Tobacco farming is harmful to the environment and farmworkers, with multinational companies contributing to the problem by exploiting local farmers, new research has revealed.

A recent review of research on the environmental health impact of tobacco farming found that it degrades the environment, harms workers, and 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 SA, nearly 13 234 hectares of arable land is taken up by tobacco plantations, and the country produces nearly 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 052ha of land to tobacco.

The second biggest producer in Africa is Zimbabwe which grows tobacco on 79 917ha.

The biggest producer in the world is China which uses 1 266 113ha 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 farmworkers 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 found pesticide sprayers in this industry are at increased risk of neurological and psychological conditions because of poor protection practices.

Apart from deforestation and soil degradation, tobacco farming is 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 over exploitation, said the authors.

Read the rest of the article at Pretoria News >

By Wilma Stassen/ Health-e News Service