Monday, October 10, 2005

Mallaby on DDT

Today, Sebastian Mallably argues that the E.U. needs to give Uganda room to implement a DDT program.
DDT also helped to eliminate malaria in Europe and parts of Asia, and in 1970 the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the chemical had prevented 500 million deaths. And yet, despite that astounding number, DDT has all but disappeared from the malaria arsenal. Some 500 million people still get the disease annually, and at least 1 million die, but the World Health Organization refuses to recommend DDT spraying. The U.S. government's development programs don't purchase any of the chemical. In June President Bush made a great show of announcing a new five-year push against malaria; DDT appears to play no part in his plans.

But the worst culprit is the European Union. It not only refuses to fund DDT spraying: In the case of at least one country, it has also threatened to punish DDT use with import restrictions.
My initial reaction to this editorial was to be, well, skeptical. Four years ago when I was in Thailand not only was the country full of tourists from E.U. nations, many of the buildings in which I stayed were clearly marked with the last date they had been sprayed with DDT. What makes Uganda different, such that Thailand can spray residential structures but Uganda supposedly cannot - given that Mallaby purports this debate to be over "the limited spraying of houses" and not widespread agricultural spraying? It didn't take much Googling to find first that this is something of an old story, breaking in February, and second that the issue is not about DDT spraying of itself, but of residue on food exports:
Unless proper safety measures are put in place, the spraying of DDT to kill malaria-carrying mosquitos could severely hurt Ugandan exports of fruit, produce and other flora to EU countries, officials said.

"If Uganda is to use DDT for malaria control, it is advisable to do so under strictly controlled circumstances and in consultation with other countries in the region which may be affected," the EU said in statement released here.

It said that if Kampala began DDT spraying, it would be forced to set up a monitoring system to test for the presence of the pesticide in exports.

The chief of the EU mission in Uganda, Sigurd Illing, said there could be dire consequences for outgoing trade with Europe -- which accounts for more than 30 percent of Uganda's total exports -- if DDT was detected in such goods.
So the E.U. has warned Uganda not that it faces a ban on imports if it implements DDT, but that it should coordinate its spraying with neighboring countries, and that if its spraying raised DDT levels above certain limits its produce would not be permitted into E.U. markets. Now Mallaby may well believe that concerns about DDT in the food supply are overblown, but there's a world of difference between threatening a country with trade sanctions if it uses DDT and applying the same standards to that country's exports as presently apply to every other nation which chooses to use DDT. The U.S. has limits on DDT residue on food imports - what's the difference, other than the fact that we don't import appreciable quantities of Ugandan produce?

The vehemence of Mallaby's position would seem to suggest that DDT is a miracle cure for Malaria, and that no alternative is available. DDT is, to put it simply, a pesticide. There are many alternative pesticides available and, even accepting that many concerns about DDT are overblown, many of those present significantly lower environmental concerns than those acknowledged to result from widespread DDT use. But DDT is cheap - and as long as cost is an option it will remain the only viable pesticide in parts of the developing world. Mallaby does not claim that the E.U. doesn't subsidize spraying programs involving alternative insecticides, despite the relevance of that question to his overall claim. Personally, Idon't think he bothered to look into the issue in sufficient depth to either know that there are alternatives or what the E.U.'s policies are toward mosquito spraying programs that don't involve DDT.

As for Mallaby's notion that it is unfair for western "food-safety paranoia" to get in the way of the developing world's ability to export what the west deems to be contaminated food? I think if he pressed that issue he would find that food safety isn't just a "liberal" or "environmentalist" issue, but crosses the political spectrum. We regulate a lot of chemicals, and arguably many of the limits we impose are arbitrarily low - but it's either naive or dishonest (perhaps in Mallaby's case, a little of both) to confuse "erring on the side of safety" with "paranoia". (A "libertarian" solution might be to have DDT content labels on fruit, such that consumers can make their own decision - but Mallaby presumably would insist that consumers be kept in the dark on the basis that their concerns are "paranoid" and thus need not be respected.)

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