A recent review of research on the environmental health impact of tobacco farming found that it degrades the environment, harms workers, and ultimately 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 South Africa, about 13 234 hectares of arable land is taken up by tobacco plantation, and the country produces around 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 183 052 hectares of land to tobacco (a staggering amount considering the small size of the country). The second biggest producer in Africa is Zimbabwe which grows tobacco on 79 917 hectares of arable land. The biggest producer in the world is China which uses 1 266 113 hectares 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 farm workers 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 have found pesticide sprayers in this industry are at increased risk for neurological and psychological conditions due to poor protection practices.
Apart from deforestation and soil degradation, tobacco farming is also 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 the 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 controlled by the tobacco companies.”
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 US $50 million annually from tobacco revenue, more than US $40 million 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 for tobacco leaf 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. Children as young as five years old pick and string tobacco.
“The major tobacco multinationals’ receive nearly US$10 million a year in economic benefit through the use of unpaid child labour in Malawi,” he added.
Malawi also has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, and in 1999 over 26% of Malawi’s 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.
But local tobacco advocates argue that the picture painted in the Tobacco Control article is not true for South Africa.
“In South Africa, our farmers are commercial farmers, professional businessmen who choose to grow tobacco and who produce tobacco according to strict standards imposed by the manufacturers of tobacco products,” claimed Francois van der Merwe, CEO of the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa,a lobby group for the tobacco industry.
“The tobacco sector acknowledges that improvements in production and environmental practices can be made and has globally invested in management systems…In South Africa, the tobacco sector invests in tobacco leaf research to improve yield and quality whilst constantly reducing the use of agro-chemicals and impact on the environment,” Van der Merwe added.
Child Labour in Tobacco Fields of Swabi-Pakistan