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It is not the farmers who drive pesticide use – it is the lack of alternatives

Pesticide use in Uganda. Photo.
Young man spraying pesticides, barefoot and without protective clothing

Pesticide use in is an urgent concern for human health and the environment. New studies on pesticide practices in Ugandan smallholder agriculture highlight the need to focus on drivers and impacts of unsafe pesticide use instead of putting blame on farmers.

Two recent research articles by LUCSUS researchers Elina Andersson and Ellinor Isgren show that while there is still a widespread notion that very few smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use chemical inputs, data reveal that this is changing. In several countries including Uganda, studies have found that the large majority of the smallholder farmers regularly use pesticides on their crops.

Lack of alternatives, not knowledge

The amounts of pesticides used in sub-Saharan Africa smallholder agriculture are typically small by global standards, but the extent of unsafe practices and lack of market control make them very risky.

Our study shows that farmers are often assumed to be ‘unaware’ of risks with pesticides, but in fact, many are very worried about them. 

–  Our study shows that farmers are often assumed to be ‘unaware’ of risks with pesticides, but in fact, many are very worried about them. However, they see no other options, because crop pests pose such an immediate threat to their livelihoods, and they lack the support they need to manage this threat in a safe and sustainable way, says Elina Andersson.

They have studied who is exposed to risks along the whole ‘chain’ of pesticide use. That includes not just the spraying, but also purchasing, preparing, cleaning, and so on.

–  We think it is important to ‘zoom out’ to the whole chain and its broader political and economic context in order to critically assess what deeper problems and drivers lie behind pesticide use, and ask questions about who is responsible and has capacity to act to change things, says Ellinor Isgren.

Looking beyond the individual farmers

Ellinor Isgren and Elina Andersson have used a political ecology approach in their research to avoid the common mistake of framing ‘ignorant’ farmers as the main problem. They say that this type of framing amount to a kind of ‘victim-blaming’.

The have also strived to move beyond discussions of pesticide use that centers on “safe use” for example, on the use of protective gear, instead focusing in their research on highlighting alternative practices that strive to minimize the need of pesticides. The former can help address some problems, but leave many others unsolved, indicating that pesticides are one of many concrete examples of the need for more critical discussion around what ideas and whose interests steer agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Farmers selling tomatos at the market. Photo.
Tomato growers are heavily exposed to pesticide risks

Systematically monitor pesticide impacts

They further argue that pesticide impacts need to be more systematically monitored, and that there is an urgent need to address problems arising from informal trade, such as counterfeit products. This require resources, which are not provided unless there is sufficient acknowledgement of the problem.

– Compared to other regions of the world, there has been very little international attention to the relevance of these issues in African contexts. Hopefully, the political ecology and environmental justice lenses we use will open up new ways of thinking and talking about these issues amongst stakeholders, and of course amongst researchers, concludes Ellinor Isgren.

About the publications

The first paper is a fieldwork-based study of pesticide practices in a smallholder setting in Eastern Uganda, published in the Journal of Rural Studies: Gambling in the garden: Pesticide use and risk exposure in Ugandan smallholder farming

The second paper reviews literature on pesticide use in sub-Saharan Africa through the lens of environmental justice, published in the Journal of Environment and Development: An Environmental Justice Perspective on Smallholder Pesticide Use in Sub-Saharan Africa

Ellinor Isgren


Bild på Ellinor Isgren

Ellinor Isgren is a researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). She has a PhD in Sustainability Science and a background in Environmental Science and Agricultural Science. Her main research interest is the intersection of agriculture, development and sustainability, especially in smallholder contexts, and processes of social and political mobilization in rural areas.

Ellinor Isgren's personal webpage


Elina Andersson


Elina Andersson is a sustainability researcher, with a background in development studies, human ecology and gender studies. Her research is broadly situated in the field of political ecology and revolves around agriculture and food systems, rural development, and natural resource use and governance. Transdisciplinary collaboration and engagement with societal actors is a key motivational driver in her work.

Elina Andersson's personal webpage