cash crop systems. Here we present the first broad, cross-country, and nationally representative analysis of pro ductivity and health impacts of pesticide use in developing country agriculture across multiple crop types.

The prospective gains from pesticide use are considerable. Pesticides reduce inciden ce of harmful pests—insects, fungal path o g ens, weeds, etc.—which can both directly impact human health (e.g., aflatoxin), increase labor requirements and severely limit yield amount and quality. Herbicide use reduces the drudgery associated with hand-weeding, which may improve quality of life, and decrease energy expenditure, physical hardship and risk of injury. Improved yields likely translate into improvements in human health of farming households. This can take place via nutrition and/or income effects in that farming output can improve nutrition through direct consumption, or through income that can indirectly improve human health if households use it to purchase nutritious food, health care and/or preventative care. Addition - ally, consumers benefit from increased yields through increased food supply, which should reduce prices in areas not well integrated into national and global food markets. Additionally, release of labor from manual agricultural tasks may contribute to more vibrant and economically diverse rural areas. Further afield, controlling pests on export crops can mean the geo - graphical containment of pests that could potentially negativ ely affect other countries’ environments and farming systems.

Related Sections