Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 September 2007
Issue No. 862
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Irreconcilable evidence

One year they are carcinogenic, the next year not. Mona El-Nahhas struggles to get to the bottom of the pesticide mystery

Last June a specialised committee was formed by Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza to re-categorise pesticides. It has now decided to lift a ban imposed by his predecessor on 16 pesticides the use of which had earlier been deemed "hazardous".

The decision of the committee has raised the usual debates in the press, with thousands of words written in defence of the decision or attacking it, though with little if any hard information contained in the plethora of articles.

More important, perhaps, the decision underlines the confusion behind government thinking and the absence of anything beyond planning for the shortest of terms.

Ministers regularly abolish decrees passed by their predecessors, often on the recommendation of committees whose members had earlier recommended the decision that is to be annulled. The case of the furore surrounding the pesticides is enlightening in this respect.

Former agriculture minister Youssef Wali was subjected to a bitter press campaign for allegedly allowing the import of agricultural pesticides that had been shown to be linked to cancer. Al-Shaab newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party, led the campaign before it was banned in 2000. Three reporters working for Al-Shaab newspaper were jailed and fined in 1999 on charges of slandering Wali. In 2004, Youssef Abdel-Rahman, Wali's top aide, was jailed on charges of misusing power and gaining illicit profits through importing carcinogenic pesticides. During Abdel-Rahman's trial his defence team argued that the pesticides were imported with Wali's official approval.

In 2000, Wali allowed the import of 25 kinds of pesticides that had earlier been deemed hazardous and which he had been pressured to ban. In his testimony before the courts Wali denied that any pesticides linked to cancer had been used in Egypt.

Wali, who had been a member of cabinet for almost two decades, subsequently lost his cabinet seat. His successor, former agriculture minister Ahmed El-Leithi who joined the cabinet in 2004, hurriedly formed a specialised committee to investigate the controversial pesticides. They reported that the evidence that certain pesticides were carcinogenic was conclusive and the minister hurriedly banned 47 pesticides.

By 2006, shortly after his own dismissal from cabinet, El-Leithi began to be accused of presiding over a deterioration in Egypt's agricultural product. The reason, said his critics, was that he had banned the most effective pesticides. And why had he done that? Because he was somehow in hock, or members of the specialised committee were, to the producers and importers of inferior pesticides. Evidence that certain pesticides had carcinogenic properties, once judged conclusive was now called into question.

Now El-Leithi's successor has lifted the ban his predecessor placed on 16 pesticides and is still considering its judgement on 14 more.

Salah Suleiman, the deputy chairman of Abaza's specialised committee, says the 16 pesticides on which bans were lifted are widely used elsewhere. "They are used in European Union countries and in the US," Suleiman told Al-Ahram Weekly, noting that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Commission had tested them extensively and judged them safe.

So what is the public expected to make of this, the third U-turn in six years, and over an issue the public health ramifications of which are extensive? Is there a conflict of interest, a charge previously levelled against officials and committee members, at work?

Not so, says Suleiman. The committee's conclusions are based only on scientific data. The neutrality of committee members, he adds, is guaranteed. "Having no relation with any pesticide importer was the first condition for experts to join the committee."

The decision of Abaza's committee was hailed by journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who believes it will increase productivity. In a column published in Al-Ahram on 25 August, Ahmed accused El-Leithi of banning the import of "effective" pesticides when he knew perfectly well that the claims they were carcinogenic were false.

Replying to Ahmed's column in the same newspaper, El-Leithi wrote last week that the carcinogenic properties of some pesticides had been scientifically proven and no one could dispute the fact. His decision as minister was made, he said, on the advice of the Middle East's leading experts on pesticides.

Confused? You're unlikely to be alone. The public, once again, has been left in the dark.

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