The bright, colourful vegetables of Palestinian markets conceal secrets that only laboratory equipment can uncover.
The secrets buried in the two main crops on the Palestinian table; tomatoes and bell peppers, began to unravel in 2017. That year, 20 samples of both crops were taken from West Bank cities for examination at the Laboratory Testing Centre at Birzeit University. At the time, the regulatory authorities promised to reform the agricultural pesticide sector and to develop a formula that would allow them to conduct periodic vegetable checks.
The average monthly consumption of tomatoes by a Palestinian family of five is
According to a survey conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2011
Three years later, nothing on the ground really changed; not control procedures, nor the random use of pesticides. To confirm this, in early 2020, the ARIJ reporter conducted another series of tests on eight samples of tomatoes and bell peppers from the northern, central and southern parts of the West Bank.
Test results showed no improvement in regulation. In fact, the situation had worsened. Over the course of three years, the investigation revealed that vegetables being sold to Palestinian consumers contained high levels of agricultural pesticide remnants. These levels violate the specifications and standards of Codex Alimentarius, issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). They also harm consumer health amid weak oversight and power conflicts between the Ministries of Agriculture and Health.
Greenhouses in the Palestinian Jordan Valley
One morning in December 2017, the ARIJ reporter travelled from Ramallah towards the Palestinian side of the Jordan Valley - also known as “Palestine’s vegetable basket” as it produces 60% of the country's total vegetable production. The warmer weather, fertile soil and abundant water resources due to its location on the country’s main water basin, means the land can be cultivated throughout the year.
The Jordan Valley constitutes a quarter of the area of the West Bank. It has 50,000 citizens and produces 50% of the crops in the total agricultural areas and 60% of the total vegetable output. The area has 280,000 dunums of arable land, that is, 38.8% of the Valley’s total area. Palestinians exploit 50,000 dunums of the area, while the Jordan Valley settlements exploit 27,000 dunums of agricultural land.
The Jordan Valley constitutes a quarter of the area of the West Bank
Source: The Palestinian National Information Center
Greenhouses in the Palestinian Jordan Valley
Muhammad Abu Al-Sheikh, 52, is a farmer from the village of Bardala. He was readying himself to harvest crops from his land. He took us on a tour of agricultural lands in his car to see the reality of how pesticides are used.
“I’m telling you, never in my life have I seen anyone from the Ministry of Agriculture on my land, not to provide any kind of guidance, nor to take samples for examination. Honestly... I have never seen them. I know that the Ministry of Agriculture must come to inspect the farm and monitor pesticides and their use. If the Ministry, which is the concerned party, does not care, how am I supposed to bother as a farmer? They should just take samples and check them. If there is anything wrong with them, they can hold me accountable,” he told the ARIJ reporter.
Samih Khdeirat, another farmer in his forties, reaffirmed this. Standing in the middle of his land planted with bell peppers, Samih said, “No one from the Ministry of Agriculture has come for the purpose of inspection or guidance. Farmers use pesticides as they wish, and they count on their own personal experiences. For example, if we spray a pesticide that does not eliminate a specific disease, we increase the concentration of the pesticide to take care of it. "
According to farmers’ reports, regulation of the fields of the Palestinian vegetable basket is non-existent. This also seems to be the case after the crops leave the fields and head to the market, as asserted by vendors in the central vegetable markets in the northern and central parts of the West Bank.
“No one is watching. Never before has the Ministry of Agriculture or any other party taken samples for examination purposes,” one vendor told ARIJ.
The majority of vendors we interviewed agreed that they are not responsible for the presence of any materials or residues on vegetables and fruits. They hold the Ministry of Agriculture responsible.
One of the vendors located in Al-Fara'a Market near the city of Tubas told ARIJ that “the Ministry of Agriculture is the one that should examine and guide farmers, you see. Cancer cases that are happening are all due to pesticides.”
Another vendor travelled from Hizma, north of Jerusalem, to the Beita central market, south of Nablus, to buy vegetables for his shop. He too did not hesitate in accusing the Ministry of Agriculture of negligence, and hastened to absolve himself of the responsibility to identify the presence of any toxic substances in the crops that he offers to his customers.
“The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible, of course. The way it should be is that the Ministry follows up and monitors farmers, what they plant and what they put on the vegetables. I am a shop owner; I am not the state or the Ministry so I could follow up on this matter,” he said.
Other vendors in the central market of Al-Bireh in the center of Ramallah have similar views in holding the Ministry of Agriculture responsible. One even expressed surprise when asked about the responsible party.
“Of course, there is no question about the issue: The Ministry of Agriculture must monitor these matters. I am a vendor! What do I know?” he said.
A colleague standing behind him in a nearby tomato stall, jumped into the conversation and summed up the matter: “Our role as vendors is to bring the goods to sell. I am neither a farmer, nor the Minister of Agriculture, nor an agricultural engineer. I am a vendor who sells vegetables, and I make my daily living. If I were an engineer, I would gladly take responsibility.”
The laboratory results of the 29 samples of tomatoes and bell peppers that were taken from various cities in the West Bank showed that 72.4% were contaminated, meaning they contained one or more types of pesticide residue. The results also revealed that 55.1% of the samples included precipitates, meaning they contained residues of chemical pesticides that are higher than the so-called maximum limit permitted internationally by the WHO.
The percentage of samples in which pesticide residues were less than the permitted limits did not exceed 17.2%, with five samples. The percentage of completely clean samples that are free of pesticides did not exceed 27.5%, that is eight samples.
The tests were carried out over two stages. The first was done in late 2017 on 21 samples, and the second was conducted in early 2020 on 8 samples. The aim was to give the regulatory authorities an opportunity to rectify the situation and tighten control over the use of pesticides. However, the results did not show any changes. On the contrary, things got worse as new pesticides originally banned from use in Palestine made their way back into farmers' fields.
Exposure to bromopropylate is harmful to the respiratory system.
The toxic substance has been proven to affect the body's digestive system, eyes and skin.
Short-term symptoms of low-dose exposure include headache, agitation, inability to concentrate, weakness, fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea, and blurred vision. High doses can lead to respiratory paralysis and death. Chlorpyrifos is associated with a number of serious long-term health effects including developmental disorders, increased likelihood of having children with autism spectrum disorder, endocrine disorder, lung and prostate cancer.
The Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) has identified this pesticide as a carcinogen.
Excessive ingestion through the skin and mouth leads to death and is a source of concern to neuroscientists, as daily exposure in small amounts induces neurodegeneration. It also affects the activity of sperm glands in males.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has classified it as a potentially carcinogenic substance
Propargaite was banned in the US as a carcinogen according to the Environment Agency, after its effects were tested on animals. Its results showed that it is carcinogenic, increases intestinal tumors, and causes human dermatitis, cancer, and reproductive toxicity.
George Karzam is a researcher and environmental expert who also heads the Studies Unit at the MA'AN Development Center. Karzam says that the percentage of samples free from insecticide residues is very low.
“The most dangerous thing revealed by the results is that there are some insecticides that have been detected in the laboratory which are either banned internationally or in Palestine. For example, the insecticide known by its scientific name “Endosulfan Thionex” has been banned globally for many years, and residues of this pesticide have been detected in the samples. What’s more, is that all the contaminated samples in particular contain a mixture of compounds, meaning that they contain more than one compound, in twos, threes or fours with the exception of one sample. This is extremely dangerous because it is clear that the motive for making the mixture of the chemical compounds and the active pesticide ingredients is to increase the extent of toxicity,” he said.
Empty containers of various pesticides used by farmers in the Jordan Valley, 2017
Research was done on the methodologies followed in Palestine in determining permissible and prohibited pesticides. Immediately noticeable in the process was the chaos and lack of clear scientific methodologies. For example, the same pesticides once prohibited, are now allowed on the official lists adopted by the government. One example is the insecticide “MANCOZEB”, on which Resolution No. 14 of 2011 was issued by the Minister of Agriculture, banning a group of pesticides by this scientific name and its active ingredients.
According to the environmental expert, Karzam, the ban should be on the active ingredients and not on the brand names. For example, MANCOZEB was banned under its various brand names. However, this pesticide group became permissible after 2011 and despite the official ban. They appear on the list of agricultural pesticides permitted for use in the Palestinian Authority regions issued in 2013-2014, as well as the 2016-2017 list.
Likewise, Chlorfenapyr, an insecticide also known by its trade name of “Berat”, was banned under the same 2011 resolution. This pesticide was banned under its commercial name, and yet the official 2016-2017 list allows its use.
Karzam told ARIJ, that “sometimes the use of pesticides under their brand names is prohibited, but the use of the same active ingredients of these different pesticides is still permitted. This is an insult to people’s intelligence. The principal action should be to define the scientific method on the basis of which to prevent or allow pesticides.”
The environmental researcher points out that the issue of a maximum permissible limit is misleading, and in fact “a big lie”, because it is neither controllable nor measurable by ordinary consumers. The maximum permissible limit is for a specific pesticide in a certain type of vegetable whereas “our intake and daily consumption of vegetables and fruits is varied. We consume several types of these. So how will citizens measure the maximum limit at home?!”
Al-Far'a Vegetable Market, near Tubas
Responsibility for inspecting agricultural crops in fields and markets is shirked due to conflicts between the ministries of Agriculture and Health. The Ministry of Agriculture has only 13 inspectors in the West Bank. Their role is limited to monitoring pesticide stores and following up on licensing and import processes, but does not cover monitoring agricultural goods after they leave the fields.
This means that the vegetables and fruits offered to Palestinian consumers are not subject to any kind of checks. Instead, they are taken from the fields to the market and then to the consumer without regulations, and this exposes people to diseases that manifest in the long run.
Spokesperson and Director of the Pesticides Department in the Ministry of Agriculture, Abdel-Jawad Sultan, asserts that the Ministry’s task ends in the fields. He assigns the role of inspecting and ensuring that agricultural crops are free of pesticide residues to the Ministry of Health.
“Vegetables are agricultural goods, and our responsibility ends after the crop leaves the farm. Herein lies the role of the Ministry of Health, which has the task of inspection since the powers to inspect markets are within its authorities,” he told ARIJ.
The Ministry of Health, in turn, assigns the responsibility of examining residue to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Ibrahim Attia, who passed away in March 2020, was the Director of Environmental Health at the Ministry. He stressed that the responsibility of his Ministry in this area is limited to agricultural products that moved to the stages of processing and packaging. Examples include thyme after it is milled and displayed in markets, and tomatoes once they are cooked and turned into tomato paste.
Due to its competence and responsibility for the pesticide sector, Attia called on the Ministry of Agriculture to tighten control over farmers and how pesticides are used. He also called on the Ministry to provide farmers with the necessary guidance by continuing to take random samples from markets and fields for testing.
Amidst the flying accusations between the ministries of Agriculture and Health, we turned to the General Administration of the Consumer Protection Department in the Ministry of National Economy to find out its role in checking the safety of vegetables and fruits as produce offered to consumers.
The Ministry assesses that the status quo does not achieve a state of market discipline in agricultural production. This is especially the case since there is a lack of clarity in the division of powers between the two specialized authorities of Agriculture and Health.
According to the Director of Consumer Protection, Ibrahim Al-Qadi, there is a Palestinian strategy for food safety that was prepared by the ministries of Health, Agriculture and Economy to control animal and agricultural products.
It was agreed that the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture extends from the farm to the market - that is, from the farmer to the consumer. According to Al-Qadi, what is missing now is reaching an agreement between the ministries of Agriculture and Health by which the Ministry of Agriculture takes samples and sends them to the laboratories of the Ministry of Health for examination. But 30 months since his declaration, the agreement between the two ministries has yet to be signed. For nearly three years now the state of pesticide use remains the same and is still out of control.
The Palestinian Jordan Valley 2017
Dr. Aqil Abu-Qare’, a researcher in the field of pesticides, was horrified by the chemical pollutants found in the tomatoes and bell peppers examined, especially that some contain pesticides banned in Palestine. What is more worrying is the presence of more than one pesticide in each sample, which leads to an increase in toxicity.
Abu-Qare’ holds a PhD in chemical pesticides from the UK, and he warns against mixing pesticides and spraying them on vegetables.
“There are short-term harms such as immediate toxicity as a result of which symptoms such as nausea appear. If the concentration is high, it may lead to paralysis or to death if the sprayed quantity is huge.
This would explain the increase in the incidence of chronic diseases. The consequences of the exposure of the human body to small quantities begin to appear over time, and these cause great risks. The most significant of these is cancer, which is the second cause of death in Palestine. This is in addition to diseases impacting the endocrine and respiratory systems as well as effects on pregnant women. The effects of these diseases do not appear immediately but after several years of exposure to the residues; therefore, their causes cannot be precisely determined,” he told ARIJ.
Pesticides are among the leading causes of death due to self-poisoning, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
Since pesticides are toxic by nature and spread slowly in the environment, their production, distribution and use require tight regulation and control. Also necessary is the regular monitoring of pesticide residues in foods and in the environment.
Handling large amounts of pesticides may cause severe poisoning or long-term health effects, including cancers and adverse effects on reproduction.
The results of the laboratory tests reveal a state of chaos in the use of pesticides some of which are prohibited in Palestine and globally. Chaos and the failure to perform the assigned supervisory roles leave the consumer exposed to slow death due to toxins that enter the body and accumulate over the years until their effects appear in the form of various diseases.